The highest ranked win in program history inspired our contributors to get together for a reaction round table to discuss Rutgers’ buzzer beater victory over No. 1 Purdue. It also serves as a good place to catch up as we are now about 30% into the season.
Where does this victory stack up, in terms of Rutgers’ greatest wins?
David Anderson: Counting before I was born, probably the elite 8 win in 1976 is the best. If we are talking last 30 years I’d put it on the Mt. Rushmore with the win over Carmelo’s eventual champion Syracuse team, the win over Florida which was just bananas because it felt like Rutgers turned a corner by beating a bewildered Mike Rosario in double OT, and the win over Clemson in last years’ tournament that was “the purge” for every long-suffering RU fan. That puts this recent game ahead of the crying Eddie Jordan Wisconsin win because at the time Rutgers wasn’t looking that bad (then they collapsed) and ahead of monster wins over Norte Dame in the Murphy era which may have been the most gratifying. Purdue played well and hit a tough shot with just three seconds left setting up one of the few Rutgers half court buzzer beaters ever. That said, I give a sight edge to the 2003 Syracuse victory for my #1 spot based on my immediate reaction as the following happened; Herve Lamizana (below 30% for the season) hit a bank three pointer to snap a six game losing streak with both the shot and game clock winding down. This all after Jerome Coleman played out of his mind finally demonstrating his scoring ability showcased the year prior against the best player in the country, all of it puts that Syracuse game still slightly ahead of this one for now, but we will see how this performance ages.
Art Stein: As much as I enjoyed this victory, that little RU voice in the subterranean regions of my gray matter (I call him Mr. Screw) reminded me that no victory in December before Christmas can rank among the greatest victories in RU hoops history. I was as happy last night as any RU fan, but about five minutes after the victory aura wore off, the thought went through my head that for this victory to have meaning, it must be the lynchpin that turns the season around, starting this Sunday at the Prudential Center.
Fred Gaudios: It’s got to be tied with the NCAA tournament win vs. Clemson as the biggest win for Rutgers hoops in a decade, maybe two decades? I’m not old school enough to go back further than that. Thursday night’s game had it all — intrigue, physicality, punch after counterpunch after counterpunch, Cliff Omoruyi returning from what looked like a really serious injury — having said all this, the way Rutgers won, you could feel the catharsis in the RAC* (*Jersey Mike’s Arena) as the crowd erupted and the student section stormed the court. It’s been a tough year for Rutgers hoops and I’m not sure this win changes much about Rutgers as a basketball team (more on this below), but in terms of whether this game was a big deal, it was the biggest of big deals.
Cara Sanfilippo: I was at the Pandemonium in Piscataway, as well as the field rush when Rutgers knocked off South Florida. Because I was not at the game in person, I don’t know if my personal experience can rival those ones. I also am more of a casual basketball fan and a die-hard football fan so I have not lived through the years of pain. My experience with Eddie Jordan is through the Real Housewives of Potomac. So while I think the victory might actually be more impressive, especially that gravity-defying RHJ buzzer-beater, I can’t rank this win above that in terms of my own personal experience.
Pete Winter: I only go back 20 years or so as a fan, so I can’t speak to the 1976 Final Four team or the 1989 A-10 Championship game against Penn State. But this stands alone as the greatest win for Rutgers’ men’s basketball for me. There were some other good ones - Jonathan Mitchell’s 4-point play to beat Villanova, knocking off Wisconsin the year they went to the National Championship game, the 2020 overtime win at Purdue to cement an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. This one tops them all. The electric atmosphere, the #1 team in the nation, three lead changes in the last 15 seconds. After 8 unremarkable games, this program was left for dead. Now somehow, they have new life. If they somehow go on a run and make the NCAA Tournament, I think we could be talking about this among the greatest wins in Rutgers sports history.
Patrick Mella: I can’t say that it’s the greatest of all time, but I think it’s the biggest of the modern era since 2006. The 2015 win over Wisconsin, wasn’t as much considering it was a Frank Kaminsky’less squad. The upset over Clemson was a huge stepping stone to show that this program has finally arrived. But the win yesterday catapulted Rutgers into the national spotlight. It was very similar to the day after the 2006 win over Louisville. All of a sudden Rutgers was on every major sports outlet. I also think considering the fashion in which they won, it will go down as a top 3 greatest wins.
