Basketball

Rutgers men’s basketball has a ‘fighter mentality’ this season

Rutgers men's basketball has a 'fighter mentality' this season

Three years in a row, Rutgers men’s basketball went on the road and ruined the senior day for the opposition by picking up wins that solidified their NCAA Tournament resume. The theme remains the same. When this team has their backs against the wall and their fate hangs in the balance, this group of players have come through time and time again.

It was no different on Wednesday night, as Rutgers overcame another double-digit road deficit and game-long adversity. Seniors Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. led the way, but the team received key contributions from several members, including defensive stalwart Caleb McConnell.

All three will be honored with Ralph-Gonzales Agee and Luke Nathan ahead of Sunday’s game against Penn State. Harper Jr. and McConnell still have one year of eligibility due to an additional year due to COVID-19. They haven’t officially announced their intentions, but since most Rutgers programs have worked out, they will be honored regardless of their decision for next year. Baker did the same last season.

When asked what it is about this team that allows them to thrive under such pressured times as they have managed over the years, head coach Steve Pikiell had a lot to say. to say.

“A great group. They were able to go into tough environments, it was as tough as any, and win games on senior nights,” Pikiell said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. Just proud of them.

Regarding the withdrawal from Wednesday night’s game against Indiana, Pikiell said, “There was a lot going on. Big intense basketball game.

He continued: “We made the big saves when we had to. It’s saves, it’s defense. I didn’t like our defense in the first half, but we really worked on it in the second half. We were really connected. In every caucus, I knew they were connected. Geo also wanted to take that last shot at the end. I like that he gave it to Ron. Ron wanted it. We made the big plays. I’m proud of our guys.

On what makes this team different, Baker explained, “I think we’re all fighters. I think the coach [Steve] Pikiell saw it when he recruited us all. We knew we just had to dig deep and find a way to win. We just have a fighter mentality. Our mentality was to come in and ruin their senior night and that’s what we did.

In 2020, Rutgers had lost six of eight games before beating No. 9 Maryland at home. They then hit the road and beat Purdue at Mackey Arena to secure the program’s first 20-win season in decades. The win put the Scarlet Knights in the projected field for the NCAA Tournament before it was ultimately canceled due to COVID-19.

In 2021, Rutgers had lost four of its last six games, including an embarrassing loss to last-place Nebraska in the final week. They recovered by surviving Minnesota in overtime the final weekend of the regular season before going 1-1 in the Big Ten tournament. The program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years and advanced to the second round for the first time in 38 years.

This season, after a disastrous opening month of the season, this team continued to fight their way to the NCAA Tournament. A historic four-game winning streak, followed by a three-game losing streak, has put this team in a stark spot on the road once again. They came through the big moments on Wednesday night and put this team on the right side of the bubble for now.

Down to the wire, it’s been pretty much like this for three years,” Baker said. “So there’s definitely a higher sense of urgency, but we’re still trying to find ways to win. I feel like we deserve it. We’ve worked for that. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to make the tournament. We just want to finish strong and find a way to get there.

As for the opportunity to close the regular season strong again and solidify their position for the NCAA Tournament, Ron Harper Jr. spoke about the roller coaster this team has been on.

“It’s hard not to think about it, especially with the season we’ve had,” Harper Jr. said. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs, but we’re in control of our own destiny. We are lucky. People told us that our season was dead every month of the season, so we keep pushing, we keep fighting. We don’t watch the tournament. We watch Penn State and we’re just trying to get a win there on senior night. It’s going to be a really special day for these guys and for everything we’ve built here. So we are looking forward to that.

If Rutgers can beat Penn State, which they lost 66-49 at Happy Valley in January, they will finish the regular season with the most Big Ten wins since the program joined the league in 2014. Due of the Scarlet Knights’ wins over every team in the top half of the Big Ten standings, they are in a favorable position when it comes to tiebreakers for seeding purposes. As of Thursday, RU can finish the regular season between 4th and 8th place.

Baker, Harper Jr and McConnell have had such a big impact on this program. Rutgers was 16-76 through the first five regular seasons as a member of the Big Ten. With all three players as leaders and key contributors over the past three seasons, Rutgers has a 32-27 regular season record. They’ve won at least 10 games three straight with a chance to finish a 12-8 program with a win on Sunday.

Keeping emotions in check will be key for the whole team, including its head coach.

“Senior Day is coming up and I will definitely be crying for all these guys,” Pikiell said. “These guys believed in Rutgers when there wasn’t as much reason to believe here. I am truly grateful to them. »

As for the fans, get to your seats before 11:30 a.m. for the Senior Day ceremonies. All seniors deserve a proper reception for all they have done and as energetic an environment as possible in what is another game to be won. It’s been such a tough place to play at home due to the RAC faithful and Sunday is the last chance to shake the place up again this season.

While another run in the big dance is the end this team wants, no matter what the rest of the way, this team has changed the culture and perception of Rutgers men’s basketball. With as many big hits as Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. have done over the years, they became the founding fathers in making this program a success for the first time in the modern era. The hope is that there will be bigger wins ahead of this group next month.

“We still have a lot of basketball left with a lot of opportunities here,” Pikiell recalled. “We have to focus on those who arrive.”

At this time of year, this group has always performed at their best and Wednesday night was no exception. Whenever this season and their career ends, there is no doubt that this team will fall apart.