After 30 years, Rutgers finds his way back to the NCAA Tournament

Jim Calhoun knows a thing or two about building something out of nothing, and it seems that Steve Pikiell, now the coach of Rutgers, has been paying close attention all these years.

Over 26 seasons as head coach of Connecticut, Calhoun turned a bad, unknown program into a national brand and won three national titles and 17 Big East championships – ten regular titles and seven tournament titles – before retiring in September 2012.

In conference games, his Huskies usually dominated the ever-struggling Scarlet Knights, but the trips to Piscataway, NJ, led Calhoun to believe that Rutgers could build a power station if he wanted to.

He would share this idea with Pikiell, a point guard who had been with him from the beginning of his UConn tenure. When Pikiell first slipped on a UConn jersey in the mid-1980s, he was asked at airports if he was playing for a team in Fort Yukon, Alaska. No one heard of the university in the sticks of Storrs, Conn., And people were confused by the wolf-like Husky mascot.

But Calhoun knew he had to give players a chance.

“We went out and we sold the Big East – and finally we sold UConn,” Calhoun said by telephone this week. ‘But initially the Great East was magical, and I think it’s the Big Ten now. You watch Illinois play, Michigan play, and so on, and so forth, you’re probably watching the best conference in the country. ”

He added, referring to Pikiell: ‘All the places – it’s not a game. It’s an opportunity in those places. It is tradition rich. He uses the Big Ten as we used the Great East. ”

Sell ​​the conference, sell the team.

In an interview with Pat Hobbs, Rutgers’ athletics director, five years ago, Pikiell said he would walk the New Jersey Turnpike from his coaching position at Stony Brook on Long Island if that meant he could lead Rutgers, who has not since did not reach the NCAA Tournament. 1991.

He was not deterred by Rutgers’ reputation as a program that chewed and spat out coaches.

Kevin Bannon almost led Rutgers to the NCAA Tournament in 1999, but was sacked in 2001 after the ‘naked release incident’ during his first season in 1997 – players and managers were ordered to run naked sprints after a strip-free run. lost throwing match – got attention again.

Gary Waters almost took Rutgers to the 2004 tournament. He resigned after the 2006 season, in which he missed a game against Marquette.

Waters’ replacement, Fred Hill Jr., was fired in 2010 for a cursed tirade aimed at Pittsburgh coaches during a Rutgers baseball game. Then came Mike Rice, who then went into a scandal over abusive behavior. Eddie Jordan, a star guard on the University’s Final Four team in 1976, took up the post in 2013 after three unsuccessful results as NBA coach. He is 29-68.

The program got used to jokes in the Big East – the country’s then-premier college basketball conference – to be ahead of a one-time stopover at the 2013-14 U.S. Athletics Conference. The last NCAA appearance of the program was previously three conferences as a member of the Atlantic 10.

When Jordan was sacked, Rutgers lost 33 of his previous 34 conference games and played home games in half-empty arenas.

Pikiell, who has faced challenges before, still wanted the job.

The 53-year-old Pikiell was the architect who led Stony Brook to its first NCAA tournament and to a new arena on campus. As a player at UConn, he was often injured and was captain twice when the program last ended in the Big East in 1986-87. The Huskies won the conference title when he was a senior in 1989-90 and advanced to the round of 8 during the NCAA Tournament.

On Rutgers, recalling Calhoun’s advice, Pikiell quickly got players to buy into. The first was Geo Baker, a low-skilled site that carried number 0; Pikiell shot himself into a senior captain and an all-Big Ten player from the clutch and the face of the program.

Myles Johnson, another job currently underway, has crossed the country to join the team and become an academic major in engineering toward graduate school and an all-Big Ten center.

“If you look at Myles when he first came in, I would not have seen how he is now,” Baker said of his teammate Johnson, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound red-shirt junior. “I have no idea how the coaches saw the vision. They have done an excellent job of just developing us further and making sure we understand the game while also developing ourselves as human beings. ”

Ron Harper Jr. has an NBA pedigree through his father, Ron, who won five championships with the Bulls and the Lakers, but the younger Harper was also an unspoiled recruiter. Under Pikiell, Harper grew into a conference player who is considered one of the leading small forwards in the country and an NBA prospect.

‘I bet everyone on the roster, when they committed themselves to Rutgers, asked everyone,’ Why? ‘, Harper said. “I remember when I was playing away in high school, opponents’ divisions sang ‘Last in the Big Ten’ and trash talk about Rutgers.”

But Harper’s decision led to the rebuilding at the forefront.

Rutgers went to the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals in 2018. In 2019, Pikiell’s third year and Harper’s first-year season, Rutgers improved to seven conference wins, and last year he won 11.

The Rutgers Athletics Center has grown and become one of the toughest places in the country to play visiting teams. With a program record of 10 sold-out games, including nine at the end of the 2019-20 season, Rutgers passed 18-1 at home in a 20-win campaign. Then a dream season ended abruptly, when the coronavirus pandemic stopped the NCAA tournament that Rutgers was striving for.

“They did not feel the pressure of 29 years like they felt the pressure this year because you were just there and played well,” Hobbs said. And of course, this year, you have to get back there. Was last year really, if you do not come there again? ‘

It really is. Rutgers beat Clemson 60-56 in the first round on Friday – his first victory in the NCAA Tournament since 1983 – and faced Houston on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights still win, and Calhoun keeps watching.

“It’s just a matter of vision, instead of respect, which is good,” Calhoun said, adding that he would say to Pikiell, “OK, you are there. The key is that it is very difficult to get there. Stay there? Sometimes tougher. ”

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