Aaron Breitman: To be honest, this isn’t even the greatest win over Purdue. That has to be the 2020 overtime win in West Lafayette to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid. It doesn’t matter that it was cancelled due to Covid, it was a landmark victory for the program. After a 29 year drought and having just beaten No. 9 Maryland, the significance of that Purdue win on the road in regard to the postseason is as if greater importance. Don’t get me wrong a win over a No. 1 team is historic any way you cut it. It’s an amazing victory that will be remembered forever. As Pete remarked, we may look back on this win at the end of the season as the day things turned around for a team headed back to the NCAA Tournament. So it can gain significance based on what Rutgers does moving forward and also how Purdue finishes the season too.
How does this win impact the remainder of the season?
David Anderson: We need to control ourselves in making snap judgements when one shot here or there would have changed the outcome of most of RU’s games this year, including this one. If Harper’s final shot fails to connect as it probably does 98 out of 100 times, RU isn’t the leading national sports story for a 24 hour cycle. That said, it does matter the ball went in psychologically; it keeps the interest in every individual game up, even following clunkers like we saw against Illinois because the Knights showed resiliency the next time out. This makes me feel better about my preseason Big Ten prediction of 8-12 in the league (Rutgers is still a very flawed team) even though the out of conference I was WAY off. The NCAA tournament will not happen this year barring more miracles, but we should see a successful enough bridge year while the younger players develop. The key is that this mammoth victory should keep fans engaged which will help turn the tide in a few home games and prevent things from going completely off the rails. Game in and game out, this season will be like a box of chocolates.
Art Stein: Nothing builds confidence more than accomplishment. It has widely been reported today that the guys have been telling each other that they can play with anybody and now they KNOW they can. This victory can very well propel the Scarlet Knights into turning a nightmare season into one that is special.
Fred Gaudios: The win vs. Purdue moved Rutgers all of five spots in KenPom — from No. 98 to No. 93. The only measure that improved for Rutgers, from my initial read, was “luck”. That should be telling, and my takeaway is therefore pretty measured. I feel like the win at least adds some intrigue to the Seton Hall game, and I would want to wait and see whether Rutgers can put up that same effort on Sunday, because they left everything on the court against Purdue. It was a big league battle from a physicality perspective, and with several Rutgers players fighting the flu, you might worry about a slow start (even with all the pomp and circumstance brought by an in-state rivalry game).
Cara Sanfilippo: That’s a loaded question and I feel like this team is Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde to me. I don’t know. If they can carry this energy and momentum into the rivalry game and the rest of the season, then this could be huge. If they come into the next game sleepwalking in the first half, I’m not sure. Even if they had lost, I would have been happy with they played because they showed energy and fight right out of the gate and clawed back to win in the end. That to me is the sign of a good team. So if that team continues to show up, this could be exciting.
Pete Winter: It gives us hope. As we all remember, Rutgers took 3 losses earlier in the season against average to below-average competition. The DePaul loss is considered a Quad 1 loss at the moment, but UMass is a Quad 3 loss, and Lafayette is a Quad 4 loss. So two of our losses right now are resume-killers. We just wiped out one of those bad losses by beating #1 Purdue. We still need to cancel out the other one. Great opportunity to do that Sunday at Seton Hall.
Patrick Mella: I think it shows that this team can play with anyone if they play how they did versus Purdue. I was texting a friend of mine before the game and mentioned that I hoped Rutgers would play loose. Considered they’re playing against the number 1 team in the country, they’re heavy underdogs, it has been a disappointing start to the season, sold out home crowd. There was every reason to let it all hangout and they did just that. I hope they continue that mindset going forward.
Aaron Breitman: It gives Rutgers great momentum and confidence heading into Seton Hall. However, that game is completely different and avoiding an emotional letdown is paramount. As far as the long term, Rutgers can jump into Big Ten play knowing they can win. When Michigan comes to Piscataway at the start of the new year, they’ll have confidence they can finally beat the Wolverines. The January stretch of games are all winnable and Rutgers has to take advantage. This win needs to be the start of something, not the highlight of the season. I’m sure Pikiell will make that point repeatedly.
