When the 2016-17 Big Ten basketball season began, the consensus was that Rutgers would be finishing dead last. Not exactly a ground breaking prediction, especially since the Scarlet Knights have finished last in both of their seasons in the Big Ten.
Although it’s still possible, Rutgers has shown that they don’t want to be the conference doormat anymore.
You see, the biggest problem with the Scarlet Knights in the past few years, was effort. Ever since disgraced coach Mike Rice was fired, Rutgers has been an absolute dumpster fire. In 2015-16 alone, they lost 12 games by more than 20 points. Yes, their talent was inferior, but those blowouts don’t happen if your playing hard on both ends.
Getting rid of Eddie Jordan was the best thing that the Rutgers Athletic Department has done in years. Jordan is an old NBA guy, not a rah-rah college guy. When coaching young men, you need a lot of energy and someone committed to a growing a winning culture. Jordan was basically a stop-gap until the school could get back on their feet.
At the time Eddie Jordan was hired, Rutgers was reeling from the Mike Rice incident. Willing to sacrifice winning for a tranquil atmosphere, Jordan was the safest move available. A former Rutgers player, with NBA playing and coaching experience, he was a sure bet to appease the higher-ups and Rutgers pom-pom wavers.
Everything changed when it was clear that Rutgers had become the Big Ten basketball (and football) laughingstock.
Enter Steve Pikiell, former UConn guard turned program savior at Stony Brook. Pikiell engineered a complete turnaround for Stony Brook, bringing them their only four America East conference titles in school history.
Through seven games, Rutgers is 6-1, one win shy of their entire win total from last season. The Scarlet Knights had been undefeated, complete with a last second home win versus Hartford. It was the first time they had been 6-0 since 1975-76.
Their lone loss came in the ACC / Big Ten Challenge at University of Miami. Although the Scarlet Knights came in as heavy underdogs (14.5 point), they never let the game get too far out of reach.
In past years, it was commonplace for Rutgers to lay down, gracefully accepting their beatings from better competition. The current Scarlet Knights basketball team fights opponents tooth and nail. Even if their shots aren’t falling, Pikiell’s team gives maximum effort on defense and on the boards.
Miami got off to a quick start on Wednesday night, leading 25-10 mid-way through the first half. The hard-nosed Rutgers squad fought back, trailing only six points at halftime.
With 11:27 remaining in the second half, Miami went up by 21 points. Normally, this is where the wheels would have fallin off, except this team actually believed they could still win. Rutgers still played their tails off the rest of the way, cutting the lead to 10 points with two minutes left.
Miami ended up winning by 12 and the ACC eventually went on to win the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Moral victories don’t mean a lot in the Big Ten, but the fact that Rutgers didn’t let themselves get blown out is huge plus. In fact, they could be 7-0 had they shot better than 18.8 percent from beyond the arc, or if junior Deshawn Freeman had converted his four missed chip-shot layups.
Rutgers next five games are against non-power conference schools. With the confidence they’re currently playing with, it’s completely possible for them to be 11-1 heading into their rivalry game versus Seton Hall. If they want to be taken seriously in the Big Ten, it starts with beating the teams that they should beat.
Rutgers isn’t making the NCAA Tournament, we know that. Punching a ticket into the NIT would be a realistic expectation though, a tournament they haven’t been too since 2006.
Building a winning culture takes time and Rutgers is ahead of schedule. It wasn’t until Steve Pikiell’s fourth season at Stony Brook that his team had a winning record.
The current Scarlet Knights basketball team has bought into Pikiell’s vision and that’s the most important thing.