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OTB staff round table: Rutgers men’s basketball

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Our contributors offer thoughts on the season that was and the postseason ahead.

Rutgers v Indiana Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The postseason is here after a roller coaster regular season. Ahead of Friday’s Big Ten Quarterfinal game, our contributors got together to offer a variety of thoughts on this team and this season.

Fred Gaudios: Here are a few random thoughts:

  1. I was lucky to be able to make it to several games this season (Purdue, Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State, in no particular order) and the environment inside JMA/The RAC has been, for lack of a better word, insane. Louder than ever. Having that home court advantage has been so incredibly helpful for Rutgers. Especially in the second half, when the opposition has to face the student section, it’s sometimes impossible for the competition to function there. More than that, the experience has been different than I remembered pre-2020. I think the season without fans (and what it all meant for Rutgers fans to not be able to cheer the team on in person) just riled us up more.
  2. I’m probably the metrics person here at OTB, and while I get the narrative that “NET hates Rutgers,” “Rutgers broke the NET,” etc., I’d like to remind the readers that the NET is technically correct and working as intended. That is, if you take the sum total of everything, including the awful November and December losses, you get a NET of about 70-75 for Rutgers. The good news is, like any good data point, there are actual people interpreting it, and those people should — emphasis on should — grade the season on a curve. Luckily, Rutgers plays in the Big Ten and has plenty of opportunities to beat very good teams in the conference schedule. I’ve never been happier, and fans should never feel so fortunate, to have RU in the Big Ten as they should feel right now.
  3. You can probably interpret this from the tone of my note above, but Rutgers is almost certainly going dancing. They might have to beat Iowa to avoid the First Four play-in game in Dayton, but they’re in the tournament.
  4. Finally, a reminder that Steve Pikiell is an outstanding tournament coach. The 2016-17 Scarlet Knights, who went 3-15 in conference play, had no business winning a Big Ten Tournament game, but they did. The 2017-18 Scarlet Knights, who went 3-15 in conference play, had no business winning two Big Ten Tournament games (and almost shocking Purdue in the third) at MSG, but they did. I was at that Purdue game at MSG, for some reason surrounded by Purdue fans, and after the outcome of that game was determined in like the 39th minute, they started shaking hands with and hugging me. They felt like they escaped a gauntlet. Rutgers played their asses off in 2018, and my point here is if they do something maybe even slightly less than that effort in 2022, they’re playing in the final game before the Selection Show on CBS. Maybe even winning it. This is not implausible, it’s possible. With a double bye, just win the whole thing.

David Anderson: Third most conference wins in a season in program history? Double bye in the Big Ten tournament? The Big Ten had more parity than it typically does, but the Scarlet Knights beat the nine best teams (excluding themselves) all in the same season? And yet Rutgers remains on the bubble despite those two facts because they lost to everyone in the bottom half in the conference other than Nebraska while stumbling in a schedule full of patsies that do nothing for the NET. This is literally March Madness.

The biggest takeaway from this season is the what if Rutgers had just taken care of business in three more conference games with their current roster and/or if some of the attrition last off-season didn’t happen, are we talking about a Big Ten champion? On the flip side, the second is just how small the gap can be between the teams near the bottom of the conference and those getting the double bye in this instance. Rutgers had three wins in the final seconds or else they would have been under .500 in B1G play.

What has to keep fans encouraged is that Rutgers didn’t even have everything end up in a best case scenario for Rutgers. Some examples include; Ralph Gonzales-Agee was not the answer at the backup 5, of the sophomores off the bench only Dean Reiber made even a minor impact in the grand scheme, Aundre Hyatt was statistically not as good as the man he replaced in Montez Mathis, and the only true freshman contribution was a few minutes now and then from Jalen Miller defensively. The season came down to Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy being impact players because once that happened the team didn’t need both Ron Harper and Geo Baker to score a bunch in the same game to win.

