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Last year’s NCAA Tournament experience gives Rutgers “a different type of mentality”

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Steve Pikiell and Geo Baker discuss how their experience from last March can help them this time around.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Rutgers at Houston Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

As Rutgers men’s basketball prepares to play in its second consecutive NCAA Tournament for just the second time ever in program history, they’ll have something that Notre Dame doesn’t. The Irish are making their first March Madness appearance in five years.

The experience of dancing last season can only help the Scarlet Knights as they begin another postseason on college basketball’s biggest stage.

When asked how playing two games last season in the NCAA Tournament could help, Geo Baker said, “It’s a different type of mentality. We understand that this could potentially be our last game.”

Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell echoed his captain’s sentiment in stating, “I don’t want this season to ever end. This group has certainly been a special group to coach and very unselfish group. So the experience of the tournament will definitely help us.”

Even with a tumultuous beginning to the season, this team was able to recover and make a return trip to the big dance. They got back into postseason contention by focusing on one game at a time. Baker explained they’re taking that mindset even further now.

“It’s 40 minutes gets you another 40. Everyone’s just real locked in and focused. And the good part is we’ve been here before,” said Baker. “These guys, we all understand what it takes. And just kind of staying focused on the task at hand. Don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves. Right now we just want to stay focused on one game and that’s Notre Dame.”

In college basketball, having a veteran team in tournament play matters. It’s often the difference between advancing and the season ending. How teams are able execute under pressure down the stretch of a game.

“Our guys have been through a lot,” said Pikiell. “This group has had to win a lot of games. It’s been three years, too. They’ve had their backs against the wall. We played a lot of different styles, a lot of different teams. So I think anytime experience really helps you in these kinds of situations.”

It’s fair to wonder if having gained experience playing in the 2020 NCAA Tournament would have benefited Rutgers last season when giving No. 2 seed Houston all they could handle before just falling short of advancing to the Sweet 16.

This group deserved that opportunity as well, but the event was cancelled due to COVID-19. Regardless, this group persevered through that unprecedented disappointment of having their dreams taken away by the pandemic. Last season, the ended a 30 year drought of playing in the NCAA Tournament and won the program’s first game in 38 years. And they did it without having a full experience with a full arena of fans.

“I think those experiences of being in the tournament in the past and knowing how exciting it is,” said Pikiell. “It’s just nice now to have people live and have you guys here and to be able to have shoot-arounds and do some things in the gym live.”

Rutgers has battled through a lot over the past through years and Pikiell praised their attitude.

He stated, “This has been a great group for me to work with. They’ve rarely had a bad practice. They get along great. And hopefully all of our guys, I think, don’t want the season to end.”

This team puts their hopes and dreams on the line once again on Wednesday night in front of a national television audience. Hopefully, having the experience of being in the spotlight and having come through on the biggest stage before helps get them another opportunity in the next round.