In life, it’s one thing to stay the course when adversity hits and be able to fight through it to get to the other side. It’s an entirely different animal to willingly join a group in a difficult situation and attempt to do what no one has ever done before you, let alone accomplish it. For Rutgers men’s basketball, the group of seniors set to be honored on Sunday has amazingly done all of the above.
Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell have been the cornerstone of the program’s turnaround under head coach Steve Pikiell. Rutgers had never won more than three games in a Big Ten regular season when each of them committed. There hadn’t been a winning season on the banks since the 2005-2006 campaign and the program hadn’t gone to the NCAA Tournament in almost three decades. Hope was nothing but a dream.
It was a coaching graveyard, as four of five head coaches who guided the program following Bob Wenzel’s two trips to March Madness never coached a college game again once they were fired, usually in humiliating fashion.
A lot of the best players over the years ended up transferring and eventually went dancing at their new schools. Some as glitzy as Duke and some as small as Holy Cross.
Rutgers wasn’t even a modest destination in college basketball before the seniors arrived on the banks. It was a wasteland.
Not anymore! Those days are officially in the past thanks to this group.
On Sunday, Rutgers will play its most meaningful senior day game in years, possibly ever. For a group that has accomplished more firsts than any at RU in the modern era since the shot clock and three-point line were installed, there are still more breakthrough accomplishments to obtain.
If they can beat Penn State at home on Senior Day, it will mark a program best finish at 12-8 in Big Ten play since joining the league eight years ago. They’ve already clinched earning the highest Big Ten Tournament seed and potentially could earn the No. 4 seed along with the coveted double bye. Take a step back and process that growth for a second.
Rutgers finished in last place every season it was in the Big Ten before Baker, Harper Jr. and McConnell wore the uniform. During their careers, they’ve now led the program to finish in the top half of the conference standings for three consecutive seasons.
“This group has been fantastic. They’ve stayed here, that’s the first thing,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “In this day and age, they stayed. They all had a million opportunities to leave. That’s the world I live in now. I’m thankful that they’re here and they stayed. They have great families. They all graduated.”
All three senior starters came to Rutgers as dreamers who had faith in what the program could ultimately become and how they could help elevate it to that point.
“I always think back before I even committed about coach Pikiell’s vision,” said Geo Baker. “Everything he said for me and the program has come true, which is crazy. No one believed it. Not just Rutgers people, but mid-major coaches were texting me saying “why would you go to Rutgers? Just the fact that we all believed in it. Me, Ron, Caleb, all the guys. Now to see it all come true, it’s just special.”
“They helped build this program,” Pikiell declared. “When they came there wasn’t a new practice facility. There weren’t a lot of fans at the games. There weren’t sellouts. There weren’t winning streaks beating ranked teams. There wasn’t any of that. They came because they believed in Rutgers and because they believed in the program. It’s a sad day but I’m proud of them.”
Baker has been the face of the program in the Steve Pikiell era and has carried the biggest burden. The trajectory of his career has emulated the journey of this team over the past few years. There have been many highs and several setbacks, as well as plenty of praise and criticism. Ultimately, a winning culture has been born and the plan laid out for Baker has come to fruition.
“I want to leave a legacy for sure,” explained Baker. “I think it’s cool we are leaving it better than we came in.”
Ron Harper Jr. has gotten better every season at Rutgers and has become a star on the national stage. He’s been a finalist for the Julius Erving Award given to the best small forward nationally two years in a row. His development as a player has elevated the program to new heights. Ron Harper Jr. was recruited by Pikiell before there was much interest in him at the high major level and before there was much interest in players wanting to come to Rutgers. He’s proud to represent New Jersey, his home state, and wants recruits coming up to know playing at RU gives you the opportunity to achieve something special.
“It’s everything I could have dreamed of,” stated Harper Jr. “When I came on my official visit and sat with coach Pikiell in his office at the RAC at the time, he brought me through what he thought I could be here. What he thought the team could become only took a couple of years. I’ve seen it all happen before my very eyes. I’m just happy to be a part of it. I’ve seen this program make strides in the right direction. I always say that the biggest thing when I come here, I want to leave knowing that kids from New Jersey think it’s cool to go to Rutgers again. I think I’m doing just that.”
As for the impact Harper Jr. has had on the ability of the program to recruit players from its home state, he mentioned two other starters.
“Ever since I got here, we got more Jersey kids like Cliff and Paul,” stated Harper Jr. “They’re great players and having great careers. We have a lot of great talent in New Jersey. I just want to see our kids stay home and make Rutgers a serious choice when they end up committing. Being from New Jersey I take a lot of pride in that. Trying to be a pioneer.”
Caleb McConnell had zero high major offers before coming to Rutgers. He’s now the frontrunner to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and is one of ten finalists for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. He’s fought through serious injuries and missed chunks of development time in multiple offseason’s. And yet, he’s persevered and become an integral part of this team. Despite the hard times, he explains why he and this group have stuck together.
“Pikiell has instilled so much fight (in us), on and off the court,” said McConnell. “I feel like that fight has carried us through these years. We know what it takes to win. That’s what we do here. We grind it out no matter what. That fight will always be instilled in us.”
As for his own experience, McConnell explained how overcoming adversity helped define his Rutgers career.
