March 10, 2016.
It’s not a date that means much to the public, or even your average college basketball fan. But even so, it’s one that Rutgers fans should remember well.
After a tumultuous 2015-’16 season, Rutgers made the tough decision to call it quits on head coach Eddie Jordan. Despite a lot of optimism regarding Jordan and his chances when he took the job, his tenure ended in just three brutally short seasons.
During those three seasons, Jordan led the Scarlet Knights to a 29–68 (.299) overall record and an 8–46 (.148) record against Big Ten opponents. There’s little debating that those numbers weren’t going to keep any head coach around for very long.
Notably, Jordan’s last season with the program was (easily) his worst, as the team went 7-25 overall and 1-17 in Big Ten play. Rutgers ranked a putrid No. 279 on KenPom, nearly 100 spots below the closest Big Ten team, which was a Minnesota team that went 8-23 and played a large portion of its schedule significantly short-handed.
For people who don’t follow the analytic portions of college basketball coverage, it’s difficult to put into context just how bad that Rutgers team was in 2015-’16. It got plenty of national media coverage at the time, but, without being hyperbolic, that Rutgers team could very well have been the worst Power Five team in modern history.
I’m not even sure describing it as a “dumpster fire” accurately sums up what fans were subjected to during that season. It was more like a dumpster fire that someone was attempting to put out with a bottle of lighter fluid.
It was seriously that bad.
But I digress.
Either way, on March 10th of that year, Rutgers made the bold (and predictable) decision of moving on from Jordan. It might not seem bold given the information above, but it really was a risky move. The program was going to have to go out and try to hire a new head coach to take over that mess. Hiring a good replacement is always infinitely more difficult than firing a bad coach.
Simply put, it wasn’t going to be easy.
Ultimately, Rutgers found its guy in Steve Pikiell. Following his hire, I wrote optimistically about his chances for success with the program:
But even with that sense of hope, Pikiell would face his challenges. After all, he was somehow going to have to take that mess and turn it into a competitive basketball team. And with a fanbase that desperately wanted the program to compete in its new conference, the clock was ticking.
Generally speaking, the first year was a successful one for Pikiell. He kept much of the roster together, added some depth during the offseason, and piloted the Scarlet Knights to a 15-18 overall record, which included a 11-1 start to the season. Not bad for a team that won a single Big Ten game the previous year.
But it’s been this offseason where Pikiell has really shined.
And it started to come together this weekend.
In an incredible two-day run for the program, Rutgers was able to add two major additions to its 2018 recruiting class. First, point guard Mac McClung committed out of Virginia. He’s a top 250 prospect that’s currently rated as a three-star by 247Sports.
But on Friday, Rutgers got even better news, as Montez Mathis decided to commit to the Scarlet Knights over programs that included Kansas, Marquette, West Virginia, and Xavier. He is rated as a top 80 prospect by 247Sports and should make an early impact in the team’s backcourt.
As fans across the Big Ten have learned, recruiting does not always guarantee success. After all, Tom Crean and John Groce got their fair share of elite prospects and neither will be coaching in the Big Ten next season. Trying to project how a high school athlete will perform at the next level is always going to be a difficult task.
However, with that said, there’s no denying the impact recruiting can have on a program. It’s about raising the talent level across the board and hoping that a few of those players turn into stars. Jordan was able to get Corey Sanders, but his inability to put productive players around him doomed his career. Pikiell is starting to show that he can do the former and the latter at Rutgers.
Landing two nice prospects for 2018 hasn’t fixed all of Rutgers problems, of course. In fact, the team is still going to struggle next season, like it or not. When you’re rebuilding from a crater, the rise is going to be long and arduous. And a few recruits that won’t arrive for more than a year won’t fix that instantly.
But the process has started. Pikiell improved the Scarlet Knights last season, added a few more prospects in 2017, and has now set things up nicely for 2018-’19 and beyond. The job is far from done, but Rutgers has put the college basketball world on notice.
And fair or not, it’s time to start paying attention.