Biggest reason for optimism?
David Anderson: Rutgers beat up to this point the best team in the nation. It was no fluke either, it wasn’t like Purdue played poorly overall. The ceiling to play like a top 10 team on any given night is there if the coaches can find ways to push the right different buttons each game.
Art Stein: Two things stand out. Ball movement and shooting percentage. If Rutgers is to win, they must be able to answer against the Purdue’s of the Big Ten with the ability to make shots from beyond the perimeter. Caleb McConnell’s return from the dead is a real cause for optimism and we can’t forget that we beat Purdue without our most consistent and clutch shooter.
Fred Gaudios: Purdue is a good, like REALLY good, basketball team, and in a game where Rutgers had to play near-perfect basketball and force a really good team into crucial, crunch-time mistakes and seemingly play 5-on-8 at times and come back from a ten-point deficit with under eight minutes to play, and then hit a 35-footer to win, they won. This team hasn’t given up on the season, and fans shouldn’t, either. Practically speaking, this game neutralizes the Lafayette loss. Win at Seton Hall on Sunday, and maybe you neutralize the DePaul or UMass loss a bit. I get the sense this Rutgers team plays its best ball when there’s little margin for error, which is good because there isn’t going to be much margin of error the rest of the season for Rutgers.
Cara Sanfilippo: The biggest reason for optimism for me is that unlike the heartbreaking loss to Houston to end last season in the Round of 32, they played until the end and closed out a really good team. They seemed to gel and believe in themselves even without their leader, Geo Baker. There were many different contributors besides Ron Harper, Jr., and Caleb McConnell played like we know he can when he gets lit up. Maybe this is the spark they needed to break out of their 4-game slump.
Pete Winter: I think the fact that we played short-handed and still fought until the end against Purdue is the biggest takeaway here. No bench player saw more than 9 minutes of action and we only got 5 total points from the second unit, but we somehow won the game. This was a throwback to the 2019-20 season when we brought A+ effort and defense every night. Hopefully we see more of this Rutgers moving forward.
Patrick Mella: This team looks like it finally realizes that they’re good enough to not only compete but also beat just about any team in the country. Yes, it will probably take a monster night from Ron Harper Jr., and for the ball to bounce their way. But at least the proof is there. They’ve now done it. Caleb McConnell continues to show why he’s one of the top defenders in the country, Mag seems more comfortable than ever on the court, Geo will be back, plenty of reasons for optimism.
Aaron Breitman: Rutgers has the talent to win in the Big Ten and has a true home court advantage. 10+ wins in conference play is possible IF they play to their potential. They still have a long way to go as a team and in getting back into NCAA Tournament contention but there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Continuing to come together as a team by focusing on their strengths and establishing a clear identity is key.
Biggest reason for concern?
David Anderson: Inconsistency, especially in the effort department. Second would be the same as I had preseason, inflexible offensive thinking. Even the non basketball fans watching the game with me asked why Rutgers moved in slow motion with the ball compared to the Boilers. If the offense isn’t efficient, Rutgers needs to find ways to sneak easy buckets now and then, but who other than Harper is reliable in the post and/or midrange to open things up?
Art Stein: The thing that worries me every game is Cliff Omoruyi getting into foul trouble or worse getting injured. I consider the Illinois game as a throwaway because I don’t attribute the game to a lack of effort, but more to a team dealing with the effects of the flu. Pike will have them ready to play but depth and efficiency at 4 and 5 slots will continue to be a worry.
Fred Gaudios: The Rutgers offense, even in games where it performs well from a big-picture perspective, still plays too much iso ball and lacks ball movement. The problems Aaron mentioned with respect to transition baskets in his recent article also popped up against Purdue. It’s still an open question as to whether this offense can be functional for enough of a 40-minute Big Ten game (i.e., avoiding 5+ minute scoring droughts, etc.) to stay in them. This may never be an elite defensive team, so the offense is going to have to improve for Rutgers to have a puncher’s chance this season. It’s all a bit TBD, and it’s a cause for concern for now.
