Where do I begin?
I’ve been going to Rutgers basketball games since I was six years old. I’ll be 44 next month. I remember listening to games on the radio in the 80’s in my living room and trying to play along with my nerf hoop. I’ve been to and lived through plenty of memorable and important games over the years. As a kid, as a Rutgers student, as a single guy in my twenties, a married man in my thirties and now as a father in my forties.
I’ve been into sports my whole life and have favorite teams I’ve followed since I was young, Rutgers football included. But none of those teams have ever run deeper in my heart than Rutgers basketball. It’s always been my number one. It’s always mattered the most.
Sunday night was a blur. It was surreal, surprising, joyous, nerve wracking, and heartbreaking all in one game.
Rutgers legend Jim Valvano once said “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.”
It was that kind of day for Rutgers basketball.
For those that remember the indifference many had for this program for many, many years, the emotions this team created were special. Even if some were hard to take at times.
It ended with a gut punch of a loss that many of us will never get over. I know I won’t. This has to be the most heartbreaking in the modern era of Rutgers basketball at a minimum, but probably ever. I find as I get older I react differently to bad losses. It’s less visceral and more like adding a stick to a slow burning fire of suffering inside. This loss feels like an entire tree was tossed on the flames.
That doesn’t mean the pain of what happened wasn’t worth it because it totally was. I also feel different than I ever have before during a tough Rutgers loss. And this was the worst one I’ve experienced with the basketball team. Even so aside from feeling numb, above all else, I feel an immense amount of pride.
Rutgers took one of the top teams in the country to the wire on the sports biggest stage. A no. 2 seed, the no. 5 KenPom team and no. 6 team in the AP Polls. A team that went to the Sweet 16 the last time the NCAA Tournament was played. Rutgers held them to 63 points, 15 points below their season average and tied for its lowest scoring total in a game this season.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow that Rutgers was so close to advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1979 and came up agonizingly short. For the fans on social media and sadly, in our own comment section of articles recapping the game, saying this team choked, it’s obvious they don’t get it. I’m not trying to change their minds, I’m trying to highlight what this team means to those of us who do.
Yes, Rutgers had a 58-49 lead with just over four minutes to play and Houston closed out on a 14-2 run to win it. The five point swing from Myles Johnson’s missed alley-oop dunk that resulted in DeJon Jarreau’s three-pointer in transition was the turning point. The root cause of the outcome was Houston scoring 9 second chance points off of offensive rebounds in that closing stretch.
People can complain that Pikiell made a mistake taking the air out of the ball and stalling on offense down the stretch, but this game was lost on Rutgers’ inability to keep them off the offensive glass. That’s the key element of Houston’s identity and that’s how they won the game. You have to almost always stop good teams from what they do best in order to beat them and Rutgers couldn’t do that against Houston. That’s why they lost.
“They just came up a couple plays — we just came up a couple plays short,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “That’s all it takes. The margin of winning and losing in this tournament is a box-out here, free throw box-out. It comes down to some little things. They did those and we didn’t.
When asked whether slowing things down on offense cost them the game, Pikiell said, “We got some good looks. It was at the backboards really. Then we fouled too. We got the looks. Geo got to drive to the middle of the basket. We got a couple layups that we didn’t finish. I mean, you had a couple opportunities to get layups that we just didn’t convert on, and it becomes a one-possession game. I like what we ran. I like the looks, I felt comfortable with Geo with the ball in his hands. He’s won us a lot of games. But at the end of the day we really talked about a lot of rebound, rebound, rebound. They were 16 offensive rebounds. That helped them a great deal. That helped them get to the free-throw line.”
After making 9 of 12 free throw attempts in the first half, Rutgers made zero trips to the line in the second half. Houston was just 1 of 2 in the first half, but went 10 of 16 in the second half. That was a big reason for the outcome as well.
“A lot of us were trying to go to March Madness last year and we didn’t get that chance, so for a lot of us it’s been two years now leading up to this moment, to lose like that was tough,” said Geo Baker. The captain led Rutgers with 14 points and 4 assists, but also had 5 turnovers, including a costly one in the final seconds of the game.
Listening to Geo Baker talk in the postgame was gut wrenching. He has been the face of the program under Pikiell. Has always led with class and dignity. Rutgers would never be in the position they were today without him. He and the team are obviously devastated in defeat. They deserve the respect of everyone, Rutgers fans and beyond.
“I thought we played our hearts out. This team made history,” Pikiell said. “They got through a two-year journey, COVID, never missing a day, never having a pause, all the obstacles they had to fight through. They now become the standard for what we want to be at Rutgers. Just a really tough day when you play that hard and you want something very badly.”
“A lot of emotion. We have been through so much this year,” said Baker. “If you weren’t inside you really just can’t even understand it, from isolating, to wins to losses, to being here in March.”
We will never know how the circumstances of playing in a global pandemic affected this team. The ultimate “what if” of last season. Playing without fans at the RAC this season. Being isolated as college students without having the normalcy of campus life, not to mention being unable to see family, girlfriends, friends and classmates. It took a toll on this team, no doubt. Every college basketball team dealt with the same challenge, but no other program had to deal with playing through a pandemic while also carrying 30 years of history on their backs at the same time. Rutgers had the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any high major/power five program in the country entering the season. In the end, they made history.
“It’s a tough year,” said Pikiell. “I can tell you the sacrifices the players made (and) all of them too had the opportunity to opt out and none of them did. They wanted to make this year special. They certainly did that. First time in 30 years getting to the tournament, first time in 38 years winning a game. The sacrifices their families made and they made, truly unbelievable.”
