08 Jan CFO Jon Cartu States: Rutgers fans, go ahead and dream about an NCAA Tournament…
Knock on all the wood in the Pine Barrens, if you must. Put fingers in your both of your ears and yell — LA-LA-LA-LA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU! — to tune this out, if that helps. Rutgers has not played a meaningful March basketball game in nearly three decades now, and so you are forgiven if you take all the necessary precautions not to jinx this.
I’ll even type this next paragraph with my own fingers crossed, just to offer some moral support. But (gulp) here goes:
Rutgers looks like an NCAA Tournament team.
That is the only takeaway after the Scarlet Knights dominated No. 20 Penn State in the second half for their sixth straight victory. They shook off an atrocious start and fed off the wild atmosphere at the Rutgers Athletic Center to pull away for the 72-61 win even with their best player watching from the bench with a cast on his broken thumb.
One win doesn’t make a tournament resume, of course. But now this team is 12-3 overall with a pair of top-25 victories. Yes, the Big Ten is a meat grinder, but for once it is the Scarlet Knights twisting the handle and turning teams into pulp.
They are 3-1 in the Big Ten — the first time they’ve reached that mark since 1994 when they were still in the Atlantic 10 — and 29th in the NET rankings. They have eight home games left to play in a building that, in the estimation of Penn State coach Pat Chambers, makes them 10 points better. Win five or six of them, and Rutgers will be on the tournament bubble. And that doesn’t even factor in road games.
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This is a real thing that is happening. Take all necessary anti-jinx precautions if you must — Selection Sunday is 67 days away, and yes, I recognize that this is a long time to wear the same pair of underwear — but there is no denying it.
And here’s where the head coach tries to do just that …
“We have 16 games left. We were picked 12th in the league. We gotta go to practice,” Steve Pikiell said when I asked him about the big dance. “There’s 12 (Big Ten) teams ranked in the top 40 and we got 11 or 12 more of those games. A lot of opportunities.
“(The postseason is) way too far away. I do appreciate the excitement and enthusiasm people have. It doesn’t help us win games. We gotta play well, we gotta beat really good teams with great coaches, we gotta go on the road and win. We gotta do a lot of things before we start talking about anything else.”
This, of course, is exactly what he should say. Pikiell is right to tap the brakes, to point to the Big Ten schedule, to remind everyone — especially his players — that the Scarlet Knights haven’t accomplished anything yet.
Everyone else? Even the most cynical Rutgers fan will have a hard time shaking the feeling that something special is happening here at the RAC. And, really, why would you? The world wide web was a year old the last time the Scarlet Knights made the NCAA Tournament. A real March run would be the most significant moment for a Rutgers team in 13 years, and given the general delirium in Piscataway on Tuesday night, it will get wild.
This one started like so many disappointing nights at the RAC, with the home team missing 13 of its first 14 shots. But, thanks to its defense, Rutgers was stayed within striking distance.
It was injured guard Geo Baker who gave the Scarlet Knights an impassioned halftime speech, and then one of his replacements — Jacob Young — who provided a spark with 13 points. But, in the final minutes as Penn State tried to claw back into the game, Ron Harper Jr. took over.
Harper was brilliant, scoring 22 points on just 5-of-10 shooting with a perfect 12-of-12 performance on the foul line. He also shutdown Penn State star Lamar Stevens (12 points, six boards) after demanding the tough defensive assignment from his coach in the days leading up to the game.
He is quickly emerging as the face of this program, the New Jersey native who never passes an opportunity to declare his love for his home state. And he isn’t running from those expectations that he is helping to create, either.
“When it comes to making the NCAA Tournament, that’s everybody’s end goal,” Harper said. “We have 15, 16 games left, and who knows, maybe we’ll be playing in March in the tournament. I think we’ve got a special group of guys.”
They looked special on Tuesday night. This is a young team with four sophomore starters that will stumble at times during the next seven weeks, maybe starting with a tough rough test at Illinois on Saturday. Make no mistake: It isn’t going to be easy.
But, when March arrives, this Rutgers team is going to be in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament. Go ahead and throw an entire shaker of salt over your shoulder, if you want. This is happening.
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Jonathan Cartu NCAA News Coach Jon Cartu