By Edwin Duodu – Sports Editor
Heartbreak. That is the only word to describes Rutgers University’s 63-60 loss in the round of 32 against a second-ranked team at Houston University. It was never going to be easy, and the odds were very much stacked against Rutgers. However, the team has proved that it is ready to rise to the challenge behind Head Coach Steve Pikiell. Pikiell, after receiving the head coaching job in 2016, has slowly turned a losing organization in the past ten years before his arrival to winning seasons in the past two years. He boasts a record of 80-77. Considering where the basketball program was, his progress can be seen as encouraging. However, the main question is can Pikiell and his team find a way to sustain a level of success that sees them fight for a tournament finish every year?
Although what will be remembered as memorial season, Rutgers limped into the Championship tournament. The team finished the season with a total record of 16-12 but sought only to win four of its last ten remaining games. In a tournament as crucial as this, momentum can be a key advantage for a team, especially if it’s already considered an underdog. In this case, Rutgers University fitted that profile, with a first-round date with seventh-ranked Clemson University. As expected, the general populous, outside of the Rutgers fanbase, didn’t give the team a chance of winning. The outcome, however, proved to be the exact opposite, with Geo Baker, Jacob Young, and Caleb McConnell scoring 13 points each to win a challenging game. It took a clutch layup from Baker to seal the victory, earning Rutgers its first win in 38 years. Even after their hard-fought 60-56 win against Clemson University in the first round, their most demanding task was yet to come.
Despite the fact that they would face a Houston University team in the second round, Rutgers held a ten-point lead in the second period, only to have it wiped out with Tramon Mark converting a three-point play with 24 seconds left to play. A tournament run and a dream coming to an end. The time has come now for Steve Pikiell to demonstrate his nurturing skills as a head coach. This upcoming offseason will be one of the more crucial ones that he’s had to face. To begin, Rutgers University is already in a tough Big Ten Conference as it is. Five of the top seven seeded teams advanced to the second round in the tournament. What complicates matters is the veteran presence set to graduate, an issue that many basketball programs deal with yearly. Fortunately for Rutgers, only Geo Baker and Jacob Young are expected to depart. Both are, however, two of the top three leading scorers for the season, including the tournament. The veteran leadership provided by both players will be difficult to replace, but it’s a task that Pikiell will have to face. On the bright side, most of the rotation will most likely be returning for the following season. This gives the coach a nucleus going into next season, tournament experience, and is already battle-tested.
The Rutgers fanbase can also expect increased roles from players such as Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson, and Caleb McConnell in their senior years. It’s hard to say how the team will perform with two key players no longer with the team looking into the upcoming season. An open spot, however, calls for an opportunity to be seized by another player. This team has the potential to replicate a similar season such as this one. Having talent is one aspect, but mentality and focus are also essential factors to basketball. Only time will tell if Pikiell’s team can breed the same if not better results compared to this successful season.