I don’t know how all these wins happened without offensive contributions from Jaden Jones. I don’t know how the team will do next season. I don’t know how the selection committee will weigh the ceiling of Rutgers (can beat anyone in the country) compared to the floor (can lose to a below average mid-major.) What I do know is that this season was a roller coaster ride even Rutgers fans have never experienced before and Rutgers probably deserves a tournament bid, but if things go completely haywire this week, it was truly a season worth tuning into, a microcosm of what college basketball is all about.

Pete Winter: I’m a little conflicted now that the regular season has come to end. Part of me is happy that the crazy rollercoaster ride is over. The highs and lows of this particular season were about as extreme as they come. But there’s another part of me that doesn’t want to see it go. Mainly because I don’t think we’ll ever experience another season quite like this one. There were a lot of times this season when our Scarlet Knights could have quietly faded away. They already had their tournament appearance, they already had a tournament win. After losing to Lafayette and UMass early on, it was always going to be a tough hill to climb to get back into contention. But here we are.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget walking into Jersey Mike’s Arena for the game against Michigan State. I went with one of my college roommates and we were talking about the frustrating season so far. This was 4 days after RU had lost in overtime at Northwestern. They had just wrapped up the lighter part of the schedule, featuring four “must-wins” against Big Ten bottom-feeders Minnesota, Maryland, Nebraska, and Northwestern. They finished 1-3 in that stretch. As we walked in, I vividly remember saying, “Well the season’s over, but I’m hoping they play hard today.” That was 32 days ago.

No matter what happens over the next few weeks, I feel really good about the direction of the program. We’ll lose some pieces after the season, but I trust Steve Pikiell to fill those spots and keep moving us forward. But that’s a discussion for another day. We have a lot of important basketball still ahead of us. A month ago, I never thought I’d be saying that.

Sean McGrath: With the luxury of the double-bye, we all have had a couple of days to sit back and reflect. Its remarkable to see how far we have come these past few years. It does not feel that long ago when Purdue beat us by 50 with maybe 2k in the RAC. The place was a morgue for so many years, and for a younger fan like myself, it basically had been my entire life.

Going into this season, the expectations were as high as they had ever been even with the departure of some key players. Calling it an extremely rough start would be an understatement. It was disastrous. Then there was Ron’s shot against Purdue, and once again we had a glimmer of hope. There still were many lows after that, many times where you questioned this team. But that Purdue game really should have taught us all. Basketball is a weird game. Some nights, the rim will feel like the size of a penny and then other nights the size of a hula hoop. The one thing you can control and bring every night, is toughness and grit. The special part about this team over the years is that no matter what, when their backs were truly against the wall, the do or die moment, they were not fazed. They fought and found a way to live another day. Whether it was the Purdue game in December, the four game winning streak against ranked teams, or the senior night at Assembly Hall.

For the most part, this team never makes it easy. But as many have written before me, you must enjoy the ride. You never know when a 30-year drought will hit a program. Last year’s tournament was a very special moment. A culmination of so much anguish and demons finally being exorcised. Even with the devastating loss to Houston, the fact that we were in the tournament and taking a two seed down to the wire was an amazing feeling. We finally felt like this program belonged and now it’s time to show we are here to stay.

Whatever happens in these next couple of weeks, make sure you enjoy it, no matter how gut-wrenching and stressful it is to watch. It is and will always be about the journey. The greatest part about this time of year is the finality. The glory of survival as well as the inevitable heartbreaking defeat. There’s nothing quite like it. Trust Pike, and trust these players. They are more battle-tested and ready for March than the majority of teams in the country. As Bob Costas once proclaimed about the 99 Mets, this team is “Rasputin-like. You cannot put them away. They will not die”. Of course, those Mets did eventually meet their fate and eventually, this team will most likely too. But through the incredible journey that they have brought us on, they seem to always find a way to give us a glimmer of hope and that’s all you can ask for.

To the fans that travel to Indy this weekend, I hope you take over the Slippery Noodle Inn once again and have a toast to this team. See you all on the other side. Best of luck and Go RU.

