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Worrying about Rutgers men’s basketball is different this time

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After years of misery, the biggest fear is whether this team will actually have a chance to prove its the program’s best in decades.

Minnesota v Rutgers Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

I’m worried about the Rutgers men’s basketball team.

This is nothing new for me or any other long time fan. This program has brought plenty of heartache, embarrassment and losing over the years to lead to diagnosed anxiety at a minimum. However, the Steve Pikiell era has marked steady improvement and last season produced the most regular season wins in 37 years. The program is officially on the rise.

We all know how things ended in March, both with tremendous hope for the future and a bittersweet taste due to the 29 year NCAA drought continuing. Only this time it was because of a global pandemic, not due to the team’s performance.

While it was disappointing that Rutgers couldn’t go dancing in March due a world health crisis, it was understandable. Our attention shifted to the promise that next season would bring. Better days ahead, we all said.

A few months have now passed and despite it only being mid-July, count me as someone officially worried whether next season will come anytime soon or at all.

The Big Ten made the first move last week, announcing that its 14 members would be playing conference only schedules for all fall sports. The most telling part of the statement was the “if” fall sports actually happen at all.

Specifically on football, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said on Thursday that “I am very concerned about the season. I’m an optimistic person, but I am very concerned. We want to take one step at a time.”

The first step has been taken, pairing the schedule down. The next step is likely to push back the fall sports season to the early part of 2021 start in hopes COVID-19 is better contained within the United States versus the concerning state the country is in today.

A spring schedule for football has been speculated and let’s be real, we’d all be thrilled if that were the case versus the alternative of not playing at all. However, the decision on fall sports shined a light on the elephant in the room from a Rutgers fan’s perspective.

It’s time to now wonder whether the winter sports will actually take place on schedule or even at all. The timing couldn’t be worse for men’s basketball.

Let’s hope gymnastics, track & field, as well as swimming and diving have a chance to continue making strides next season. A top ten recruiting class and the return of Arella Guirantes makes this the most anticipated women’s basketball season in a long time. Wrestling is rolling on the recruiting trail and adding Sebastian Rivera gives head coach Scott Goodale another legitimate national title contender. It could be top to bottom the deepest lineup the program has had in quite some time. However, it’s the potential that COVID-19 could have on the status of the upcoming season for the Rutgers men’s basketball team that has me the most anxious and worried.

Even though college basketball begins in early November, practice typically begins the end of September. That’s a mere two plus months away. Rutgers, like a lot of universities, already announced they are holding the fall semester almost entirely online for students. While the Big Ten will ultimately decide the fate of winter sports, the idea that they will begin on time is starting to feel like crazy talk, let alone wishful thinking.

With the most competitive non-conference schedule in years for Rutgers men’s basketball, it’s more than fair to wonder if the showdown against potential no. 1 Baylor at the Garden will ever happen. The trip to the Rock against rival Seton Hall? A potential matchup against a local Big East foe for the Gavitt Games like Villanova might turn out to only be a dream.

Forget the idea of a packed RAC next season, as having fans is small potatoes on the list of concerns. Let’s just hope they play at all. Obviously, the health and safety of all involved needs to the top priority and concern.

Count new Rutgers President Holloway in that thinking as well, who last week said “there is a larger question here that if football is not able to proceed for health reasons, safety reasons ... men’s and women’s basketball are almost contact sports, essentially, with less protective gear. So what happens there? There are a lot of downstream issues that we have to think through.”

I’m not here to debate any political or medical arguments, but the relevancy of that statement is tied to thinking that things could very possibly be no better six months from now with COVID-19 compared to the present. It seems logical, not radical.

Now for some positive thinking.

Let’s forget, for a moment, the very real possibility of a canceled season and instead talk about some potential positives of a delayed start.

There have been rumblings across college basketball of a January through May season, keeping the schedule whole but starting two months later. A 20 game conference only schedule is being considered as well. I’m in favor of any idea that involves having a season, no matter what the structure.

If winter sports, specifically men’s basketball, did have a full season or a conference only one like fall sports, the program has two positive factors going for it.

For one, this team returns eight of its top nine contributors from last season. Plus they’ve added a recruiting class led by Top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi. The depth and talent of the roster has not gone unnoticed as I pointed out soon after the season.

The optimisim for next season continues among the national media, as Jon Rothstein recently wrote in his Big Ten Power Rankings that “No team in college basketball returns as much as Rutgers from a 20-win team and is getting less attention nationally.” He has RU ranked fourth in the conference ahead of next season. Fourth! The continuity of the roster and experience of playing together will give Rutgers a big positive after such an unconventional offseason.

Secondly, the timing of the schedule could help make for an even more special season due to an unusual scenario. One concern about spring football and a later start time for basketball is that many top NFL and NBA prospects could opt to sit out part or all of their team’s seasons due to the schedule taking place later in the year.

If that was the case, it would make a veteran, defensive minded team like Rutgers even more dangerous, as blue bloods would most certainly be down from their typical level of talent and depth.

From a pure sports perspective, let’s hope Rutgers finally has the goodwill of the college basketball gods in the midst of a global pandemic threatening to wipe out potentially the best season in 30 years. Will the universe finally say enough is enough and reward this long suffering program with an actual on court advantage?

For long time fans of Rutgers basketball, the uncertainty of next season is just another torture device to navigate.

All we can do is focus on the fact that Rutgers men’s basketball has an extremely mentally tough group that does things the right way. Under head coach Steve Pikiell and the roster he has assembled, I’ve long been convinced the leadership, character and integrity within this program will enable them to produce remarkable results before this specific group is done. It was impossible to foresee it would need to occur in remarkable circumstances, but here we are.

Considering the reality of what a lost season would mean and how the future roster would be affected is just too much to take right now.

The only question to consider at the moment is whether Rutgers men’s basketball will have the chance to make history and prove that they are the best team this program has produced since the glorious Final Four run to the Spectrum 45 years ago? A once unbelievable scenario that could take away that opportunity is now why I’m so worried about this team.