It happened in the last minute of the first half with Rutgers already leading by 11 points, but the play jumped out as symbolic in regard to the historic run this basketball team is on. Cliff Omoruyi went for a dunk, missed it, grabbed the offensive rebound and got fouled by Illinois star Kofi Cockburn. It doesn’t sound significant on the face of it, but what happened when both players hit the floor after the physical play was.
Omoruyi got back on his feet with a move that can best be described as using skills of a ballerina, gymnast and extra-terrestrial combined. On the flip side, the hulking Cockburn stayed on the floor, looking as stunned as a heavyweight fighter who was unexpectedly knocked out. The shock on his face that Omoruyi, an athletic marvel with the physique of an action figure, was able to bring him down despite getting fouled was a defining moment in the game. The fire in which big Cliff displayed was inspiring for Rutgers and deflating for Illinois. Cockburn looked like Drago after he got cut in Rocky IV. The most heralded player in the Big Ten was left to ponder his own vulnerabilities.
Rutgers men’s basketball made history on Wednesday night.....again. For the first time in school history, they defeated ranked opponents in four consecutive games. It was also the first time in college basketball history that an unranked team accomplished this feat. FIRST TIME EVER!
And yet with how impressive that is, it’s not the most significant fact about this seemingly miraculous, season saving run by this team. It’s the way in which Rutgers is doing it that is the real story.
They are doing it as a team, evolving in their own roles and mastering them, all while destroying the will of their opponents in the process.
In the 84-63 win over then No. 13 Michigan State that started the winning streak, the Spartans were blown out in a way they hadn’t been since last season when Rutgers beat them by 30. The Scarlet Knights thoroughly dominated them in a way that left a serious scar. MSU has lost two of its three game since, including its next road game at Penn State that had a crowd less than a tenth the size or volume of the RAC.
As Rutgers mounted a thrilling, unexpected comeback with a game winning 10-0 run to shock then No. 16 Ohio State, you could see Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann come to the realization with his expression that the game was over before it was. Caleb McConnell’s blocked shot was the death blow that OSU suffered and bled them out in defeat.
At Wisconsin, the Scarlet Knights methodically wore down the Badgers on their home court before pressing their foot on their neck in the final minutes to expunge any last breath they had left. Rutgers beat them at their own game, outhustling them for every loose or 50/50 ball. They kept hitting big shot after big shot and forced Wisconsin into a position to hopelessly foul them in the closing minutes.
On Wednesday night, in front of a raucous crowd dressed in all black, Rutgers struck early and often, landing body blows that ultimately were too much for Big Ten leading Illinois to ever get closer than 6 points in the second half. RU led wire to wire and the moment Cockburn realized Omoruyi wasn’t backing down, it was unofficially over. His teammates never made much of an impact and it was too much for him to overcome on his own.
This four game run isn’t a fluke nor a dream. It’s a reality manifested by a group of players that have repeatedly responded to having their backs against the wall year after year.
Beating No. 9 Maryland and winning at Purdue in the last week of the regular season, both must win games, to clinch a 20 win season and NCAA Tournament bid that never came due to Covid-19. Overcoming a five game losing streak and winning several must win games last season, including an overtime road victory at Minnesota on the last day of the regular season. And now this season, written off several times by media and fans alike, producing the greatest stretch of basketball this program has ever played over a two week period based on the competition it faced.
“These guys take a lot of pride and have all gotten better,” Pikiell said. ”All these guys on the stage. Cliff (Omoruyi) was awesome tonight, Paul (Mulcahy) just continues to run our team. Caleb (McConnell), I don’t know, what do you have? It seemed like you had 100 steals. He just continues to take on that role of being a great defender. I think they’re all defending and playing hard and that’s what we need to do. It’s a blue collar group and they play that way but they practice well every day. I told you guys I like this team and I think you’re starting to see that they get along great. They share the game the right way.”
Offensively, the emergence of Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi as legitimate scoring threats has elevated this team’s ceiling in way most thought wasn’t possible. Their two man game together as well as the way both players are bullying their defenders in the paint has been a sight to see. Mulcahy has been a revelation and Omoruyi creates new ways to fly, hanging in the air while waiting for a pass to dunk home with his back to the basket in the win over the Illini.
Another key development has been their aggressiveness to push the pace. During this four game winning streak over ranked foes, Rutgers has outscored opponents 52-7 in fast break points. There are lots of reasons for the turnaround but scoring in transition has been a big change for the better and makes this team so much harder to beat.
The defense has been relentless, suffocating, swarming and ever changing during this four game win streak. Credit Pikiell for adapting by mixing in zone looks as well as fullcourt pressure throughout the games. Rutgers is no longer relying on its halfcourt man to man defense alone. It makes them harder to prepare for, to adjust to, to score on. Even when the bench is in, the five players on the floor are staying connected defensively in a way that hasn’t been present before.
Rebounding has been improved and then against Illinois, the best team on the glass in the Big Ten, Rutgers absolutely obliterated with a 46-28 advantage on the boards. That’s video game crazy and perhaps the most surprising statistical differential of the season for this team.
Between Dean Reiber, Aundre Hyatt and Mawot Mag, Rutgers is getting contributions from one of them off the bench in every game now. That’s a significant development in its own right. Against Illinois, Hyatt had 5 rebounds and Reiber had 5 points, including a three that sent the RAC into a frenzy.
Rutgers is now 16-9 overall and 10-5 in Big Ten play. While their NET ranking only improved six spots to No. 75 on Thursday, this team has an opportunity to move within half a game of first place in the Big Ten standings with a win on Sunday. They’ll face No. 5 Purdue who are the placeholders at the top of the conference currently. It’s also the team they beat on a halfcourt buzzer beater in December, have defeated four consecutive times and won at Mackey Arena on their last trip two seasons ago.
While the status of Ron Harper Jr. day-to-day after he left with an apparent finger injury at the end of the win over Illinois, there should be no doubt that the Scarlet Knights will head on the road with as much confidence as they’ve ever had. It’s not just because of their historic win streak. It’s because of what came before it.
This team knows its identity now. They understand their roles. They are the soul crushers of ranked teams everywhere, now a program best 5-1 against ranked foes this season. They play harder than their opponents and play together for 40 minutes. Gained in the heroic yet failed 24 point comeback that resulted in a 1 point overtime loss at Northwestern was the knowledge that they beat themselves. Rutgers will lose again this season, but I highly doubt it will be self-inflicted.
The prevailing thought is two more wins out of five for a 12-8 finish in Big Ten play will have almost all bracketologists projecting Rutgers to make the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. However, the goalposts have been moved from out of plain sight to dead ahead, front and center. But it’s not just about being invited to the dance anymore. As the great Jake Taylor said, “Well, I guess there’s only one thing left to do. Win the whole f^cking thing!”
Rutgers are still mighty underdogs to win the Big Ten regular season title. They’ll have to overcome a gauntlet to win the Big Ten Tournament title. Winning an NCAA Tournament game, even if they do make March Madness, is no sure thing. The reality though is a league championship and deep run in the big dance are no longer a pipe dream.
What is abundantly clear about this team is that no sane person should bet against them and no team will fight harder the rest of this season than Rutgers. They know who they are now and they are crushing the identities of their toughest opponents along the journey of their own self discovery.
Steve Pikiell isn’t pounding nails anymore. He and his players are pounding daggers through the hearts of the best teams in the Big Ten.