Rutgers is preparing to play its first NCAA Tournament game in 30 years. Steve Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights are not the only ones anxiously waiting for the clock to strike 9:20 PM.
Scarlet Knights’ fans have endured plenty of pain and over the years, especially since joining the Big Ten. Now, they will have a chance to watch their beloved Rutgers attempt to win their first tournament game since 1983.
“A win would just emphasize the quantum leap this program has made, in front of a real national audience,” longtime Rutgers’ fan Kevin Fine told On the Banks.
Fine, a South Jersey native, currently resides in Indianapolis where the entire tournament will take place.
“Probably not surprising but it’s been quiet,” Fine said on the atmosphere. “Downtown has been hit by lack of business over the pandemic. It’s been really uplifting to see the signage and to see some fans over the last couple weeks.”
There will be a limited number of fans let into the buildings during the tournament. For the Scarlet Knights, this will sound like a full house after playing in front of an empty RAC crowd all year long.
Despite the nearly 10-hour trip from Piscataway to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Rutgers’ faithful will make up part of the crowd.
Adam Nachman, who grew up down the street from Rutgers, braved the long journey in hopes of seeing history.
“I told myself last year I would see their first NCAA win in my lifetime in person,” Nachman said. “I hope that happens tomorrow.”
“Indy is definitely building itself up and it’s amazing how they painted the town March Madness blue. The giant bracket on the Marriott is amazing.”
Rutgers was ready for the big dance a year ago before the pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel all tournaments. After a year long wait, it as a relief to see the Scarlet Knights’ name be called on Selection Sunday.
“I knew for weeks we would be in but that didn’t matter,” Nachman said. “An hour of pacing around waiting for our name to be called turned into instant excitement and turned me speechless.”
Pikiell took on the challenge of being the head coach of Rutgers while they were viewed as a doormat in the Big Ten. Over his first two years, the Scarlet Knights went 6-30 combined in conference play. This improved to seven wins in 2018-19 before finishing 11-9 a season ago. The Scarlet Knights finished 10-10 to notch back-to-back years with double-digit conference victories.
This is a group of players that has left their mark on program history.
“As an old timer, I really like Rob Hodgson but I think Ron Harper Jr. is going to be my all-time favorite,” Fine said. “Just love how he got to RU, and love what he brings to the program.”
“Geo Baker,” Nachman said without hesitation when asked about his all-time favorite. “He helped lay the foundation to get us to where we are right now and make Rutgers a Big Ten contender. Geo’s career, along with him standing up for player’s NIL rights, will definitely put him in the Rutgers’ history books.”
Rutgers entered the tournament as a 10-seed and will face No. 7 Clemson in the first round. The competition of the Big Ten will undoubtedly play a role in how the Scarlet Knights enter this game. They will enter this matchup as a slight favorite.
The Scarlet Knights have defended well all year but have had difficulties scoring at times, especially from beyond the three-point line.
“Play defense hard,” Fine said on the plan against the Tigers. “And then get the ball to the rim. Any of the guys can score on any given night. Just be aggressive.”
Fine began at Rutgers in 1993 and has seen plenty of sports’ moments — good and bad. This is a chance to see another.
“The NIT semis in 2004 against Iowa State,” Fine said on his favorite moment. “My first child, Jake, was just born and it was our first night out.”
The last two years will all come together tonight in Indianapolis. The Scarlet Knights have a chance to show that they belong in the NCAA Tournament and are going to be around in upcoming years.
“This team is built on being gritty and tough,” Nachman said. “Getting the win would really put the exclamation point on the last two seasons.”