Rutgers will have their biggest game of the decade on Friday night as the team takes on the Seton Hall Pirates at “The Rock” in Newark on December 23rd. It will be the third installment of the Garden State Hardwood Classic, a showcase of the state’s two premier college basketball programs.
Seton Hall dominated the first two games of the Garden State Hardwood Classic, winning by a combined 56 points. But, this year, Rutgers finally looks like they will be able to compete against the Pirates after jumping out to an 11-1 start to this season. The Scarlet Knights hot start is their best since the 1975-’76 season, although their schedule has been notoriously light.
At this point, it’s postseason or bust (NCAA or NIT). Given the proximity to Christmas, let’s go over a few things the Scarlet Knights will hope to find under their tree this holiday season.
At least we have our health...so far.
This year’s team has had the benefit of staying remarkably healthy. Keeping the current rotation on the floor is going to be vital to the team’s success going forward. Of the Scarlet Knights’ core group of players, every single guy has played in the team’s 12 games. There are nine total Rutgers team members who have played every game, and of those, eight are averaging over 15 minutes per game.
The health is a direct correlation to the improved chemistry the team has shown this year. Over the course of the season, as players have become accustomed to one another and the trust has grown from there.
From a coach’s standpoint, it’s also easier to manage your team if you don’t have to worry about filling in new players all the time.
During last season, former head coach Eddie Jordan dealt with this problem frequently. The season would have been a disaster either way, but injuries to forwards Shaq Doorson and Deshawn Freeman left the team without any size to speak of. Plus, there was a stretch when Corey Sanders was suspended that had Rutgers lacking anyone who could create on offense.
Rutgers frontcourt is currently loaded with quality players. In fact, their array of big men could be the deepest in the entire Big Ten conference. Head coach Steve Pikiell is being thrifty with the minutes he allows them to play, that could be a real key to keeping his team healthy.
-National Attention and Respect.
Can we get a little love over here?
Outside of hardcore Big Ten fans, not too many folks are aware of the Scarlet Knights rise in the standings. Whether it be their weak non-conference schedule or the equity they lost with back-to-back disastrous years, the love hasn’t exactly poured in.
It hasn’t been just a lack of national media coverage, though. College basketball experts also have sworn off of any praise for Rutgers basketball program. They currently rank No. 113 in the latest KenPom ratings, the lowest rating of all teams with at-least 11 wins. Of the 112 teams rating higher; two are below .500 (Princeton and Northern Iowa) and four are out of Conference-USA.
A win over Seton Hall will legitimize Rutgers basketball on a national scale. The Pirates are currently No. 48 in the KenPom ratings and in most peoples pre-season NCAA tournament field. Fox Sports 1 will be broadcasting the game, making it the biggest stage by far for the Scarlet Knights this year.
With only two freshman playing serious minutes, the Scarlet Knights have more experience than people think. I know they are not used to a national spotlight, but the current group seems mature enough to handle any increased attention. Besides, with a steady head coach like Steve Pikiell, he will be sure to keep them grounded.
Beating Seton Hall would give them tremendous momentum moving forward into conference play. In addition, it will make the rest of the Big Ten aware that they’re no longer a pushover. When you couple that with a group of healthy players, a postseason berth seems completely realistic.
Hopefully for Rutgers sake, Christmas can come a few days early.