The three Rutgers captains looked at each other and smiled as they listened to coach Steve Pikiell remind the media Wednesday night exactly where the Scarlet Knights were projected to finish this season in the Big Ten by his reputable counterparts in one of college basketball’s perennial power conferences.
The players clearly had heard this line before, probably dozens of times, since the start of a season in which the traditional doormat program from New Jersey is defying outside expectations with one impressively hard-nosed win after another.
Pikiell, in his fourth year in Piscataway following a successful small-school Division I run at Stony Brook, tells them during drills every day in practice. He reinforces it to them during timeout huddles.
He probably even reminds them regularly over morning breakfast.
“You know, we were picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten,” Pikiell declared one more time after Rutgers’ 59-50 win over Indiana lifted his program to a surprising 4-2 record to open conference play and a 12-0 mark at the rattling RAC entering Sunday’s home game against Minnesota.
Yes, Coach. They know.
At 13-4 overall, Rutgers, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and hasn’t been ranked in the AP Poll since the 1978-79 season, is moving closer to attaining one or both of those goals.
Athletic director Pat Hobbs admits the hoops squad “probably is a little ahead of schedule” in making significant headway under Pikiell, who was hired in 2016 after Eddie Jordan’s overmatched squad hopelessly went a combined 3-33 in conference play in its first two seasons in the Big Ten.
Pikiell initially made it four straight last-place finishes in the vaunted 14-team league, but if a 7-13 conference mark one year ago finally offered some promise, this year’s vast improvement — featuring impressive home wins over Wisconsin, and nationally ranked Seton Hall and Penn State — is providing a dose of Scarlet Fever throughout the Garden State.
“I knew Rutgers basketball and the reputation it had. I knew it was going to be a challenge to work our way to the top,” sophomore forward and leading scorer Ron Harper Jr. said. “People doubted us. We were picked 12th in the league. Coach is always reminding us of that in practice. We’re carrying that chip on our shoulder each and every day.
“But we’ve all embraced that challenge. We’re just gonna try to keep this going and help change the reputation of Rutgers basketball.”
Harper’s father, of course, won five NBA titles with the Bulls and the Lakers during a distinguished 15-year professional career. His son also was a four-star recruit and a two-time state champion at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., but many questioned his decision to stay in-state and attend Rutgers.
“People were like ‘Why, Rutgers?’ And I was like, ‘You’ll see,’ ” Harper said. “I feel like we’re doing just that.”
Junior guard Jacob Young’s father, Michael, also was a former first-round pick in the NBA after slammin’ and jammin’ alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on Houston’s famed “Phi Slama Jama” teams in the 1980s.
In addition to those roster bloodlines, Pikiell boasts power-conference roots as part of Jim Calhoun’s first recruiting class at Connecticut in 1986. The former guard later was an assistant coach during program turnarounds at Central Connecticut and George Washington before landing his first head-coaching gig at Stony Brook in 2005.
Pikiell, who led the Seawolves to the NCAA tournament in 2016, still speaks regularly with the 77-year-old Calhoun. The Hall of Famer won his 900th career collegiate game earlier this month in his latest job at Division III Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn.
“I just think that’s part of what you sell. The excitement. The tradition of being in a conference like this,” Pikiell said. “I remember when I first got to UConn, Coach Calhoun was selling, ‘You’re gonna play in the Carrier Dome and against John Thompson at Georgetown and Rick Pitino at Providence and St. John’s at the Garden. It was about the league.
“That’s our conference right now. This league is like a gauntlet every night.”
Indeed, an astonishing 11 of the 14 teams in the Big Ten — Rutgers included — received votes in last week’s AP Top 25 poll. After his team was smothered by the Scarlet Knights’ stifling defense, Indiana coach Archie Miller dubbed them “one of the best teams in our league, they really are.”
Miller also was greatly impressed by the atmosphere inside the RAC, the 43-year-old relic that suddenly has been boasting raucous sellout crowds largely unseen in recent years. Pikiell’s team is a perfect 12-0 at home this season, and though the coach refused to say it after the Indiana game, Harper admitted the players’ goals now are “to make every team scared to come in here” and “to go undefeated at the RAC” this season.
“I just keep telling them: Remember where we were picked,” the 52-year-old Pikiell said. “We also have to constantly remind them you’re only as good as the last game. If you win, it doesn’t help you win the next one.
“Once you look down the road in a league like this, 12 of the top 35 teams in the country, you know the next challenge is always coming. Our whole league, it’s the hardest league in the country to win on the road. And now Rutgers has become a hard venue to win on the road, too. We’re undefeated at home, we’ve had tremendous fan support and the student section has been really loud and supportive. We’ve been able to build that in a couple of years. But we have to keep it going.”
The athletic department — which had its hands full earlier in the school year with another disastrous football season that led to the return of former coach Greg Schiano — has done its part, too, building a state-of-the-art $117 million practice facility that Pikiell believes only will continue to help the recruiting efforts needed to further make a mark in such a vaunted conference.
“We feel like being in the Big Ten is like winning the Golden Ticket. It’s a good time for Rutgers athletics,” Hobbs said. “I think people really are seeing the signature of a Steve Pikiell team. A lot of hustle, defense, unselfish play, and the fans and students are really buying into that identity.
“Rutgers hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in nearly 30 years, and there’s still a long way to go, but it’s been fun to see so much excitement around the team throughout the university.”