It’s time to pay attention to dear old Rutgers.
Scarlet Knight Fever rages in Piscataway, N.J., and why not, after Tuesday’s 72-61 win over ranked Penn State? They haven’t seen things like this — namely a 12-3 start, and serious, legitimate thoughts about an NCAA tournament bid — in this century. “We’re climbing the ladder,” coach Steve Pikiell said the other day. “We were picked to finish 12th in the league.”
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Let’s start right there, with 13 things to know about Rutgers.
- Why picked so low? Well, that’s pretty much been the Rutgers’ zip code. The Scarlet Knights went 16-76 their first five seasons in the Big Ten, finishing 14th and at the bottom four times and 12th last year.
- The last Rutgers winning season was in 2006, the year Twitter was born.
- The last NCAA Tournament bid was 1991. That’s a longer dry spell than any other team in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC or American. The last time the Scarlet Knights heard their name called on Selection Sunday, Mike Krzyzewski had not won a single national championship, Roy Williams was in his third season at Kansas and Tom Izzo was a Michigan State assistant. Rutgers was in the Atlantic 10. The school has changed league affiliation three times since then.
- This is the best start since 1975-76. Gerald Ford was U.S. president that year, and Rutgers showed up in the Final Four.
- The last time the Scarlet Knights were 3-1 in conference play was 1995.
- Pikiell has a history of program building. He took Stony Brook from a 4-24 record to an NCAA tournament bid. He obviously has Rutgers trending up in his fourth season. The Scarlet Knights are no longer easy roadkill, for example. They were 1-35 on the road in the Big Ten their first four seasons in the league, but they’ve won four times in the past 12 months, including a recent 17-pointer at Nebraska. Things have changed. Pikiell understands having to fight for your place. He was the seventh of nine kids.
- The Rutgers coaching staff knows a little about leadership. All seven members were team captains in college, and six were point guards. Pikiell played for Jim Calhoun’s first Big East champion at UConn.
- “They played tough, they played physical,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said of the Scarlet Knights. Yeah, you can tell by the numbers that Rutgers deals in muscle and force. The Scarlet Knights are eighth in the nation in rebound margin, 17th in field-goal defense, 17th in scoring defense. Take the Penn State game. So what if Rutgers started 1-for-15 shooting, and made only two of 10 3-point attempts all night? There are other paths to changing a program’s fortune.
“I think we’re finding our way. I think we’re counting on our defense,” Pikiell said. Included in his team’s handwork this season:
Thrashing Niagara 86-39 — Rutgers’ biggest win over a Division I opponent since 1978 . . . holding Stephen F. Austin — the team that brought down Duke —31.5 points below its average . . . crunching Wisconsin with a 23-5 edge in second-chance points . . . whipping Seton Hall (Pirates star Myles Powell was injured) by 20 . . . blitzing Lafayette with a 17-0 start, which meant the Scarlet Knights opened three consecutive games with a combined run of 40-0 . . . blowing away Nebraska 79-62 with a 48-31 rebounding margin and 52 points in the paint.
- They have managed to dominate Nebraska and beat Penn State without team leader Geo Baker, who is out with a thumb injury. That’s a promising sign of maturity and development for a team that routinely starts four sophomores. “I think this team can keep growing,” Pikiell said. “I think the best basketball’s ahead of us.”
- This is not entirely a blue-chip operation. According to the Rutgers sports information office. Baker — the second-leading scorer and Big Ten leader in steals — was 414th in recruiting prospect rankings coming out of high school. Myles Johnson, a 6-11 center who is shooting 71.7 percent and averaging nearly 10 points and nine rebounds, was 408th. Johnson is an electrical and computer engineering major who can speak Japanese, played water polo, and was recruited by four Ivy League schools. Forward Akwasi Yeboah didn’t play basketball in England until he was 13, spending his time with soccer and rugby.
- Rutgers has been a testament to manufacturing wins with whatever it takes. Not a lot of glitzy offensive numbers, then. Junior Ron Harper Jr. is the top scorer with a 12.4 average. But he does what he must, such as going 12-for-12 from the free-throw line against Penn State. That name might ring a bell. His father was a five-time NBA champion with Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers.
- Rutgers is a box office hit. There were five sellouts last season, the students were waiting outside when the doors opened for the Penn State game, and the Seton Hall contest was the largest crowd in 17 years. The Scarlet Knights haven’t seen such fervor or attention in ages, which is why Pikiell opens most any post-game press conference at home with, “Always appreciate everybody coming.”
- What would David Stern think? The late NBA commissioner was a Rutgers dean’s list alum.
So do we beat the Rutgers drum for March yet? Pikiell offers all manners of caution.
“We have 16 games left. We were picked 12th in the league. I get that stuff. It’s good to write about, I hope our guys aren’t reading it.”
And . . .
“There’s a lot of season left, but I do appreciate the excitement and enthusiasm people have."
And . . .
“We’ve got to play well, we’ve got to beat really good teams with great coaches, we’ve got to go on the road and win. You’ve got to do a lot of things before you can start talking about anything else.”
Good luck on stopping that talk around Piscataway. It’s been a while.