John Catapano: After that brutal stretch early in the season, little did I expect that my prediction on our preseason preview would actually come to fruition: a double bye. After reading a heated exchange on Facebook about why a double bye is the worst thing that could happen to Rutgers, I am reminded by Aaron that one needs to proceed with caution outside of our On the Banks community. And thank you Fred and Aaron, for pulling me off the Jerry Palm ledge. He’s a bitter Billy and I somehow mistakenly confuse him with Joe Lunardi. A few short thoughts:

  • This season was a grinder on my stomach and probably took a year or two off my life, but I wouldn’t change a thing (well, except maybe that one loss to Lafayette). It’s been a long time since I cared so much about winning and losing. Thank you coach Pike and this great group of seniors for making me care.
  • Coach Pike said this was his best team ever in the preseason. Yes, we all thought he was crazy after that brutal early season 3-game losing streak. With an RU-best 12 conference wins, a win over #1, 4 consecutive ranked wins, DPOY Caleb, and multiple 2nd / 3rd and honorable mention All-B1G awards, he’s right. I’m happy to eat humble pie.
  • I finally feel like we are accepted in the conference. It’s so much fun being relevant in the tourney. Last time I felt like this, I was living in Los Angeles, running home on a long lunch break, to catch Geoff Billet sink a last-second winner against the Hoyas.

Enjoy the tourney folks!

Dave White: I’m writing this before the details of Pikiell’s extension are released, but I am going to reveal what I said to Pat Hobbs during our photo opp for the Fan Hall of Fame. It was “Get Steve Pikiell a lifetime contract.” Hobbs was so smart in locking up a coach who is absolutely perfect for the Scarlet Knights and he proved it this year. From starting with tough defense in rebounding as his teams were trying to hang in games in the early years to a more drive and kick offense with Jacob Young on the squad to a now pick-and-roll two man game between either Geo Baker or Paul Mulcahy to Cliff Omoruyi—Pikiell has shown the ability to mold and form the team to fit his personnel. However, there is one thing Pikiell teams will always show: Toughness. And man, did this team show that.

The team always shows the ability to step up when their backs are to the wall. They always get the wins they need. It’s not always pretty. It’s often a rock fight, but that builds character. This season has been the most fun I’ve had being at the RAC. And now we wait. What will Rutgers do in the Big Ten Tournament? Are they still a bubble team?

All I know is where ever Rutgers ends up, they won’t give up. They will battle to the very end. That is a testament to these players, this team and this coach. Impressive.

Lawrence Krayn - What a season! We had it all this year: terrible losses and losing streaks, epic wins and winning streaks, buzzer-beating victories and defeats, plays we will remember for a lifetime, and white-knuckle matches from beginning to end. One thing we had for sure this season: a cemented legacy. Whether we are discussing Steve Pikiell as a coach, or star seniors Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, and Caleb McConnell, there is no doubt in my mind that this group will go down forever in Rutgers lore. This group took a perennial bottom dweller and not only put them on the map as contenders in Men’s Basketball, but I believe helped to put the world on notice with respect to the potential of Rutgers athletics in the Big Ten overall. I’ve heard from casual observers throughout the state of New Jersey who have gone from lukewarm or doubtful about Rutgers basketball, to unabashed fans over the past few years. Credit the guys on the court and the men who coached and developed them.

I wrote at the beginning of the season that I liked the way this team was constructed top to bottom, and that we would see noticeable chemistry with this group. It turns out that’s exactly what happened. To quote Harper Jr.: “I think this is the best team I’ve played on since I’ve been here. I Just feel like it’s different, you know. I feel like our chemistry is levels above where it’s been in the past.” To be sure, all 5 starters received some sort of Big Ten honor this season, with Harper being named 2nd team all Big Ten, Caleb McConnell earning Defensive Player of the Year, Geo Baker achieving 3rd Team all Big Ten (coaches), and Baker, Paul Mulcahy, Cliff Omoruyi, and Caleb McConnell all earning all Big Ten Honorable Mentions. McConnell’s award in particular should be making a huge splash across Rutgers nation. This is the first individual annual award to be achieved by a Rutgers player since entering the Big Ten, and it shows that the world and conference may finally be taking notice. Not only that, but it further exemplifies the way Pikiell has built this program - impactful defense first.

