It’s easy to forget as the years go by and Steve Pikiell continues to elevate Rutgers basketball but during the first two seasons in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights were just 3-33 under former head coach Eddie Jordan. Things got a little better during Pikiell’s first two seasons, as RU went 6-30 in Big Ten regular season play but this program was still buried in the basement. While they upset 11 seed Ohio State as the 14 seed in the first round of the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, upstart Northwestern blew them out of the gate the following day on its way to a first and only NCAA Tournament appearance.
The following year, even though Rutgers stunned no. 15 Seton Hall earlier in Pikiell’s second season, the Scarlet Knights limped to Madison Square Garden losers of ten of the previous eleven games. Speculation of star Corey Sanders leaving after his junior season was thick and Rutgers fans feared that the following year could somehow be a step back. It wasn’t until the 2018 Big Ten Tournament that a clear sign emerged that Rutgers might be turning the corner in a sustainable way.
After winning a second consecutive opening round game as a 14 seed with a victory over Minnesota, Rutgers had a primetime matchup with 6 seed Indiana on a Thursday night at the Garden. The Hoosiers weren’t at the level they were when they won the Big Ten regular season title two years prior, but they finished the 2018 season in the middle of the pack at 9-9 in conference play. Even so, this was still Indiana and Rutgers was still the worst team in the Big Ten by far.
Of course, from a Rutgers fan perspective this was the Super Bowl. Indiana had beaten RU by an average of 17 points in the first five meetings as Big Ten foes. This included two defeats under Pikiell by an average of 20.5 points and less than a month out from a 65-43 loss at the RAC. A 14 seed had never won a second round game at the Big Ten Tournament at that point and while some Rutgers fans had optimism Sanders and crew could keep it close, winning wasn’t considered very likely.
I sat behind the basket on press row that night and remember watching all the Indiana fans fill the Garden and dream that one day it was would the opposite. Instead of seeing crimson everywhere, it would be scarlet. Credit the Rutgers fans that were there that night, they were loud and enthusiastic but sadly didn’t have much to cheer on for most of the first half.
Indiana led last place Rutgers 24-8 with 8:09 left in the first half. I’ll admit at a timeout soon after, I looked around and heard the Hoosier faithful laughing throughout the arena that we were probably thinking the same thing....it was about to get ugly. I remembered sitting courtside the year before in Washington D.C. when Northwestern blew things open around the same part of the game, so I thought the game would soon be out of reach for good.
After the timeout, Deshawn Freeman scored a couple of baskets to cut the lead to 12. Hoosiers guard Aljami Durham the made two free throws to lead 26-12 with 5:46 left.
And then everything changed and it’s never really ever been the same since.
On the next Rutgers possession, a skinny freshman off the bench named Geo Baker hit a three-pointer that jumpstarted an improbable 17-2 run to close out the half and give the Scarlet Knights a 1 point lead at the break. It was stunning and while Indiana fans were displeased, I don’t think they were too worried. My hope was Rutgers wouldn’t fall too far behind once again on the first run of the second half.
At the 16:44 mark left in the game, Juwan Morgan made a three-point play the hard way and the score was tied at 33. I thought, ‘here it comes.’ And I was right that it did, but I never expected it to be Rutgers that did it.
That skinny freshman, Geo Baker, made another huge three-pointer that began a 11-3 run that put Rutgers out in front by 8 points with just over 12 minutes to play. Still, Indiana fought back and cut the lead to 1 with just under 7 minutes remaining.
Corey Sanders was in the midst of a remarkable three day performance that landed him on the Big Ten All-Tournament team and delivered a key basket before you guessed it, Baker made another three. Sanders scored 10 more points to finish with 28 and Baker made all four free throw attempts to complete the 76-69 upset. Indiana fans headed for the exits early while Scarlet Knight fans danced in the aisle. It was joyous a moment as Rutgers had on the hardwood in a longtime, aside from the aforementioned win over Seton Hall the previous December.
