No Big Ten team has more at stake this season than Rutgers University.
Yes, Wisconsin is expected to embark on a Final Four run. Bo Ryan will be tasked with bringing the B1G its first National Championship since 2000, but if they fail in their quest Badger basketball will still live on, recruiting stars and demanding the attention of prospects around the nation.
Wisconsin basketball is an established brand now, perhaps not on par with the six "old money" blue bloods, but still just a rung below that prestigious grouping.
Rutgers basketball has no brand, unless you're referring to the excellent program C. Vivan Stringer runs over on the women's side. Watching men's basketball in Piscataway, N.J., in the new millennium has been enjoyed only by sports-minded masochists.
Rutgers lost 92-31 to Louisville in the American Athletic Conference Tournament Quarterfinals this past season. That's a legitimate score. This wasn't a charity game where pros took on a bunch of ex-jocks who paid $1,000 a pop to suit up one more time. Rutgers' point total was almost tripled in their own conference tournament.
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Now, take the utter disgust you felt just from looking at that score, pour it into a bottle and let it fester for 14 years; that's what basketball has been like at Rutgers since 2000. The Scarlet Knights are just 65-173 in conference play over that time.
Despite its geographic proximity to basketball hotbeds New York and Philadelphia, Rutgers struggles to bring in top tier talent, and when they do, the relationship seemingly deteriorates within months of the recruit's arrival on campus. The Scarlet Knights have a prime location and, apparently, the most inept real estate agent in the neighborhood.
The move to the B1G could be a rebirth for Rutgers basketball. This is a program that does have some past success, with six invitations to the NCAA Tournament, including a trip to the 1976 Final Four and a Sweet Sixteen appearance three years later.
Sadly, the 1970's are nothing more than a distant memory, almost a fantasy, to most Rutgers alumni. Recent history has been cruel.
The Big East presented a brutal and unforgiving basketball landscape, filled with top tier talents and preeminent coaches year after year. Rutgers established itself as a bottom-feeder upon its arrival in 1995, subsequently doing little to change that perception over the course of the next 13 seasons.
The Scarlet Knights' one season in the American Athletic Conference will likely - hopefully, for Rutgers sake - be swept under the rug after a dismal 12-21 (5-13 in conference) performance. That season will be unearthed again somewhere down the road like a forgotten gum wrapper, met with a shrug, and swept back under.
The hardwood destiny of Rutgers in the B1G is firmly in the hands of head coach "Fast" Eddie Jordan - a member of that magical 1976 Final Four team.
Jordan spent 15 seasons coaching in the NBA, compiling a 257-343 record. The overall record is slightly misleading, as Jordan led the Washington Wizards to four consecutive playoff appearances from 2004-2007, after an early stint with a Sacramento Kings team stocked with a preponderance of highly incapable players. [Quick aside: Lawrence Funderburke, who played under Jordan on the Kings, has one of my favorite sports names of all time. He's also a Big Ten alum. He transferred after his freshman year at Indiana to Ohio State, due to some tussles with then-head coach Bobby Knight. You're welcome for those Funderburke facts; don't use them all in one place.]
When the Rutgers job opened up in 2013, Jordan promptly pounced on the opportunity, ready to lift his alma mater from the lowest levels of college basketball.
The 2014-2015 season will be the first where Jordan really has a team to call his own. For their first season in the B1G, the Scarlet Knights were gifted with a relatively fortuitous conference schedule.
Rutgers 2014-2015 Big Ten Schedule
|Home/Away||Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Penn State, Purdue|
|Home||Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin|
|Away||Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska|
Rutgers' home-and-aways set up several possible split scenarios: Indiana and Michigan are in a state of flux right now after a slew of off-season departures; Maryland is a solid, but beatable squad; Penn State and Purdue are likely to find themselves at the bottom of the B1G standings once again. Jordan also has the advantage of having perennial B1G powers Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State travel to Piscataway.
None of this points to a sweep of Michigan or a court storming extravaganza after a defeat of national title contender Wisconsin, but the schedule presented to Rutgers is certainly favorable compared to other alternatives.
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There can be no 25-point blowouts on a nightly basis. The losses will come -- the B1G is too good and Rutgers is still over-matched and outgunned -- but they must be hard-fought. Jordan can't have his team looking to raise the white flag 10 minutes into the first half. That's bad for business, bad for Jordan, and bad for the future of Rutgers basketball.
With an 18 game conference schedule, it would be considered a successful season to come away with 7-8 wins. Stealing just a single game from one of the B1G powers would serve to put the entire league on notice.
Jordan needs to make a statement in Year One. Their conference foes cannot be looking to Rutgers on the schedule and salivating at the glands, licking their lips like a hungry dog staring down a bloody, defenseless ribeye. The Scarlet Knights are going to lose their fair share of games this coming season, but a message needs to be sent by Jordan: this is a brand new program, dedicated to basketball success and willing to throw haymakers at those who stand in their way.
A successful season will serve Rutgers in establishing a recruiting foothold in B1G country while garnering much-needed respect from New York and Philly prospects who have come to ignore Piscataway as a viable recruiting stop. This is an invaluable opportunity to carve out a brand new identity that cannot be handled lightly.
This year, Jordan can define the future of Rutgers basketball, either as a thirsty up-and-comer or as a perennial pushover. If it turns out being the latter, "Fast" Eddie just might find a fast exit out of town.