Rutgers sports are not generally well regarded.
I should clarify, among major college sports, they are not well regarded.
The only exception was a strong period of perennial contention for the women’s basketball squad under Hall of Fame coach Vivian Stringer.
In the early 2000s the Women Scarlet Knights were fixtures in the NCAA tournament.
Other than that, and across much of the men’s sports, the schools has been a bit of a joke.
How Have They Been Lately?
Well besides that brief run of good play from women’s bball, it has been UGLY.
Men’s football has made a few middling bowl games under Kyle Flood and Greg Schiano. They even produced some NFL stars.
But winning was not the norm and they weren’t a great team.
Men’s basketball, where the Scarlet Knights find themselves excelling now, has never really been a thing.
In 1978 they made the sweet 16, and made 1 NCAA tournament second round since. They made the NCAA tournament in 88 and 90.
So yea, it has been 30 years since this program has sniffed an NCAA tournament appearance. Not good.
And yet, they now find themselves undefeated and on the cusp of being in the top 10 teams in the nation.
How They Did It
Let’s start by looking back at last season.
Last season the Knights had their best record in terms of win % since 1982, finished a very respectable 20-11. They would have made the tournament if it had been held.
Steve Pikiell joined up in 2016 and have years of work had the breakout last year. It has come on the backs of some great defense and a star.
The star’s name is Ron Harper Jr. In fact, he is more of a super star than a star. The son of former NBA vet Ron Harper Sr is a National Player of the Year candidate.
Not only are the numbers elite, averaging 24-7-2,5 on 60% shooting, but he has a propensity to hit the big shot as needed.
He seems to have the same championship DNA as his father (5 NBA championships).
He is a fast riser come draft night and is leading this team to new heights unknown to this program.
The recruiting work and culture built by Pikiell, to go with a super star, is turning this team into a potential Big 10 title contender.
As of now, they are sitting on top of the Big Ten, and people are starting to take notice.
“All of the sudden, now, they’re in position to win a championship. They can contend for a Big Ten championship.” 😊
— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) December 16, 2020
While Rutgers seems to be very good, we will get the full picture very soon.
Are they a Big ten contender? Or just a good squad?
Upcoming, Rutgers gets into the teeth of Big 10 play.
The next 5 games have #23 Ohio State twice, #4 Iowa and Garza, #12 MSU, and a solid if unspectacular 6-2 Purdue team.
With 4 more top 25 matchups left besides those upcoming fixtures, and a good but underperforming Indiana team upcoming, we won’t lack for answers as to how good this team is.
A great team can finish 7th in the Big ten this season, with its incredible depth.
While it remains to be seen how good this team is, I would not sleep on them. With a win against OSU on Wednesday, this may be a top 10 squad when they meet with title contender Iowa.
2020 is a bizarre year, but this Rutgers team is no fluke.
This is a good team with a good coach and great player.
We shall see if they can put it all together to do something truly specials this season on top of their unpresented success for the program they have already achieved this season.
With the 28th ranked class coming in for 2021, hopefully the program will only continue its upward trajectory.
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-Brent Buckley (@bigbucksbuckley on twitter)