A few days removed from the 89-87 double overtime loss to Notre Dame in the First Four round of the NCAA Tournament, it seems like the right time to reflect on the season that was. There were so many ups and downs, twists and turns, that remembering them all isn’t easy. I think going through all of the emotions of this season is the best way to capture what happened on the hardwood for Rutgers this winter. It truly was a season unlike any other.
There was panic, severe disappointment, embarrassment and outrage during the inexplicable three game non-conference losing streak to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. All three by one possession, two on buzzer beaters and without Geo Baker, left fans rightfully beside themselves. Rutgers had seemingly had lost their way.
Similar feelings followed the 35 point loss at Illinois to begin Big Ten play. A lost season was unfolding before our very eyes.
Until it wasn’t.
Rutgers trailed No. 1 Purdue by 8 points with 4:38 to play on December 9, 2021. A halfcourt buzzer beater by Ron Harper Jr. revived new life into the season. It was equal parts exciting and frustrating, as it proved this team had so much potential but failed to take care of business in November. Could they ride this historic win and save the season?
A double digit, mostly uninspired performance at Seton Hall a few days later halted momentum and then a Covid pause soon after halted the season for two plus weeks.
January was a month we all believed Rutgers must fully take advantage of to have any chance to go dancing in March. Finally beating Michigan and an offensive outburst against Nebraska gave hope they would. A disheartening 17 point loss at Penn State was followed by a brutal first half but tremendous recovery to win at Maryland. A defensive performance for the ages against Iowa was followed by confounding losses at shorthanded Minnesota, a non-competitive home loss to Maryland. Trailing at Nebraska the entire game and the season on life support, Paul Mulcahy grabbed an offensive rebound in traffic and scored a game winning putback to sweep the Huskers.
And then Rutgers responded by trailing Northwestern by 24 points in the second half on the road. Mulcahy put this team on his back en route to a career high 31 point performance that resulted in a painful 1 point loss in overtime.
Just when we thought we couldn’t figure this team out, that they couldn’t get out of their own way and the NIT was a likely best case scenario by the time we reached the first weekend of February, the most unthinkable thing happened.
Rutgers became the first unranked team in college basketball history to beat ranked opponents in four consecutive games. It was exhilarating, unbelievable and incredibly satisfying to see this group play at such a high level. The Scarlet Knights were crushing the souls of the best teams in the Big Ten. They became the national story in the sport during that two week period. All of a sudden, they went from not even being on the NIT bubble to firmly in NCAA Tournament contention.
Of course, nothing ever comes easy with Rutgers basketball.
A three game losing streak followed after a hard fought loss at Purdue, a disappointing defeat at Michigan who was missing their head coach and a starter, followed by an emotionally crushing loss at home to Wisconsin.
With their backs against the wall heading into the final week of the regular season for a third straight year, Rutgers responded with a monster road win at Indiana and escaping a near collapse to hold on and beat Penn State by 1 point on senior day.
A program best 12-8 regular season record in Big Ten play resulted in a best ever fourth place finish and earned a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
In 30 days, Rutgers went from postseason afterthought and one of the biggest disappointments of the college basketball season to a team no one could figure out after a remarkable run that led to more firsts in program history accomplished.
You can use a lot of descriptive words for this team but boring is certainly not one of them.
With the roller coaster that was the regular season, the postseason was a major disappointment. Rutgers played red hot Iowa who they led by 10 early only to lost by that margin in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. While the Hawkeyes won the Tournament title, the Scarlet Knights and the fan base was left to wait and wonder if a coveted bid to the NCAA Tournament was in the cards.
It ultimately was and the crowning achievement for this team. However, everyone in the program and the fan base wanted more.
What resulted was a stomach punch double overtime loss for the ages in the First Four game against Notre Dame that ended a historic three year run by a transformational senior class. The March Madness gods were cruel as the Irish ended all hope in the opening minutes of St. Patrick’s Day.
So many emotions were experienced during this past season.
Underwhelming performances against inferior opponents and missed opportunities were paired with elite performances against top competition and epic wins.
Two of the four most efficient offensive performances of the KenPom era came in wins over Michigan State (2nd highest) and Nebraska (4th highest). They were a perfect 11-0 against high major opponents when holding them to 65 points or less. However, consistency was a major issue and Rutgers was prone to sub-par play on both ends of the floor.
