With Memorial Day approaching, it’s never too early to ponder the next college basketball season. The Big Ten announced conference opponents earlier this month and Rutgers has a challenging but relatively balanced slate. It will be some time before the full schedule will be announced and how head coach Steve Pikiell fills out the non-conference portion will be fascinating to watch.
It’s been previously reported by Jon Rothstein that Rutgers is expected to play UMASS, Rider, Lehigh and Merrimack next season. Of course, we know they’ll also play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and are in the rotation for this season to take part in the Gavitt Games versus the Big East. However, the biggest concern from my perspective is whether the most anticipated non-conference game each season actually happens next season and beyond.
Jerry Carino reported on Monday that the future of the Garden State Hardwood Series remains at an impasse after the game was missed last season for the first time in 26 years. The original date last season was pulled due to Seton Hall’s contention of having a home game without fans during COVID-19 would result in a major revenue loss. The alternate idea of playing at a neutral site never materialized. Instead of playing Rutgers during a global pandemic, the Pirates hopped on a plane to Nebraska to play Oregon and went to Penn State two days later on a date that the Scarlet Knights were open to playing.
The contract for the series runs through 2026 but the issue of who would host this season remains a point of contention. Seton Hall wants the home game to make up for last year, while Rutgers is taking the stance of it being their turn due to the Pirates passing on last season. Pikiell stoked the flames of the dispute last winter when he was asked about the game and said, “I look forward to playing Seton Hall at the RAC next season.”
Per Carino’s report, talks are ongoing between athletic directors for both schools, Pat Hobbs and Bryan Felt. He also cited that the Pirates were pointing to force majeure, a clause in the contract that eliminates liability due extraordinary circumstances like a global pandemic, as to why they were legally obligated to host this season. The claim that COVID-19 prevented them from gaining the revenue from the gate due to fans being unable to attend could hold if an arbitrator was brought in. Of course, whether Seton Hall acted in good faith by scheduling other games is debatable as the pandemic didn’t prevent them from playing the Rutgers game at the Prudential Center. They chose not to. I’m not a lawyer and I am not familiar with the contract for this series, but if a third party is needed to settle the dispute then that’s what should happen.
Regardless of the potential legal battle and politics at play, there is proof that bitter rivalries were able to survive the pandemic last season. Other celebrated but no more contentious annual feuds between Louisville-Kentucky, Cincinnati-Xavier and Nebraska-Creighton took place despite fans not being allowed to attend. Those are all longstanding and at times, heated rivalries. If they can make it work, Rutgers and Seton Hall should be able to as well.
Whether you think Pirates head coach Kevin Willard ducked playing RU last season and is ready to move on for good OR that Pikiell doesn’t really want to play them anymore due to his stated belief that the Big Ten schedule is challenging enough, it doesn’t matter. If this rivalry falls victim to a legal dispute and two stubborn coaches who won’t budge, everyone loses and both sides would bear some responsibility.
Of course, Hobbs is an a unique position to help reach a settlement. He hired both coaches and has relationships with many in the Seton Hall administration after working there for years. That doesn’t make a solution easier to find, but hopefully it extends the possibility that both sides will work as hard as possible figure it out.
NJ Advance Media’s James Kratch suggested that Rutgers and Seton Hall play twice this season to make up for the loss of last season. I love the idea in theory but I don’t think either side would ever willfully do that, even if they were on good terms. However, there could be another way.
What if a higher power intervened? By higher power, I mean the two conferences, the Big East and the Big Ten. They could play the scheduled Hardwood Classic at one venue and the Gavitt Games at the other venue. Still, it’s unlikely either side would be pleased with that option.
A more out of the box, albeit logistically more challenging but also potentially more agreeable solution between the two sides is to skip the Hardwood Classic altogether this season and play the Gavitt Games against each other at Madison Square Garden. I know that would be an issue with gate revenue again, but a neutral court solves one problem and the issue of money shouldn’t be a deal breaker that the two conferences couldn’t resolve. It would then allow for the Garden State Hardwood Classic to resume the following season in its normal rotation at Seton Hall.