This was different in the sense that Rutgers was not accepted by the majority of Big Ten fan bases upon entering the league. This was truly the first moment that Scarlet Knight fans had to hoist up to the rest of the conference and say “here, look at this, we just beat Indiana in the postseason!”
Not only did that win give Rutgers the opportunity to give a top ten team in Purdue all that they could handle the next night, it helped to complete a three day performance that raised the profile and respect level of the program. It’s only grown since that first win over Indiana.
Fast forward almost three years later and Rutgers found itself in a similar position of the game against Indiana once again, trailing 23-8 midway through the first half on Wednesday night. And once again, Geo Baker came to the rescue and delivered a heroic performance to lead Rutgers to a crucial victory. However, this time much more was on the line, moving this program one giant step closer to its first NCAA Tournament bid in 30 years.
As the program has improved over the years, two constants jumped out in my mind after last night’s victory.
The first is that Geo Baker took the torch from Corey Sanders and led this team out of the darkness and into the light. The second is that Rutgers has dominated Indiana in a way that several years ago seemed impossible and has paralleled the improvement of the program in recent seasons.
The Scarlet Knights have now beaten the Hoosiers three games in a row and five of the last six meetings overall. This dominant run began that cold March night at Madison Square Garden three years ago.
The two teams split the 2019 season series and the one that Rutgers lost during this time span was a disappointing 16 point defeat in the regular season finale just a few days after they lost a 1 point heartbreaker at home on senior night. A few days later the season ended in a bad loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament and progress seemed to have stalled, finishing 14-17.
Last season, Rutgers was 12-4 and 3-2 in Big Ten play with a crucial homestand against Indiana and Minnesota. The Hoosiers were 13-3 and also 3-2 in league action, so this was a huge midseason conference game with actual implications. This was not a usual thing for Rutgers fans to experience at all. Please take a breath to remember that this welcomed status change just happened LAST SEASON.
Baker returned after a three game absence due to an injured thumb and sparked Rutgers with a gutty 7 point, 4 assist, 4 rebound, 2 steal performance. It was also a game where the defense demonstrated again that it could play at an elite level with RU winng 59-50. The Scarlet Knights went on to win three of the next four league games and finished the first half of the Big Ten slate at a program best 7-3 record, matching the win total from the season before. We know how the season ended, with Rutgers finishing 20-11 and a first ever winning record in Big Ten play at 11-9.
This season, Rutgers has beaten Indiana twice over the span of one month, including the first even win at Assembly Hall. The two teams are not separated by much in the KenPom rankings, as RU is 26 and IU is 34. However, the two Rutgers victories are a big reason why they are in solid position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three decades. It’s also a major reason why the Hoosiers are on the wrong side of the bubble. The fact that March Madness is set to take place in its own state and even on its own home floor, Rutgers playing a part in the Hoosiers missing the NCAA Tournament would be quite a development. It could be a devastating blow to head coach Archie Miller’s already rocky tenure.
IU fans will be quick to downplay the recent flip of fortunes between the two programs and our favorite Indiana website has chosen indifference over actually caring anymore.
After starting 0-5 against the Hoosiers as a member of the Big Ten, Rutgers is now 5-6.
Corey Sanders started that. Geo Baker led the transformation of the program over the years. Steve Pikiell engineered it and made it possible.
As the next two weeks play out and postseason dreams are in front of mind, take a minute to remember that not too long ago, Rutgers beating a program as steeped in history and resources as Indiana for a sustained period was a pipe dream, let alone a regular basis. Add in the fact that Rutgers has beaten Purdue, the best team in the Hoosier state, three times in a row over the past two seasons, just as they have against Indiana. The progress this program has made under Pikiell can be directly traced back to the Crossroads of America. That’s about as Big Ten as it gets.
While the athletic department has made major strides under athletic director Pat Hobbs and many teams are not only competitive in league play, but in the top half of the conference, basketball has raised the profile and acceptance level of Rutgers in the Big Ten by a large margin.
For the Rutgers fans that were in the Garden that night three years ago, little did they know that there would be plenty of moments to celebrate against Indiana in the near future. It also meant the rise of Rutgers basketball was officially beginning.