Pikiell continued, “The guys gave everything they could to our program this year and more. The sacrifices that they made. You will never understand because you didn’t live it every day. I know you guys have written about it and everything. It’s a whole different world when you live it every single day and the sacrifices, what they had to do, the different protocols every time we traveled.”
Baker spoke about what it was like in the locker room after the game, saying “Just how much everyone loves each other. I didn’t really say much, to be honest with you. But everyone just saying that we love each other, we’re proud of each other. Proud of everything that we did, everything we’ve been through. Any single one of us could have opted out. There’s been players all over the country who opted out because of COVID. But we all stuck with it. Yeah, I mean, just saw a lot of emotion.”
Pride. Emotion. Those are the two things that I felt after the game and still do several hours later. I imagine I’ll feel that way about this team forever. I hope you do too.
It was the strangest season I can remember for many reasons even more than just because of the circumstances. It was filled with so many highs and lows. It was thrilling and frustrating. Their backs were against the wall more than once. And they kept fighting back. This team was perfectly imperfect.
Rutgers was on the brink with a 7-6 record overall and 3-6 in Big Ten play in late January, mired in a five game losing streak. They responded with a four game winning streak that put the season back on track. It was on the rails again after a disappointing loss to Nebraska, but Rutgers closed out the season by playing near its best in Sunday’s loss to Houston.
Give the Cougars credit, they got punched in the mouth by the Scarlet Knights, were on the ropes and punched back. DeJon Jarreau’s performance with an injured hip was the stuff of legend. He willed his team to victory. Even so, Rutgers went down swinging, even if they swung and missed in the end.
With Myles Johnson fighting through injuries in the second round loss suffered in the win over Clemson on Friday, that made the season count of players in the eight man rotation that dealt with an injury of some kind this season at seven. Montez Mathis was the only player to not have a reported injury, although he probably dealt with more than we even know. The one’s we do know of, some missed multiple games, some came back too soon and some played through them. Paul Mulcahy played with a broken nose and a finger dislocated horizontally.....in the same game.
They also dealt with death. The team was without head trainer Rich Campbell in the regular season finale after his father-in-law passed. The players made it clear they dedicated the win over Minnesota to his family. And then today, longtime former Rutgers assistant coach Joe Boylan, who also has been the radio color analyst for years previously and during the entirety of Pikiell’s tenure, passed away after suffering a stroke earlier this week. The players were notified after the game. Pikiell and Baker both lamented what he meant to the team in the postgame call. I’ll have a full profile on Boylan in the coming days.
None of these are excuses for how this season unfolded. In the end, they fell short on their own. I just think it’s important to highlight how much these players went through. They aged before our eyes.
Despite it all, they were class acts off the court too. They led the conference with 11 players recently honored as Academic All-Big Ten selections. They engaged in social issues like racial inequality. Started organizations to inspire positive changes in our society. Led the fight for the rights of all student-athletes for their own name, image and likeness. All while rewriting the history books of this program. This is not a normal group of student-athletes, but how could they be with all that they accomplished.
“I’m just sad for us,” said Pikiell. “I never wanted to put these uniforms away. This group has been awesome. Whenever we get knocked down, this group always got back up. Did an unbelievable job representing our great university. After the game when they’re sad like that, everyone is sad. You just tell them how you feel about them, tell them how appreciated they are by our staff, people that see what they do every single day. Thank ‘em. Just thank ‘em. That’s what we did.”
This loss hurts. It always will. But the memories of this season and the previous one that this core group of players gave Rutgers fans will be how they are ultimately remembered. There have been plenty of forgettable seasons rooting for this program. Embarrassing ones. Painful ones. Losing ones. Many, many losing seasons. There were times the most loyal among us questioned whether it was all worth it.
Steve Pikiell and these players changed that. That will be their ultimate legacy. They changed the way Rutgers basketball is viewed by everyone within the fan base and those that follow the sport on a national level. This group of players came to Rutgers because they believed they could change the culture and make history. They did just that.
But they also taught us how to endure. How to appreciate the good times and get through the bad times. Even after Geo Baker suffered the most painful loss of his career, he put it all into perspective best by saying, “I don’t know if people ever really get over tough times. You kind of just — you have to live with it and bounce back. Losses are lessons. I’ve learned a lot of lessons through my life. This is probably just going to be another one of those. How do you take it in? How do you react to it? How do you bounce back and make something positive out of it? I don’t know if I’m ever really going to forget today or get over it. But there’s better days ahead. You just have to understand that and work through it, just continue on.”
And that’s what I’ll remember most about this team. Life comes at you fast. One day you think everything is good, the next it is the opposite. Especially during times like these in a global pandemic. This team helped many of us get through the most challenging and terrible times of our lifetimes so far. They certainly have helped me. They went through hell and back to do it. I’ll be forever grateful that they did and I know many Rutgers fans feel the same. And the way they went about their business is the most rewarding part. They taught all of us, young and old, how to live through tough times. How to keep fighting. How to persevere with dignity. How to stay focused on the task at hand despite all the challenges in front of you.
Our society likes to rip people down as soon as they fail, as a way to mask the shortcomings in one’s own life. If you view life through the right lense, you realize that this team propped us up when we needed it most.
It’s never easy being a Rutgers basketball fan. Whether it’s been for a few years or a few decades, we wear the badge the same. An all-time stomach punch loss to end this season feels appropriate during this time in our lives. Going from never been to all the way is not how life works. Steps forward are made, setbacks follow. More steps will be made in the future. The season is over now, but things will never be the same.
I’m confident in saying Steve Pikiell will eventually have a more successful team during his time at Rutgers, but he will never have one as important as this group. And that is the reason this team should be celebrated forever.