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Steve Pikiell, Rutgers express excitement following NCAA Tournament berth

The Scarlet Knights are back in the big dance and there is positive vibes shooting throughout the team.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Rutgers vs Indiana Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The year is 1991.

Bryan Adams is at the top of the Hot 100 charts, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the highest grossing movie in the box office, and a 6-foot-4 guard named Steve Pikiell is in the midst of his final year at UConn.

This was also the last time that Rutgers was in the NCAA Tournament but after Sunday’s selection show, that can no longer be said.

“Obviously 30 years is a long time, none of us were alive,” Paul Mulcahy, native of Bayonne, said following the selection show on Sunday night. “There’s a lot of people that were supporting this program for those 30 years through the ups and downs so I’m really happy for those people.”

The Scarlet Knights landed a 10-seed in the Midwest Region this year. They will take on seventh-seeded Clemson on Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Tipoff is scheduled for 9:20 p.m.

“I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous in the beginning just waiting and waiting and waiting,” Myles Johnson said. “And then to finally hear our name, it was just a bliss feeling. Everybody jumped up, we were all cheering. Even after, just sitting there realizing that we’re going to play in March Madness is just unbelievable. I’m just happy it finally came true.”

Rutgers was able to avoid the 8-9 matchup that would setup a potential matchup with the No. 1 seed in the region. Fans were concerned that Rutgers would be put in the region with Gonzaga but they were able to avoid that fate. Instead, a win would more than likely setup a meeting with second-seeded Houston.

“We’re ready for any challenge,” Steve Pikiell said. “When we defend and rebound, we can play with anybody. We have good players and we’re an exciting team to watch too. Our guys will be locked in and ready to play good basketball. You got to play a good 40 minutes on both ends of the floor. That’s what you have to do to advance.”

Rutgers finished the regular season with a 14-10 record while going 10-10 in Big Ten play. They took down Indiana in round one of the conference tournament before being eliminated by Illinois. Double-digit wins in the best conference in the nation was more than enough to get the Scarlet Knights back in the big dance.

“I was definitely a little nervous when the bracket was coming out, I think we all were,” Geo Baker said. “When we saw our name get called, it was everything that we dreamed of, everything we’ve been waiting for. We were just really happy to see our hard work paid off. Everyone just had a lot of emotions.”

For New Jersey natives, including Mulcahy and Ron Harper Jr., the opportunity to see Rutgers back in the tournament means a lot.

“Making history always feels good,” said Harper Jr., who led Rutgers in scoring with 15.4 points per game this season. “Doing it in New Jersey and at the state university where I grew up and where I was raised just makes it so much more special.”

Even Gov. Phil Murphy got in on the fun.

“He’s just excited,” Pikiell said. “I said we’re Jersey strong. It’s a great state and we’re the state university so proud to be representing and he is too. I’m glad he reached out.”

Clemson finished the regular season with a record of 16-6 and finished fifth in the ACC at 10-6. They were upset by Miami in the ACC Tournament and will not have played for nine days when they take the floor against Rutgers.

“It started six minutes ago,” Pikiell said on preparation for Clemson. “We’ll have a lot of information. We have to be quarantined for two straight tests here basically in our hotel rooms so we’ll enjoy it for a few minutes then we’ll do our work. Obviously we’re playing an ACC team in Clemson. Brad (Brownwell) does an unbelievable job. They beat two teams in our league. They have good guard play. They’re a good basketball team.”

If there is one program that knows nothing is guaranteed, it is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights would have broken the streak at 29 years a season ago if it was not for the global pandemic. They had to wait one more year and the streak is now over at 30 years. This is not something to take lightly.

“We didn’t get to watch Selection Sunday last year because of COVID-19,” Jacob Young said. “It’s just a great experience hearing our name and knowing we’re gonna hear it. Man, I can’t wait. I can’t wait.”