Player development was both impressive with Cliff Omoruyi, Paul Mulcahy and Dean Reiber making major strides, as well as disappointing with the bench not making much of an impact scoring wise and game to game contributions overall being less hit and more miss.
Head coach Steve Pikiell called it his best team ever before, throughout, and after the season ended. With all due respect to him, I think it was his best starting five ever. Ron Harper Jr. made Honorable Mention All-American and took another step forward also earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors. Caleb McConnell won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was a major factor after a poor start to the season. Cliff and Paul were markedly better as the year went on and Geo Baker had his most efficient season of his career. All five starters earned All-Big Ten recognition, the only team in the conference to do so. But the lack of bench production was a big reason why this team didn’t accomplish more.
In one sense, just getting to the big dance was a minor miracle based on the start of the season. At the same time, Rutgers never should have put themselves in such a big hole to begin with and only have themselves to blame with having to expend so much to get there in the end. They peaked in mid-February during the historic win streak but were unable to capture that level of play again. They had enough gas to get to the postseason, but were unable to capitalize once they got there.
Going 0-2 in the postseason and failing to advance in the NCAA Tournament is a tough pill to swallow. For a second straight season, they lost a thrilling game in March Madness by surrendering a late offensive rebound and putback by the opponent that spelled their ultimate demise. Gut wrenching and heartbreaking.
That being said, they did go dancing in the end and deserve tremendous credit for that. This team made the NCAA Tournament in back to back seasons for just the second time in program history and first time in 46 years. It should have been the third time in a row if not for Covid cancelling the 2020 dance that a 20 win Rutgers team was considered as having made it.
It wasn’t a bad season or a great season based on overall results, but it sure was unique and historic in its own right. I was born one year after the 1976 Final Four team, which I would think most Rutgers fans who were around for that season would still rank the most memorable and greatest to date. Aside from that magical run almost a half century ago, I can’t think of a more epically crazy and distinguished season as this one.
The 2019-2020 team was groundbreaking, made its own history and unfortunately was robbed of a true ending with the postseason cancelled. The 2020-2021 team played under unprecedented circumstances and achieved things the program hadn’t in many decades.
This season had everything. Good and bad. Joy and pain. Tears of happiness and sadness. Hope and doubt. This team came back from almost death so many times I lost count. They almost achieved greatness more than once too. They almost advanced in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, which is not easy to do. Expectations were high because of what this team accomplished the two prior seasons. In the end, they achieved a lot and left a lot on the table too.
I mentioned once before but when thinking of this team and this season, I cannot escape the words of Rutgers legend Jim Valvano. He famously said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
Well, the 2021-2022 Rutgers men’s basketball team did just that. This season likely took days off the lives of its most genuine supporters. It infuriated some. It left us speechless. It left us in disbelief. This team frustrated us, disappointed us, surprised us, excited us, made us proud and led us on a journey like this fan base has ever had, for better and for worse. The only emotion that I don’t understand some fans having is anger.
How you view this season likely depends on the lense that you are looking through.
There will always be what ifs about this team, a couple what the F...’s and a lot of what a wins and can you believes too. Hopefully, endless thank you(s) to every player and coach in this program. Under Steve Pikiell, Rutgers has ascended to a top half Big Ten program and NCAA Tournament regular. Wanting more is fair, but appreciating what they’ve accomplished is a must too.
The ride is over now and the pioneers are moving on. There are plenty of questions about the future, but honoring this team and group of seniors for what they were, what they accomplished, warts and all, and what they mean to the fan base is a must now and forever. The persevered through adversity, some even caused by themselves, but they accomplished a lot. It’s fair to be disappointed too because we believed they were capable of more.
It was the journey of real life encapsulated and wrapped up into one wild season that I am choked up writing about and will never forget. I’m still mourning. We care about sports too much sometimes, but you couldn’t root for this team any other way. They wouldn’t allow it.
In the end, this team will be a lot of things for a lot of different fans. That’s okay.
For me, the 2021-2022 Rutgers men’s basketball season was the most memorable I’ve ever witnessed.