PISCATAWAY, NJ—The last time the Rutgers Men’s Basketball team reached the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament in 1991, their coach was a college senior playing for the University of Connecticut, the Scarlet Knights were a part of the Big East Conference, and a gallon of gas cost a little over a dollar.
On March 14, that drought ended as the Scarlet Knights were selected as one of the 68 teams to participate in “March Madness” in Indianapolis.
Rutgers, which finished the season with 15 wins and 11 losses, is now preparing to match up with the Clemson Tigers from the Atlantic Coast Conference in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 19.
The team celebrated the announcement from their suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday after waiting anxiously for their name to be chosen as participants in the tournament.
“I was definitely a little nervous as the bracket was coming out. I think we all were,” Senior Guard Geo Baker said. “We are really happy to see our hard work pay off.”
Players and head coach Steve Pikiell stood up and cheered when it was announced that the Scarlet Knights would officially be a part of the tournament.
“Our guys are excited to be in the tournament for the first time in 30 years with a chance to play for a national championship,” Pikiell said.
The players are just as excited about “making history” by leading Rutgers back to the “Big Dance.”
“It’s an amazing feeling to see the excitement with all the fans,” Baker said. “We’re making history.”
Junior guard Ron Harper, a Franklin Lakes native, who led the team in scoring this season, agreed.
“Making history always feels good and you know doing it in the state of New jersey at the state university where I grew up and where I was raised, makes it so much more special.”
Reaching the tournament has been a challenging journey for the Scarlet Knights, who have continued to improve in each of their four seasons under coach Pikiell.
Last season ended in heartache, albeit a different kind than Rutgers fans are used to.
The team posted an astounding 18-1 record in home games at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) in Piscataway and won 20 games overall.
However, their season was cut short due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, as the team was pulled off the floor as it was warming up for the opening game of the Big Ten tournament against Michigan.
The NCAA canceled the rest of the season, denying Rutgers a shot at participating in what has come to be known as “March Madness.”
Harper said the disappointment of last year helped fuel the team this season.
“With the tournament being canceled last year we were obviously heart broken and disappointed, but that disappointment turned into hunger,” he said. “It’s just fuel to the fire which makes you want to do it again.”
Many wondered if this season would be played due to the pandemic, but the Scarlet Knights, like other teams throughout the country, made the sacrifices necessary to make the season happen.
This included adhering to strict social distancing and playing games in mostly empty arenas, as the deafening noise usually heard at the RAC was absent this season.
Nevertheless, the Scarlet Knights started off the season on fire, streaking to a 6-0 record, which included wins over Syracuse, Maryland, and Illinois.
They faced some bumps along the way in the highly competitive Big Ten Conference, including a five-game losing streak.
However, they were able to right the ship and finish the Big Ten season with a respectable 10-10 record in the conference and a 15-11 overall mark.
Harper said that playing in the powerhouse Big Ten has helped prepare the Scarlet Knights for the challenge of playing in the NCAA tournament.
“Playing in the Big Ten is a test night in and night out. I feel like the Big Ten teams are the most battle tested teams in the tournament,” Harper Jr. said. “It’s just a tough league. It’s the best league in the country and one of the best leagues of all time.”
Senior guard Jacob Young, a transfer from the University of Texas and one of the team leaders, agreed.
“We faced adversity in the Big Ten. We figured out how to bounce back from the adversity and I think that really helped us to come together and how to strive together to be better.”
The team has been led by a trio of seniors: the steady smooth shooting Baker, the ultra quick Young and 6’11 senior center Myles Johnson; a two time Big ten All Academic nominee, who leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots.
Harper, who was named to the “Watch List” for the Wooden Award (nation’s top player), led the team in scoring with over 15 points a game.
Among the other key members of the team include gritty sophomore guard Paul Mulcahy, a Bayonne, NJ product, as well as junior guard Montez Mathis and wingman Caleb McConnell. Freshman Clifford Omoruyi, who hails from Nigeria, also made significant contributions at center. Senior forward Mamadou Doucoure gave the team strong minutes coming off the bench.
The 10th seeded Scarlet Knights will play underdog to the 7th seeded Tigers, and the oddsmakers favor Clemson.
However, Rutgers players feel good about their chances heading into the contest.
“We’re gritty, we’re talented, we’re all winners,” Baker said. “I feel like we all came here to win. And now we’re in a tournament of winners, so we get to see really what could happen. But I feel like its destiny.”
Young, the only Scarlet Knight with previous tournament experience, called this Scarlet Knights team “a bunch of humble and hungry guys.”
“We feel like we are always looked over and talked down on and we feel like we have something to prove, ” Young added.
Rutgers tips off against Clemson at 9:20pm on Friday, March 19,, with the game airing on TBS.