Rutgers basketball is on the rise under Steve Pikiell, but they’re still searching for the elusive signature win…and the consistency that must follow.
Every modern college basketball powerhouse has it: the turning point. The signature win that is etched into their program’s timeline, a landmark that fans and players alike can point to as the moment they became relevant.
Some occur in the postseason, like Gonzaga’s Round of 32 victory in the 1999 NCAA Tournament over Stanford that kicked off a monopoly on the West Coast Conference. Others are regular-season masteries that no one saw coming, like Villanova’s shocking win over then-No. 2 Kansas on a snowy Saturday afternoon in January 2005. Locally, we’ve witnessed a mini-resurgence of Seton Hall basketball over the past two and a half seasons, one kicked off by a late February 2016 win over then-No. 5 Xavier, one that began to pave the way to the Pirates’ first Big East tournament title since 1993.
Still searching for that win, however, are the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
With their last NCAA Tournament appearance coming during the Bush administration (the George H.W. Bush administration, that is), the Knights have been trapped in a rebuild nearing its third decade. While women’s basketball has flourished under two-plus decades of C. Vivian Stringer, plenty of would-be saviors have come and gone in the men’s programs. Coaches like Fred Hill and Mike Rice didn’t turn it around, while players like Mike Rosario and Eli Carter excited, but exited to greener pastures.
But, for the first time in forever, there’s hope for men’s hoops in Piscataway, primarily in the form of Steve Pikiell.
Recent signer of a massive extension that will keep him in New Jersey through 2024, Pikiell is no stranger to college basketball reformations. It was he that finally treated fans of the Stony Brook Seawolves to postseason basketball, with a 26-6 season in 2015-16, one that ended in the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, enticing the Knights to bring him to Jersey. His debut year had Rutgers in a familiar spot, the Big Ten cellar, but seeds of a change were present.
The Knights went from dead last in the conference to fourth in terms of points allowed, duplicating the same feat in terms of rebounding. The relative success, as their 15 wins tied Rutgers’ most since their last NIT appearance in 2006, persuaded NBA hopeful guard Corey Sanders to stay another year, and sparked the breakout behind forward Deshawn Freeman, who led the rebounding revolution with 7.8 per game.
Alas, the signature win failed to come.
While the Knights did earn a win over Stony Brook in Pikiell’s homecoming, as well as their first Big Ten tournament win, they failed to make any headline-grabbing moves last season. They’ve been teased by signature wins before, namely a January 2015 win over fourth-ranked Wisconsin. The Louis Brown Athletic Center can rival Newark Liberty International at its loudest, and No. 15 Seton Hall found that out when Rutgers earned a 71-65 upset in December.
But the thing about signature wins is their effects cannot end with the court storming.
The win over the Badgers was Rutgers’ last that season, and the victory over their ranked in-state rivals was followed by back-to-back losses to Stony Brook and Hartford, which would surely appear in the “Bad Losses” column if the Knights ever reached the bubble.
A late chance to follow-up came on Wednesday, against the formerly top-ranked Michigan State Spartans. The Knights threw everything they had at Tom Izzo’s bunch, a stunt made all the more impressive by the fact it took place in East Lansing, but the efforts of Sanders, who tied the game in regulation’s dying seconds, fell short by a final of 76-72 when the extra five minutes expired.
The weight of missing a signature victory is taking its toll on the Knights, who should otherwise feel momentum from the Pikiell extension.
“We’re a program that’s one step forward, one step back, unfortunately. I’d like to be two steps forward all the time, but that’s not where we are right now,” Pikiell told James Kratch of NJ.com. “We’re playing the toughest part of our schedule early on in the season here, so we’ve gone through a lot of wars.”
Tonight won’t provide an opportunity at a signature, but the Knights can show they’ve picked up a thing or two, as they welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes to Piscataway (7:00 PM, BTN). It was against the Buckeyes where the Knights picked up their first ever Big Ten tournament victory, but THE Ohio State University has picked up THE signature win….and they’re capitalizing.
Winners of four in a row, the Buckeyes (14-4, 5-0 conference) earned a dominating win over the then-top ranked Spartans, and followed it up with a thoroughly dominating victory over Maryland on Thursday. Despite this, OSU remains unranked, and they’ll look to make an impression in their first road game since the Michigan State win.
Rutgers does not face another currently ranked opponent until February 3, when they welcome in No. 5 Purdue.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490