Perhaps most encouraging for the future, young players continued to step up for the duration of the season. Cliff Omoruyi had a “coming out” year, as I also predicted at the start of the season, and he’s only a sophomore. The way Omoruyi was able to guard and frustrate Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn, close out a road game against Indiana with clutch free throws, blocks and rebounds, among other things bodes incredibly well for the future. This coaching staff has a history of seeing players develop significantly from one year to the next, so fans should be excited about the type of player big Cliff can be next season. Players like Dean Reiber and Andre Hyatt showed true flashes shooting the basketball, defending, and being a presence on the boards. Jalen Miller and Mawot Mag proved to be energetic defenders with the potential to develop on offense. That isn’t to ignore the other potential impact players that didn’t see as much action this season and could see their minutes increase quite a bit with the departure of program staples this offseason.

So, after a season which at times had me completely deflated and at times had me partying a Saturday night away with joy and elation, we look to the future. Barring some complete catastrophe in the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers looks to make its second straight NCAA tournament appearance after a 30 year drought. This achievement is huge, and we should hope that it signifies a long-term culture change that remains cemented. Anything can happen in the tournament, and with Rutgers capable of playing like it did against some of the upper-echelon Big Ten teams, Knights fans have plenty to be optimistic about. Before that hurdle is even broached though, Rutgers enters the Big Ten tournament at an unprecedented 4 seed. With several days of rest before their first game, anything could happen there as well. And although senior day this season was immensely bitter-sweet, and a storied proud chapter is closing, fans have a lot to look forward to beyond this season. Paul Mulcahy should be returning as a senior with a renewed sense of confidence after his February performance. He and rising superstar Cliff Omoruyi have developed quite a chemistry, and with the aforementioned younger players looking to make strides, the future is bright.

Patrick Mella: To be sitting here typing up my thoughts on what should be a third straight year that Rutgers makes the NCAA tournament is nothing short of incredible. No, this season was not perfect but can we just appreciate it for what it is? It’s a group of mostly underrecruited guys that took a chance on a coach and on a program that, at the time, no one would believe could achieve what they have. They’re a gritty bunch of guys that play for one another and most importantly, believe in themselves. The early losses were disappointing but people don’t realize how truly long and grueling the college basketball season is. I’m not making excuses for a loss to Lafayette but almost every team on the country is going to experience adversity at some point. If those early season struggles cost them the chance to go dancing then so be it. But as someone who has watched every game this year, there’s no doubt they amongst the best 64 teams in the country.

I really don’t have a clue how the season will end. When hot Rutgers can play with just about anyone in the country. If they can rebound, limit turnovers and play good defense they’ll win a few more games.

Regardless how it ends, what a ride it has been with Ron, Caleb and Geo. I’m sad to see it end but I’m so happy and grateful for the state they’re leaving the program in.

Aaron Breitman: As much history as this group of seniors have made through the years, two potential legacy moments are still on the table. Advancing farther than this team ever has in the Big Ten Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, of course they could win the Big Ten Tournament and advance to a Final Four. Anything is possible with this group when they play their best, which is a remarkable in its own right.

That being said, This group has brought the program from the depths of college basketball hell and while their legacies are secure, they have a tremendous opportunity in front of them. This is what they’ve worked so hard for over the years. They were robbed of a postseason in 2020 and then they were four minutes away from the Sweet 16 last season. This group deserves a truly great postseason moment. Even if they lose out from here, this team will go down as one of the most memorable in program history, while the seniors will be remembered forever. But IF they can put together a magical March run, it will be the perfect encore for a program changing class and team that has left the fan base gasping for air for months on end.