As the NCAA Tournament is just a little more than a month out, the Rutgers basketball team is in an unfamiliar position. At 11-6 overall and 7-6 in Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights are currently on a clear path towards playing in March Madness for the first time in 30 years. With four Quad 1 wins and a NET ranking of 26, the system the NCAA selection committee prioritizes in their decision making, Rutgers has a resume that puts them firmly in the field in the 6-8 seed range.
While there is debate as to how RU needs to finish out the season in order to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth, take comfort in the fact that as fans we are in an enviable position for the first time in what feels like forever. Despite a five game losing streak that only ended just over two weeks ago, Rutgers now controls its own destiny after winning the past four games.
Let’s cut to the chase. Rutgers basketball has put its fans through hell for decades. We’ve lived through athletic directors whose only priority was football, coaches who humiliated themselves and the school on a national level, multiple star players transferring to programs that went dancing on a regular basis, top local recruits leaving time and time again for a college basketball blue blood, single digit win seasons and the most painful, unofficially qualifying for the NCAA Tournament last season, only to see it cancelled for the first time ever.
All that being said, we are witnessing something special this season and if you aren’t careful, you will miss out on fully appreciating this team.
With the win over Minnesota on Thursday, Rutgers has now won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since joining the league seven years ago. It’s the first time the program has won four straight games in conference play since the 2003-2004 season when RU beat St. John’s, Villanova, Notre Dame and Miami (FL) as a member of the Big East.
The Scarlet Knights are 3-3 away from the RAC and if they can win one more they’ll set a program season best mark for road victories in Big Ten play.
Over the past two to three seasons, consider the advantage that Rutgers has established against the following Big Ten teams:
Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana have all lost to Rutgers in four of the past five meetings. RU has won three of its last four against Nebraska. Notable win streaks include three in a row against Purdue, as well as two in a row against Illinois and Maryland. While Michigan State is not close to playing at the high level they are known for, Rutgers just beat them for the first time ever by holding them to its lowest scoring output in over a decade.
Rutgers is still climbing up the Big Ten mountain but the air is getting thinner as the journey progresses.
There have been some tough moments, most notably the five game losing streak. However, this team has come together and responded like winning programs do. Behind tremendous leadership from the coaching staff and seniors Geo Baker and Myles Johnson, this team has pulled themselves off the mat mid-season and come back even stronger.
Even so, now is not the time to take this season for granted. While Rutgers is favored to win four of its last seven games, as well as a toss up in the rematch against Minnesota, anything can happen. And even if this team does make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three decades, nothing should be counted on beyond this season.
Steve Pikiell has done a tremendous job turning the worst high major program in college basketball into a winner. Remembering how far he has brought this program is important. He inherited a team that finished the 2015-2016 season with a KenPom ranking of 279. Currently Rutgers is 25. The progress the program has made under Pikiell in five years has been extraordinary. However, assuming the Scarlet Knights are on a trajectory pointed up year over year is being naive. While I have full confidence that Pikiell is building a winning program that is sustainable, it will never be easy to do that at Rutgers.
The state of college basketball is unstable like never before during this global pandemic. With this season being a free one in regard to player eligibility, the transfer rules changing so players potentially don’t have to sit out a season and even the impact of NIL rights will have across the landscape remains to be seen.
While the hope is that a strong core of players from this team returns next season, nothing is guaranteed. And even if that does happen, it doesn’t mean they’ll be better next season.
Just ask Northwestern, who made the NCAA Tournament and won a game in it for the first time ever in 2017, finishing with a 24-12 record and in sixth place in the Big Ten. The best four players on that team, veterans Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Dererk Pardon and Scottie Lindsey, all returned the following season. However, plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, they finished with a losing record at 15-17, failing to even qualify for the NIT. They haven’t had another winning season since.
The point is don’t worry about the future. Remember the past failures that we’ve suffered through to appreciate the current reality. Live in the moment now.
No matter what happens beyond this season, the current group of core players on this team are positioning themselves to be remembered forever in the hearts of Rutgers fans. If they can close out the task at hand and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, they’ll go down in program history as the team that made Rutgers basketball relevant again. That’s all fans should care about right now.
After a fourth straight win this past week, Geo Baker said “Every single game, every single day, we are trying to make a new piece of history. That’s all we ever really think about, making history. That’s what we all came here for. Now we are all veterans but we’ve been talking about it for a long time. This is what we expected and we’re doing it.”
It’s easy as fans to get caught up in every game and lose sight of the season outlook or ultimate goal. I hate to break it to you, but Rutgers will play poorly at some point before this season has ended. It doesn’t mean the season is falling apart. It would be unfair to count this team out at any point the rest of the way. This team has earned that trust.
Comments like ‘the way Rutgers played they would lose against a better team’ even though they won the game, or complaining about too many turnovers, foul shooting woes, the recent shooting struggles of Ron Harper Jr., and on and on and on, remember to focus on the positives. It wasn’t that long ago that being a Rutgers basketball fan meant having literally nothing positive to cling to.
Style points are irrelevant. Three or more wins down the stretch of the regular season, even ugly ones, would be a beautiful thing and should lead to pure happiness for the fan base.
Ending the NCAA Tournament drought has to happen this season with the way Rutgers is positioned right now. Expectations should be high this season and the pressure for this team to come through is extremely high. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the ride too. This group of players have made joy part of being a Rutgers basketball fan again. No matter what happens the rest of the way, don’t take that fact for granted.