I’m an optimist but also know that it’s more likely that the Big Ten and Big East want nothing to do with getting into the middle of this dispute.
So then what?
If both schools stand still and the conferences stay out of it, this series is likely to die a slow, quiet death. And that would be a crying shame.
This rivalry isn’t just good for both school’s non-conference strength of schedule, for revenue purposes, for the buzz the game generates or even the pride it extends within the state of New Jersey.
The Rutgers-Seton Hall rivalry is also good for college basketball. It’s the very essence of what makes college basketball so unique, so passionate, so important. It is why there are so many in-state rivalry games across this country every season.
It’s tradition. Playing Seton Hall signals the last tie to being a member of the Big East, while also maintaining the longest running series that Rutgers currently has.
Yes, there is hope that Maryland and Penn State ultimately become true rivals of RU in most sports now that all three schools are in the Big Ten. However, there is no more bitter or more anticipated non-conference game for Rutgers in any sport than there is for when men’s basketball plays Seton Hall. That should mean something, aside from the money and interest it generates.
It’s also brought two hugely important signature moments in the Steve Pikiell era.
The 2017 upset victory over no. 15 Seton Hall was the moment that Rutgers fans began to truly believe the trajectory of the program was finally moving in the right direction. It was a sign of a better things to come. You could feel the hope and energy that was present in the environment at the RAC for that game long after it was over. That pride that was reborn in that win blossomed in full at Madison Square Garden at the end of the season when Rutgers stormed into the quarterfinals and the basketball mecca was full of RU faithful.
The demolition of the Pirates in 2019 was the moment that the Scarlet Knights truly looked like they could become the team to end the three decade NCAA Tournament drought. It was an emotional boost that helped the team produce the first 20 win regular season in 37 years.
Bragging rights matter to fans and whether coaches want to admit it or not, it does matter to recruits and current players.
Don’t believe me? Here is what Rutgers players said after that 68-48 throttling of SHU in 2019:
Geo Baker: “A the end of the day, it’s a statement. This is for Jersey. The younger guys are starting to see how important this game is, not only to us but to the fans.”
Ron Harper Jr. : “Being a kid growing up in Jersey, going to Big East games of Rutgers and Seton Hall, this the stuff you dream of right here. I would have given a kidney to be out there two years ago. Today I got a taste of what it’s like. The RAC was crazy and you just appreciate that so much.”
Myles Johnson: “For our team, for jersey, for the bragging rights, this is a big win. When I held the trophy, it felt like the Lion King when he holds up Simba. It was crazy.”
Caleb McConnell: “All we talked about this last week is what they did to us last year, last year, last year. Today we wanted to make a statement and show today that we’re the better team in New Jersey.”
The telling part of these quotes is only one player, Ron Harper Jr., is actually from New Jersey. Baker is from New Hampshire, Johnson from California and McConnell is from Ohio. This rivalry transcends where players are from. It’s the biggest game on the non-conference schedule every season because of the history and the rivalry that it has become. It’s also become a barometer for the season and a huge confidence builder for Rutgers when they are victorious.
For longtime Rutgers basketball fans, the rivalry with Princeton is still greatly missed. I grew up going to those games every year and it’s disappointing that the two schools no longer play. If the same thing happens to the rivalry with Seton Hall, it will would not only be a mistake, but a disservice to fans and the basketball community in the state.
This game is bigger than wins and losses. This game is part of the fabric of this state and part of the identity of Rutgers men’s basketball.
It takes two to make a deal and Seton Hall needs to be a willing participant. Both sides need to swallow their pride for the greater good that this series brings to so many people, including alumni, students, New Jerseyans and even their own players. Letting the rivalry quietly die in the heat of summer is a mistake. We’re just coming out of a year-plus long global pandemic that included an almost entire season without fans able to watch either team in person. Letting the best rivalry game either school has fadeaway as fans are set to return after an unprecedented absence would be upsetting.
Pat Hobbs and Steve Pikiell have resurrected Rutgers men’s basketball quicker than anyone could have expected. The joy they’ve brought to the fan base is immense and can’t be overstated. As caretakers of the program, I hope they do everything possible to keep the rivalry with Seton Hall going.
Update: It’s happening!