“This journey has taught me a lot. I can look back and say that I stuck with it,” McConnell said proudly. “It would have been easy for me to transfer to a smaller school and play more, get more accolades. I just grinded it out through the injuries, setbacks and all that. I just kept going and I feel like my team has helped me with that. My family as well. I feel like staying the course is the whole idea of life. I think my story is a perfect example of perseverance.”
While Geo Baker is playing his last home game in his career on Sunday for sure, Harper Jr. and McConnell could potentially return for next season in having another year of eligibility due to COVID-19. Both players gave little insight into what they might decide and emphasized that having so much still to play for this season is their priority right now. Those decisions will be made after the season.
Big man Luke Nathan earned a scholarship this season after four years as a walk-on and his impact in practice on the scout teams has made him an important piece to the puzzle as well. Pikiell praised Nathan and fellow senior big man Ralph Gonzalez-Agee for their impact in the locker room as veterans who do it the right way.
On the progress made during his time at Rutgers, Nathan said, “We just got a special group of guys together. We all love each other and do everything together. We really wanted to stick together as a group and prove to everyone what we could do.”
During this group’s time at Rutgers, the RAC has become one of the best homecourt advantages in all of college basketball. Fans have one last chance to root for this senior group at home on Sunday. As for the relationship this team has with the fans, Harper Jr. explained how the support has helped them through the years.
“The fans are amazing. My freshman year we didn’t really get sold out crowds really until the end of the season when people realized we were building something,” Harper Jr. recounted. “Now, the fan turnout every game is incredible. Night in and night out, I see the place fill up. The fans are great and this is really hard place to play for any team in the Big Ten conference. It’s hard to get a win at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Going on the road and playing in front of hostile environments, it makes coming back home to play in front of 8,000 people who love you refreshing. I appreciate them and all their continued support through the years. We have one more home game on Sunday and I know they’re going to come out for that one as well.”
Pikiell was firm in his belief that this class of seniors is unique in many ways and gave one specific reason why fans should appreciate this group in how they stayed their entire careers in one place.
“I do think that’s not going to be the case moving forward here. I just don’t think that’s the world anymore,” Pikiell said. “I think this is a group of dinosaurs. It’s just too sexy to leave and transfer. They stayed and they’re part of the Rutgers family now. People love these guys. When they’re done playing professional basketball, they have a place they can come back to that appreciates them. People will help them. This group has been special to me and I think their families have really seen them grow. We’ve seen them grow. I’m forever grateful to those guys for believing in our program. I remember telling them that we can be this and we can do that. We didn’t have any proof that we could. They had to believe in it. I love these guys for what they’ve done for Rutgers University, for the basketball program, and what they’ve done for the state of New Jersey.”
This group has accomplished so much and has embraced the opportunity they were given. It wasn’t always easy. In every season, this team has been dealt significant adversity, including sealing the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid before the event was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19. That kind of heartbreak didn’t deter them.
“I think it shows our character and who we are as people,” explained Baker. “I think any one of us had an opportunity. We’ve probably all had at one point someone in our ear that we could do better if we went this route or that route. At the end of the day, we wanted to be here. We wanted to be at Rutgers. We feel like Rutgers always had our backs. It went both ways and how we’ve created this.”
As for the state of the program once they do leave, McConnell discussed how he expects the success they’ve had moving forward to continue.
“I feel like it is in good hands. I feel like Pikiell has a tradition that he set,” McConnell said. “He set a bar. I hope that they can get kids in here, which I know they will, that will buy-in. It’s been nothing but great here. I’m happy to be part of this program. I’m happy that we could change this program’s culture. It’s been nothing but amazing playing with these guys. We changed the whole culture. I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this program.”
A key difference for Pikiell moving forward is that he can now market the success that this senior class has has in order to sell his vision to capable players to replace them.
“They came and did a million firsts for this program. I’m forever grateful for what they started,” said Pikiell. “They heard ‘We never beat Indiana. We never beat Purdue.’ They’ve done a lot. They’ve represented the school the right way. They brought all the fans. They play a fun style of basketball. They’re all great kids to root for. They’ve created that whole culture. This group has gone through a lot. It’s been difficult. You are building in the best league in the country. Ohio State isn’t getting worse. Wisconsin isn’t getting worse. Michigan, Purdue. We had to get a lot better. They helped us do that. They’ve done it the right way. It’s been a great group and I may shed a few tears.”
After a disappointing start to the season, this senior class rallied and led Rutgers back into relevancy in March for the third straight year. They have work to do in order to go dancing again and to finish their careers on a high note. No Rutgers team has earned back to back NCAA Tournament bids since the 1974-1975 and 1975-1976 seasons. This senior class has a chance to equal that and make a deep run in the big dance. As we’ve seen though, this team can beat any team in the country as well as lose to them.
Harper Jr. put it all into perspective.
“Coach Pikiell said it best. He said, ‘now in March, everybody is talking about us.’ My freshman year we couldn’t pay you guys to write something about us. It was talking about recruiting or the non-conference schedule for next season. People are still interested in Rutgers basketball come March and we are still fighting for a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a NCAA Tournament bid. It shows the work we put in as a program. I love these guys. What we’ve done together is incredible.”
Make sure to fill the RAC early on Sunday. Watching the senior class be honored will be a sight for sore eyes. Since they’ve arrived at Rutgers, success has followed. Playing Penn State in a must win to solidify their NCAA Tournament resume is what is at stake. The seniors wouldn’t have it any other way and if they can go dancing once again, they’ll only strengthen their already immense impact on Rutgers men’s basketball.