Missing March: Rutgers’ NCAA Tournament drought isn’t officially over, but days as a doormat are
They were one of the last teams to leave the floor in the 2019-20 NCAA basketball season. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights had warmed up on the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in preparation for a Big Ten Tournament second-round game against Michigan before an audience consisting almost exclusively of several dozen reporters. Then the coaches and players were informed the entire event was canceled.
“And I’m like, OK, we got the next tournament,” coach Steve Pikiell told Sporting News. “We got a plane out of Indianapolis, and by the time we landed in New Jersey, of course all their phones already had the news: The NCAA Tournament is canceled. It was bizarre.
“People say, ‘How did you meet with your team?’ You don’t even meet with your team. It’s on the internet. They find out stuff before I do. They broke the news to me. Crazy. Your season’s over.”
Every team, every player and every coach dealing with the cancellation of the various conference tournaments and the NCAAs felt the pain acutely, but it might have struck the Rutgers program more deeply than any.
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The NCAA chose not to release a bracket for the 2020 NCAA Tournament, which means Rutgers can’t raise a banner that says the Knights made it. And that mattered here more than anywhere. Of all the teams certain to enter the field, none has been away as long as the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. They last participated in 1991. There have been 28 tournaments staged since. All those proceeded without the Knights. They haven’t really been close.
I asked Pikiell if he felt that drought was over, even though officially it wasn’t.
“I don’t know how the tied-for-fifth-place team in the Big Ten is not in. And I’d want to see someone’s resume that was better than ours,” Pikiell said. “I do know this: We were winning games in the tournament.
“Someone said to me: Now you guys got to turn around and do it next year. And I said, ‘Why, are you going to give me next year off?’ Whether we’d go or didn’t go … we were going to have to go next year, anyway. That never changes.”
Entering 2019-20, Rutgers had managed to compete in more leagues (Atlantic 10, Big East, American and Big Ten) since their last tournament bid than they had compiled .500 conference seasons (1998-99, 2001-02). They did not have a winning conference record at any point in that period.
Pikiell has so effectively transformed the culture and expectation at Rutgers that all these trends were broken this season — well, the Knights were on the precipice of breaking the March Madness drought — and still he was not named Big Ten coach of the year.
The Scarlet Knights won a combined three conference games in their first two seasons as members, and by his fourth season they went 11-9 in the deepest season any conference ever produced. To get there, they had to win twice in the final week of the regular season: at home against Maryland, ranked No. 9 at the time, and on the road against Purdue, which had defeated top-25 opponents Virginia, Michigan State and Iowa at Mackey Arena by a combined 94 points. And the Knights did just that.
“What it is, for my guys, they changed Rutgers basketball,” Pikiell said. “We were ranked this year. You’ve got pressure on you to win games. What I really think is my team learned how to live through a lot of new experiences. And they did that.
“My first year, every time we played a team they’d call me right after the game: Do you want to play next year? There’s nobody calling after we played now.”
Rutgers ranked 262nd in the nation in experience, according to KenPom.com. That maybe was a good thing, because these Knights hadn’t done much of the losing that had been associated with the program for so many years.
They also, by the end, ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency. Their D ranked in the same neighborhood as Kansas, Baylor and Virginia. Only five of 20 Big Ten opponents reached the 70-point mark in regulation. Few teams executed their defensive gameplans better. Center Myles Johnson’s length and height make him an impressive shot-blocker, and the Rutgers perimeter players — Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis, Paul Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell and Jacob Young — mostly have great size and length for their positions.
Where Rutgers struggled was obvious: shooting the basketball. The Knights were only 295th in 3-point accuracy. Harper and Akwasi Yeboah shot better than 34 percent, and Yeboah’s career is finished.
Pikiell believes the move to a longer 3-point line affected his team and that his veterans, having worked with it for a year, will improve in this department. He also said the team’s three signed recruits are all capable shooters. He is looking toward next year because there is no present to consider.
“These are the players that took on the challenge,” Pikiell said. “At the time I took the job over, I wasn’t selling NCAA Tournaments, and I wasn’t selling a great new practice facility, because we didn’t have one. I was selling the opportunity to raise Rutgers basketball up.
“It takes a certain kid to pass up schools that always go to the NCAA Tournament and pick Rutgers. Everyone was saying that against us in recruiting, and I would say: No, that’s why I’m recruiting you. You can help raise us to that level.”
And they did. Just unofficially.
No one puts up a banner for finishing fifth or winning 20 games or posting a winning conference record. Those in the program will have be content with the knowledge they would have been there. There never has been a Rutgers team like this one. Let’s hope there’s never another that finishes this way.
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