Cara Sanfilippo: The loss of Myles Johnson looms large for this team. I thought Cliff Omoruyi played really well but when he was out, Rutgers didn’t really seem to have the answer to Purdue’s big men. 7’4”, really? When other teams eventually get him into foul trouble, it could spell problems.
Pete Winter: The rebounding numbers. We were overmatched up front and I’m a little bit surprised that Purdue took 26 threes with their sizable advantage in the paint. That being said, the Boilermakers grabbed 16 offensive rebounds to Rutgers 5. A win is a win and I may be nitpicking here, but we still have to do a better job of cleaning up the glass.
Patrick Mella: Now that they have proof they can compete with the upper echelon teams, what do they do with it when they face a lesser opponent? Rutgers can only ride this wave for so long. The rest of the season teams are going to be gunning to take out the team that took out the #1 team in the country. I’ve always said that this program seems to thrive more as the underdog than the favorite. Playing down to competition has been a troubling trend for Rutgers for a while now. How they follow up after this historical victory will tell me a lot about this team.
Aaron Breitman: Frontcourt depth remains an issue as does this team being extremely inconsistent from game to game. Which team is going to show up night to night is still a major question. The good news is they seem to play up to competition so conference play will be a likely welcomed development. But really it’s being disciplined on both ends of the floor. If they can figure that out, this will ultimately be a good basketball team.
Going forward who is the most important player other than Ron Harper Jr.?
David Anderson: I’m going to double down on my preseason prediction of Jalen Miller because he is the only small guard defender they have and one of just two energizer bunnies (along with Mawot Mag). At backup center and for a secondary scorer several players could step up from game to game, but no one else can check quick guards. Miller will need to develop some sort of offensive shot that defenses need to respect so he is not a liability on offense, but he’s my X-factor even when Geo returns.
Art Stein: Other than Ron Harper, it is a tie between Cliff Omoruyi and Geo Baker but if forced to choose it has to be Omoruyi. The Scarlet Knights beat the number one team in the country without Geo Baker, but they don’t come close without Omoruyi.
Fred Gaudios: With the perspective of the first nine games, I’m going to say it’s Caleb McConnell. It’s not like when he plays well on the offensive side, Rutgers always wins—at UMass, he had maybe his best scoring day, and Rutgers still lost—but it’s close. It’s very clear that when Caleb looks lost on offense, Rutgers as a whole looks lost. His defense is excellent, but his offense comes and goes, and if Rutgers can be so fortunate as to have Good Offensive Caleb moving the rest of the season, opposing defenses will have their hands full and this Rutgers team can win its share of Big Ten conference games.
Cara Sanfilippo: I don’t know if I can name just one. Geo, obviously. We need our big shot maker. I think though Cliff Omoruyi and Caleb McConnell are key contributors based on their defensive abilities. Ron Harper, Jr may have carried this team to a win last night, but Caleb and Cliff’s stealthiness were the unsung heroes. I think this was really a team effort and we saw a lot of little sparks from a lot of players last night.
Pete Winter: The most important player is Cliff Omoruyi. He’s our only hope against the Big Ten bigs. When he had to exit the game (whether for rest or due to injury), Purdue got whatever they wanted offensively. Cliff only had 3 rebounds in the game, but the fact that he worked all night against Williams and Edey and only picked up 3 fouls was extremely encouraging.
Patrick Mella: Caleb McConnell seems to be the glue that holds this team together. He’s such a blue collar, do anything needed type player that is often the difference between a win and loss. Without his lockdown defending, causing Purdue to get a late game traveling call, they Ron Harper Jr miracle shot, doesn’t happen. He’s got a quiet swagger to him that I think is a calming force on the team. With so many high-profile guys like RHJ, Baker and Omoruyi, McConnell has the perfect mindset and skillset to compliment this roster. Making him the most important player other than Harper.
Aaron Breitman: It’s Mawot Mag. The way he played against Purdue was so important to winning and very encouraging long term. If he can emerge as a reliable contributor, this team will be better. He is tough, plays with energy, can rebound and score in traffic and gives the team another plus defender.