Regional Sports

For Rutgers, Selection Sunday never felt this good

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At this time last year, the men’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball program should have made history. It would have been the Knights’ first appearance to the NCAA Tournament since 1991. They were on their way after going 20-11 with an 11-9 conference record heading to the Big Ten Tournament.

Life got in the way then. Something called coronavirus seeped in. It postponed all sporting events, including the NCAA Tournament and the way of life such as working, shopping and enjoying life for six months. Rutgers and its fans had to wait until next year. All this good work went down the drain.

Next year arrived on Sunday. When CBS announced Rutgers would be in the tournament on its Selection Sunday show, the emotions flew through the players during the watch party at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For fifth-year Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell, it was a relief.

Sure it would have been nice if they celebrated like 1991 on their campus with the fans, but after the disappointment last season, they were happy to celebrate anywhere.

After a 30-year drought, some Selection Sundays are different than others. Rutgers might as well made history on this particular Sunday in its sorry basketball history. Heck, I never thought Rutgers would play in the tournament in my lifetime.

So many coaches tried to turn Rutgers around with good intentions since Bob Wenzel was fired in 1997. Instead, the task made Kevin Bannon, Gary Waters, Fred Hill Jr., Mike Rice and Eddie Jordan overmatched. Bannon and Rice left in disgrace after Bannon forced his players to run naked for not making free throws in practice and Rice abused his players verbally and physically at practice. Waters, Hill and Jordan imploded as the losses mount up.

It may have looked easy for Pikiell to change the culture and turn the program around, but it wasn’t. It took time. Pikiell started off with plenty of losses in his first two seasons.

But here’s where momentum served on his side: Rutgers winning some of its Big Ten games, including an opening win against Ohio State in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, and playing Big Ten teams tough that once inspired Hall of Fame Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to say Rutgers is building something. Plus, Pikiell sold Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis on coming to Rutgers despite the losses continuing to pile up.

All this incremental stuff resulted in what happened last year, and that’s why Rutgers is in a better place now.

Pikiell improved his team every year while his predecessors couldn’t do that. Oh, and he had a clue on how to create a better rapport with New Jersey high school coaches and their players.

His best work may have come this year when his players played to a burden of high expectations. The expectations for the Scarlet Knights were to make the tournament after coronavirus denied them last season. He managed the players well, and he got results in the name of wins. He maximized everything he got out of his roster.

If anything, this season turned out to be harder than at any point of his Rutgers coaching tenure. It’s no wonder he was more relieved than happy. This does not mean he was not ecstatic like his players. He was relieved more as in reflecting on the hard work he and his staff put in since taking over in 2016 after an 11-year coaching tenure at Stony Brook.

It does not matter what the Scarlet Knights do in the tournament. If they win a game or two, it enhances their program even more, especially when it comes to recruiting. If anything, low expectations in the tournament could help them do well. That’s the beauty of all this.

Pikiell does not want to hear all of that. He demands that his players maximize most of the opportunity of being there or else all of this would have been a waste of everyone’s time. It’s understandable he feels that way being that as a head coach, it’s his responsibility to make sure his players never feel complacent or feel they really arrived.

10th-seed Rutgers has a shot to beat the seventh-seed Clemson on Friday night. This game can be a toss-up. If Geo Baker, Jacob Young and Harper make their shots, Rutgers can win this. Expect Rutgers to give it its all on defense, though Clemson gets a lot out of its guard play.

The winner of that game plays the winner of Houston/Cleveland State on Sunday. Who knows maybe Rutgers makes it to the Sweet 16? That would be something. But first things first: Finding a way to beat Clemson.

This is serious stuff now. If the Scarlet Knights thought the speed of Big Ten intensity was something, wait until they get a taste of March Madness. It will be 50 times faster than what they experienced in Big Ten play. It’s something these players and coaches won’t forget.

After not dancing for 30 years, Rutgers can say it’s about time good things happen to those who wait.

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