March 9, 2016 isn’t a date remembered well by most college basketball fans. And maybe it shouldn’t be. After all, no national championships were decided on that date and nothing seismic happened that changed the course of the NCAA.
However, it was an important day for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
And one that fans should remember well.
On that date just under four years ago, Rutgers basketball reached its rock bottom. The Scarlet Knights wrapped up the 2015-’16 season with a loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament in what would be Eddie Jordan’s last game as head coach of the program. That loss dropped the team to a dreadful 7-25 overall record.
While calling it rock bottom might seem hyperbolic, the term fit. The Scarlet Knights not only had a horrendous overall record, but had an awful 290th rating on KenPom to go along with that 7-25 mark. And it wasn’t the first rough year either. Rutgers had a combined 22-43 record in the two prior seasons and hadn’t posted a season above .500 since 2006.
The program was in shambles and few can say they saw Rutgers turning it around in the years ahead. Rutgers lacked talent on the roster, had little to no prestige on the recruiting trail, and hadn’t made the NCAAs since 1991. Whether fans wanted to admit it or not, Rutgers wasn’t going to have the luxury of going out and hiring whoever it wanted to replace Jordan. The school was probably going to have to settle for its second, third, or maybe even its fourth choice. Add in a tough Big Ten and things didn’t look encouraging.
But in walked Steve Pikiell.
It wasn’t the flashiest hire or one that garnered much national attention, but after conducting a relatively efficient search, Rutgers settled on its man. The Scarlet Knights hired Pikiell from nearby Stony Brook to take over the program. Pikiell’s resume wasn’t incredible, but he had built Stony Brook into a consistent winner during his tenure there and seemed to have mastered getting the most out of unheralded prospects.
And while things didn’t start all that well for Rutgers with Pikiell at the helm, you could tell what was coming early on. Rutgers not only improved its overall record by eight wins in Pikiell’s first year, but the quality of the teams started to rise as well. Rutgers quickly went from one of the worst teams in the Power Five to the top 100 in KenPom. And some well timed upsets here and there only further helped to build momentum.
This long and steady rise reached its apex earlier this week when Rutgers beat a ranked Penn State team at home to improve to 12-3 overall this week. It was the third time the Scarlet Knights beat a top 30 KenPom opponent already this season and its sixth win in a row. Obviously, a massive step forward from the rough days of Jordan’s teams.
But what’s even more remarkable is that Rutgers pulled off its two most recent wins without star guard Geo Baker. It also lost Eugene Omoruyi to transfer in the offseason, who was expected to led the team this year. Rutgers continues to get deeper and more talented under Pikiell. And fans are starting to see it on the court.
This turnaround has also paid more long-term dividends as well, as Rutgers is now being projected as an NCAA at-large team and appears in serious position to make a run at the Big Dance for the first time since the early 1990s. KenPom projects the team to finish the regular season with 20 wins, which would be more than good enough to make the cut.
Where this all ends for Rutgers remains to be seen. But it’s finally time to start giving the Scarlet Knights some respect. This team is for real.