Through the first 14 games of the 2017-2018 season, Rutgers Basketball fans were dreaming of postseason play for the first time in a very long time. 26 years since their last NCAA tournament berth in 1991 and 11 years since their last NIT appearance in 2006. There was plenty of reason for this renewed optimism after years of heartbreak, years of what-if? Steve Pikiell and Co just had their biggest win in his year and a half on the banks, upsetting the then ranked 15th in the country and archrival Seton Hall Pirates. In the past Rutgers would get out early and falter late, or keep the game close only to have a back-breaker type play with under 2 minutes to go. This year the script was different, they fought and clawed with a far more talented team and when it came time to show their true colors they had more grit and determination then the Pirates and were able to grind out what figured to be a program-changing victory.
Fast-forward from that moment two weeks ahead, and all the energy has left the building. All the excitement has been tempered because of consecutive home losses to two teams they easily should have beaten. Give credit to Stony Brook and Hartford, they came in and executed their game plans to perfection and didn’t back down to the challenge of coming into what is usually a hostile environment at The RAC. These last two games don’t spell the end of anything for Rutgers, it doesn’t mean they can’t recover, but the map ahead lies plenty of tough terrains.
In order for Pikiell to get the most out of his team, changes need to be made before the competition of the Big Ten chews them up in short order. Outside of the last game, where he had to serve a team-imposed 10-minute suspension for being late returning from the mini Christmas vacation, Corey Sanders has been playing like the best player on the team and improvements have been shown in his game. Geo Baker, a promising freshman guard has had some explosion type games, he needs to continue to grow his game and the team must operate with these two as the focal point of the offense. The important change that needs to be made comes with 5th year senior DeShawn Freeman. There is no denying that Freeman is a talented player on this team, the issue at hand is he thinks he’s even more talented than he actually is and it has become a detriment to his team. Rebounding and finishing in transition are his two calling cards that he has shown throughout his career. Three-point shooting is something that he is struggling with, yet he keeps putting three-pointers up with very little success. If Pikiell wants the team to get anywhere this season, the message needs to be sent that you can’t try and win every game yourself. Get teammates involved when a double team comes and don’t hoist up threes because he is being left open for obvious reasons.
Many around the program knew coming into this season that Rutgers was in the midst of a rebuild, and if you take the last 2 games out of the equation any fan around the team would be ecstatic with the progress. The team has talent coming next year that can very well supplement what is already being displayed. Rutgers brings in a consensus top 100 recruit in Montez Mathis, a SG out of the D.C area, Shaq Carter, a JUCO PF who is widely considered one of the best in the JUCO market, and Ron Harper Jr. Son of Ron Harper Sr. of the championship Chicago Bulls teams in the late 90’s. Aside from recruits coming in, Peter Kiss, a transfer from Quinnipiac university is sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules. Kiss averaged 12ppg as a freshman for the Bobcats and showed off his ability against some high-level competition. Scoring 37 combined points in early season tournaments against Gonzaga and Seton Hall last season.
At the end of the day, the arrow is pointing up for Rutgers Basketball as a program, fans just have to hope that they don’t see a repeat of past regimes, where negative results begin a snowball effect and any early season success goes to waste, leaving fans thinking to themselves “There’s always next year”. New Jersey basketball boasts plenty of talent, Rutgers and the Big Ten offer extreme exposure. The combination of the two give out optimism to a turnaround on the banks of the old Raritan.