Hard part will be Rutgers sustaining success

Photo: Michael Conroy/AP

Rutgers basketball served notice going back to last season when the team won 20 games overall and 11 games in the Big Ten. If not for the pandemic, we would have celebrated the Scarlet Knights’ first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1991.

Rutgers backed up last season by winning 16 games overall and 10 games in the Big Ten. They made the tournament and won a playoff game against Clemson. They should have beaten Houston, but they fell apart in the last five minutes and went on to lose. Nevertheless, this season and last season set the foundation.

Now comes the hard part for Rutgers: Sustaining success. There’s no question Big Ten teams are no longer taking Rutgers as wins to deposit anymore. Those days are now over, and quite frankly, the Big Ten coaches knew it was a matter of time until Steve Pikiell made his mark as a coach of Rutgers.

Rutgers gave its fans a taste of what winning is about. Now fans want more, which is always the American sports fan’s way. The players and coaches want more, too. They tasted success, and they want to do more than just make the tournament. They want to be a Sweet 16 participant year in and year out the way Syracuse, Gonzaga and elite programs do it.

Expectations create a burden. It means winning may not be fun anymore since it’s expected. In New York and New Jersey, fans demand winning and look at it as a relief more than a celebration. That could cause problems for young players who are trying to start life after high school. The last two seasons were fun, but now fans expect this to happen consistently.

It’s on Pikiell to know how to manage expectations and not let it get the best of his players moving forward. He needs to have his players embrace it. That’s a mark of a good program right there.

Fortunately for Rutgers, Pikiell knows what he is doing. He has a great feel for the players. The players know what to expect from him, and they know the standard that they would be judged on. It’s always going to be NCAA Tournament or bust for Rutgers now that the program established its footing by making the tournament and winning a tournament game this season.

Rutgers brings back most of its players next season. Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson, Caleb McConnell and Montez Mathis return as seniors while Paul Mulcahy comes in as a junior and Clifford Omoruyi expects to contribute as a sophomore. There’s no reason to think the Scarlet Knights’ playoff appearance is a fluke.

The question is: How can they improve from this season? How can they get a high seed and get good matchups that can help them go to the Sweet 16? How do they get to the point where they have a lead in a tournament game and finish the job this time around? What can they do to maximize their tournament opportunity?

Look for Pikiell and his players to do soul-searching this summer in answering these questions. While they are happy for what they did, they know they blew an opportunity to get to the Sweet 16. They were good enough to beat Syracuse since their defense is good enough to frustrate Syracuse and they have the guards that can break the zone defense. They should be playing this Saturday against Syracuse instead of watching Syracuse on their television sets.

One way the Scarlet Knights can improve is by shooting better. They can be streaky when it comes to shooting. They can get hot and cold. No one suggests they should be like Baylor or Gonzaga. They don’t have the personnel to shoot 3-pointers. With that said, they need to shoot at least 50 percent.

If Rutgers can improve its shooting, maybe it can win some road games. Eventually, the Scarlet Knights need to show they can win games on the road in a big spot.

The Knights got by this season with their defense. There’s no question the defense sets the foundation for the team’s success. But their offensive output has to improve for them to move forward.

With Geo Baker likely graduating, who will make the big shots in a tight game for Rutgers? Harper would be an obvious choice, but he struggled down the stretch, and he couldn’t put good performances in the tournament. Maybe he picks it up next season. McConnell came into his own, and he may have been Rutgers’ second-best guy when it came to making shots. Mulcahy has enough experience now to have confidence he can be the guy.

Eventually, Rutgers will need to get that breakthrough recruit who can play the point guard position. This will come in due time as long as Rutgers continues its trajectory to success.

Pikiell accomplished his objective of having his program build a foundation with the right type of habits. Now, it’s about winning big.

Rutgers may have arrived, but to be sitting at the big boy table, it has to keep aiming higher such as getting past the first weekend of the tournament.

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