Written by: Steve Tichenor
It’s been a tough go for Rutgers in the BIG 10. The football team dragged the RU faithful through a brutal Fall.
Surely, the equally inept basketball team would lead us through a long cold winter. But then, a glimmer of hope. The basketball team jumped out to an 11-1 start! Soft schedule? So what! 11-1 felt damn good to a fan base pining for any kind of success. And there we were, Rutgers fans actually feeling a sense of, oh, fill in the blank, respect, legitimacy, relevancy. Emboldened by this record, I had visions of a 17 or 18 win season and knocking on the door of an NIT bid. There were visions of a miraculous turn around of fortunes under first year head coach Steve Pikiell. Who knew he was an actual Knight, here to save the program! And then BIG 10 play started and…CRASH… all those dreams fell to the hardwood. UGH, reality! I’ll have to admit, Rutgers’ struggles in the BIG 10 thus far by the two major sports teams has made me… once again, fill in the blank, a pessimist, fatalist, defeatist. After all, this basketball team, much like the football team, has been simply outmatched in BIG 10 play.
Which is why I gave Rutgers zero, zilch, no chance when they were down 5 points with 1:30 left at the RAC Saturday afternoon to Nebraska. The script was being followed. Rutgers squandered a ten point halftime lead (sound familiar?). And then another lead inside 5 minutes (sound very familiar?). And then two things happened. First, for once, the other team imploded. Secondly, the Scarlet Knights actually got a couple breaks.
The Cornhusker’s point guard Tai Webster committed two crucial turnovers in the last minute. Deshawn Freeman made two clutch free throws after an iffy call and Corey Sanders’ wild shot missed the rim and somehow found its way back in his hands for a last second put back. RUTGERS 65 NEBRASKA 64! Yes, that deserves caps and an exclamation point. I didn’t believe in this team at all in that spot and for one game, they sure as hell showed me. Frankly, they had it coming. One thing they are not is quitters. This team has showed a lot of energy and grit and that is credit to the work of Steve Pikiell. He’s not a miracle worker, just a guy willing to roll up his sleeves. Pikiell is teaching his team something Eddie Jordan had trouble doing, how to rebound, play defense and most importantly, play with tenacity. They are much improved from last year. When that improvement didn’t show up in the win column against B1G competition, I, like many, started shaking my fist. Come on! Was that fair? Immediate success in the B1G was simply not a realistic goal for a first year coach taking over a program that won 7 games last year. That’s right 7. But on Saturday, they beat a formidable Nebraska team that has road wins at Indiana and Maryland.
A BIG 10 win for this program is just that, B1G! This team will grow from this victory. There may be one, two, even three more conference wins. Just maybe… but that’s ok. This team has taken a step up. And that’s a reality RU fans can live with.