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Steve Pikiell’s belief in Rutgers leads to an all-time improbable victory

The head coach doubled down on this being his greatest team ever and they responded with the highest ranked win in program history.

Purdue v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Heading into Thursday night’s game against No. 1 Purdue, hope was in short supply around the Rutgers men’s basketball team. A 4-4 start to the season that included a sub-300 loss to Lafayette, two sub-100 defeats to UMass and DePaul, all came before a 35 point no show performance at Illinois in the Big Ten opener. On Tuesday, head coach Steve Pikiell announced the team was in the midst of a flu outbreak and that player availability for this game was undetermined. Geo Baker has been out for a few weeks with an injury and sat out once again, this time due to the flu. Every other player suited up.

The Boilermakers dominated the game in several areas. They held a 16-4 advantage in points off of turnovers, a 22-4 edge in second chance points, a +8 rebounding margin and a +4 turnover margin. Their bench outscored RU 31-5. Rutgers held the most efficient offense in college basketball scoreless for 8 minutes and 13 seconds in the first half and only led by 1 at the break. Purdue then led by 10 points with just over 8 minutes to play and ESPN gave them a 94.6% win probability at that point in the game. The data all signaled that a runaway victory for the No. 1 team in the land was about to occur. Stephen Bardo even said so on BTN at the last media timeout of the game.

Somehow, someway, Rutgers won the game anyway.

Ron Harper Jr. was the biggest reason. He delivered an iconic performance that will live in Rutgers lore for eternity. 30 points on 10 of 15 shooting, including 5 of 7 from three-point range, 5 of 5 from the foul line, and the last two baskets of the game. He gave Rutgers the lead with a tough shot off of a jump stop in traffic and then made a three-pointer just past halfcourt through a double team as the buzzer sounded. It was improbable, unbelievable and historic. Oh, and he finished with his fifth double-double of the season by grabbing 10 rebounds as well in 38 grueling minutes. A legendary performance.

Caleb McConnell scored 12 points on 4 of 8 shooting, grabbed 5 rebounds, dished 5 assists and swiped 2 steals along with swarming defense in 36 minutes. He played under control on offense and defensively was disruptive throughout the game. After struggling mightily early on this season, he is becoming the player Rutgers needs him to be.

Mawot Mag in his first career start gave the team a huge lift in the first half and had a big basket late in the game. He finished with 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting and 3 rebounds. His energy and positive mindset on the court is a big plus for this team.

Cliff Omoruyi played his best defensive game of his Rutgers career that included 3 steals along with 11 points on 5 of 10 shooting, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, a block and a team high +/- of 15. His footwork and discipline on the defensive end was really encouraging. He also left the game after getting knocked in the back of neck by 7’4” Zach Edey and was helped off the floor, but returned soon after. The growth in his game was evident against the best frontcourt in the Big Ten and his toughness was on full disable as well.

Paul Mulcahy failed to score and struggled with foul trouble, but he dished out a game high 8 assists. He and McConnell made sure the Rutgers offense moved the ball and it flowed the best it has all season. His passing and vision is what makes him such a good facilitator. Mulcahy now has 31 assists in his last seven games and a 3.1 to 1 turnover margin during that stretch.

On Tuesday, Pikiell was asked about his proclamation in calling this the best team he has ever coached before the season started. Despite the disappointing first month of the season that landed Rutgers at No. 217 in the initial NET rankings this week, Pikiell was emphatic in his belief.

“Without a doubt, I am going to stand by that. I felt that way at that time,” Pikiell said. “We haven’t played that way, but we still have a chance. We still have an opportunity here, we play in the [Big Ten] best league in the country. We are going to play a lot of good teams. I need to get Geo [Baker] back, that would help me a lot. He is an important part of this. When you don’t have one of your lead guys, and then we have to become much more consistent.”

Even without Baker, his team certainly played like Pikiell’s best at Rutgers for at least one night. The offense was fluid, the defense was relentless and their will to win was resolute. It was as tough a Rutgers team played in any given game I can remember. Purdue is loaded with talent, size and is an extremely versatile team. No real weaknesses. The Scarlet Knights never backed down and found a way despite being overmatched on paper.

Pikiell didn’t just stand by his preseason praise of this team earlier in the week, as he also explained why he was still hopeful they could turn it around long term.

“We’ll figure it out. We had eight games. You learn a lot about your team and we’ve had to fight through a lot of stuff already,” Pikiell said. “This is still my best practice team too. If you came to practice, you would like this team. I base my stuff a lot off of that, practice. We just haven’t played the way we practiced and that’s what we’ve got to do now. We have to play better and better.”

Rutgers is still just 5-4 with a KenPom ranking of No. 93 after the program’s historic first ever victory over a No. 1 team. Their resume is still full of blemishes. However, this win over a likely top five to ten Purdue team all season is the type of signature win they desperately needed.

On Sunday, they’ll have a chance to get another statement win against No. 23 Seton Hall, who took down No. 7 Texas on Thursday night. If they do, as I said on Wednesday on Twitter, it would result in the greatest week of regular season play in Rutgers men’s basketball history. One down, one to go.

The win over Purdue was the program’s fourth straight victory over the Boilermakers. That’s incredible in its own right. Matt Painter is a phenomenal coach and Steve Pikiell has his number. His change in the lineup by inserting Mawot Mag, playing Luke Nathan at the end of the first half to make it harder on Purdue inside, the utilization of Jalen Miller in the right spots and the way this team responded were all a credit to his coaching. He’s deserved criticism this season, but tonight was a stroke of brilliance in how he coached this game.

The way Rutgers responded after such a disheartening performance against Illinois is another nod to Pikiell. The offense was drastically improved from just six days ago and the fight and resolve of this team was as well. Their head coach challenged them and they responded in as big of a way as possible.

This was one of, if not the strangest games and endings I’ve ever seen Rutgers play. I was oddly calm down the stretch because for some reason the Scarlet Knights kept making plays they typically do not in a game of this magnitude or really ever in any game. Even when McConnell stopped his back cut and Harper Jr’s pass went out of bounds, it didn’t feel like a game killer like it has been so many times before.

When Trevion Williams gave Purdue the lead back with 3.4 seconds to play, what came next happened so fast it felt surreal and truly unbelievable. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t celebrate until the official review was completed. It had actually happened. Rutgers beat the top team in both the country and the Big Ten by outplaying them in the closing minutes.

Despite a lack of reason or logic in a game taking place in a season that has already been so crazy it should be committed for psychiatric evaluation, Rutgers overcame the odds to win a game no one could have expected them to.

I don’t know how the rest of the season will go. I don’t know how Sunday against blood rival Seton Hall will go either. I honestly believe 12 wins is still possible in Big Ten play like I predicted before the season. They could also go 6-14. No one has been able to figure out this team so far and Thursday’s win only made them appear even more complicated than easier to understand.

I don’t know what to expect with Rutgers men’s basketball right now. None of us really do. We do know though that Rutgers is never better and never more dangerous during the Steve Pikiell era than when their backs are completely against the wall. If that continues, then perhaps this team can fight their way back to March Madness after all.

After the ride they took Rutgers fans on Thursday night in what was as historic and as improbable a win that we’ve ever witnessed with this team, the thought that anything is possible is a completely true statement. It became true because their head coach always believed it could happen.