It was difficult to imagine this night for Rutgers back on November 22. A Lafayette team that finished 10-20 on the season pulled off an upset of the Scarlet Knights.
This was just the fifth game of the season but it was a blemish that was difficult to get rid of, especially sandwiched between losses to DePaul and UMass. Fast forward almost four months later and Rutgers is celebrating its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
If you ask Steve Pikiell, he was never worried about his team.
“I’ve been confident all year long about my team,” Pikiell said following Sunday’s selection show. “I like my team. We got good players. When we play Rutgers basketball, we have an opportunity, as we've proven. We beat No. 1, we beat No. 11, we beat No. 12, we beat No. 13. We went on the road, Senior night at Indiana. This team has done some good things. I’m very confident in this group.”
Rutgers was selected as an 11 seed and will take on Notre Dame on Wednesday at 9:15 PM ET as part of the First Four. This marks the second consecutive trip to the dance marking just the second time in program history that the Scarlet Knights have pulled this off.
This group of seniors for Rutgers, led by Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., did not have to accomplish much more to go down in Rutgers’ history. After Sunday, this just adds to their legacy and proves that the culture has changed in Piscataway.
“Before with Geo and those guys, I was just selling hopefully we can get to the tournament,” Pikiell said. “Now I can say we’ve done that. Show them a brand new practice facility. There’s a lot of things I can show them now that I’ve just talked about before. The players keep getting better here.”
It was not an easy road. Early-season woes almost cost the Scarlet Knights a chance, despite their success in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights were selected as one of the last four teams. As one of the biggest bubble teams of the season, Rutgers was a focus down the stretch.
“Everyone talked about Rutgers for the whole month of February and March,” Pikiell said. “I mean, understand, my first year, no one talked about us ever. During the season, after the season, in the summer. Now for the last three years, everyone talks about Rutgers. It gives me an opportunity to explain what a great place this is.”
Much of the conversation was based around fans willing their team into the tournament, which was the case, or others discussing why the Scarlet Knights should be left out. Rutgers went on a run and became the first unranked team to defeat a ranked team in four consecutive games. This was answered by recognition of the Lafayette debacle or inconsistent play in conference, where Rutgers finished 4-4 against the bottom four teams in the Big Ten.
At the end of Sunday, it showed that big-time wins outweighed horrible losses. Rutgers passed both the eye test and resume test to give themselves a chance come Wednesday night.
“You just want to be part of the greatest tournament in the world,” Pikiell said. I’ve been there as a player. I’ve been there as a coach. There’s noting better. So I’m excited. Thankful, too to the committee for taking a look and seeing were a team that deserves a chance.”