Fans who claim moral victories are the worst, I know!
But hear me out as to why the 2016-17 basketball season was a rightly earned one for Rutgers as I recap what went down.
This season was Coach Pikiell’s first with the Scarlet Knights. Pikiell came to Rutgers from Stony Brook where in his last season with the Seawolves he led them to their first ever NCAA tournament appearance. Rutgers fans were pumped to see what a quantifiably capable coach was going to bring to one of the worst Division 1 basketball team in the nation.
When the season began, immediate improvement was seen in our early schedule, non-conference games. However “soft” this schedule was, winning all but two of these games was a lot for Rutgers fans to be excited about. Our 2015-16 season’s total record was 7-25. We had already exceeded this amount of wins in our early schedule of this past season. (The close, blown lead loss to in-state rival, Seton Hall hurt a lot, but we’re coming for the Pirates this year and they better be ready).
Reality hit hard when conference play commenced, but as we went through the games we noticed something— defense was playing hard and we were actually hanging around these teams, and our rebounding was solid. Unfortunately, bad second halves, bad free throws, and few attempts at threes (and even fewer made) really hurt our ability to close, and arguably lost us games like Iowa (L 68-62) and Northwestern (L 69-60). We will not speak of the Wisconsin game at Madison Square Garden... Anyway, given our overall improved performance though, we knew it was only a matter of time before we won a Big Ten Conference game under Coach Pikiell.
Queue Saturday, January 21st, an intense night at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights led in the first half, but when the Cornhuskers rallied in the second, this sight seemed all too familiar to Rutgers fans this season where our solid, win-worthy first half performance would all but disappear and give way to a big fat L. But something was different. Nebrasketball rallied, but Rutgers kept answering and well...
Cool way for Rutgers to get its first conference win of the season! Corey Sanders' late put-back wins it! Much better w/Titanic music! pic.twitter.com/kpycoqqmjb— Titanic Hoops (@TitanicHoops) January 21, 2017
We got the Titanic Hoops treatment! It was great. Fitting that our first Big Ten win of the season would within the last 2 seconds of the game. For any wins we were to get, reasonable fans would have expected them to be close, down to the wire, and that’s exactly how Rutgers’ next B1G conference wins were.
Rutgers beat Penn State on the road in our second meeting of the season 70-68 (RUTGERS FANS ALWAYS LOVE BEATING PENN STATE AHAHA) and beat Illinois 62-59 in our last regular season game. A very well-deserved Senior Day for all students involved in the basketball game day experience. Our most “comfortable” win was versus Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament in DC where the Scarlet Knights slayed the Buckeyes 66-57. This was also our first ever Big Ten Tournament win. Nortwestern destroyed us in the next game of course as they had their own demons to handle, but what a way to go out this season. I am not disappointed in the slightest as this first year of Coach Pikiell gave Rutgers fans a lot to look forward to.
We are losing some solid players, however, like Nigel Johnson, previously a transfer from Kansas State, who graduated this year and is taking his last year of eligibility to Virginia. And of course there’s the majestic, 7 foot tall C.J. Gettys who is graduating. Corey Sanders is declaring for the NBA Draft... again. We do expect him back though as he’s only a sophomore and has no agent. Rutgers retaining players like Deshawn Freeman and Johnathan Laurent gives us hope for next year, plus the next recruiting class, of course. Coach Pikiell has a LOT of good stuff to sell to bring recruits into this program including a new state of the art basketball facility and a clear upward trajectory.
There is one major stat which supports the idea that the Scarlet Knights are on their way to becoming a Big Ten Basketball team: out of all Division 1 basketball programs, Rutgers had the largest KenPom ratings rise: 144 spots higher than last year, from No. 279, to No. 135. Our 7-25 record improved to 15-18.
Any genuine fan of basketball in this conference should be happy to see Rutgers improve and get up to a point where we no longer water down the conference. I look forward to the day where people don’t view us as the, “LOL you lost to Rutgers” team. Overall, I feel good about what went down and I’m happy to report on this past season, and happily look forward to the next. Hopefully, you can see the moral victory in our season. If not, well... maybe you’ll see the actual victory when we beat your team in the future.