The Rutgers men’s basketball team boarded a plane on Wednesday afternoon, bound for Chicago for a Gavitt Games game against DePaul.The Scarlet Knights’ first true road game in front of fans in 622 days, after all ten of last season’s away trips were played in front of cardboard cutouts due to the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday night’s game is the first true test of the season for Steve Pikiell’s squad as they seek a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this spring.
The sixth-year head coach is confident that his team can handle the situation.”We have experienced guys who understand how difficult it is to go on the road and win games,” he said on Tuesday. “We are aware of the difficulties.”The venue Pikiell will walk into on Thursday is different – Wintrust Arena was built in the intervening years – as is the reality of where his programme is compared to the last time he took Rutgers to DePaul.On this day five years ago, then-first-year head coach Steve Pikiell and his Scarlet Knights made the same trip in what was his first road game as head coach in Piscataway.
The NCAA Tournament bid was still a pipe dream for the programme at the time. The drought was entering its 26th season, and March Madness seemed like a mountain too far to climb for the downtrodden programme. The Scarlet Knights were 2-0 heading into the game that November, having defeated Division II programme Molloy and low-major team Drexel. It may not seem like much now, but for a team that had lost 47 of its previous 64 games prior to that season, every win was worth celebrating.
But this time, the success did not appear to be fleeting.Jake Dadika, a junior walk-on on that team, recalls the belief in Pikiell’s vision gradually growing leading up to that first season. It started right away with Pikiell’s one-on-one meetings with every player in the programme upon his arrival, in which he laid out his vision for Rutgers basketball and asked for feedback on what they’ve seen and what they’d like to see improved in the programme.
It grew throughout the preseason as the players observed the evolution of their preparation, workouts, drills, and strength and conditioning programme. Dadika recalls how the preparation was “defensively focused” and how everything “ran perfectly.””Everything was a tight ship, which was exactly what we needed,” Dadika said this week to NJ Advance Media. “It made a positive difference in the programme.
“That was evident in the first games of Pikiell’s tenure, when the program’s pillars — defence and rebounding — were front and centre. The Scarlet Knights dominated the boards in those games, outrebounding their first two opponents by 13 and 27, respectively, and holding both under the 65-point “speed limit” that Pikiell’s defences aim to keep opposing offences at.
That carried over into Allstate Arena, DePaul’s former home, where they dominated the Blue Demons for the majority of the evening. After a back-and-forth first half, Rutgers led for the entire second half, thanks in large part to their effort on the boards.
The Scarlet Knights outrebounded DePaul by 19, grabbing 51.4 percent of their own missed shots and scoring 17 second-chance points in a 66-59 win that snapped a 20-game road losing streak, giving them their first win outside Piscataway in nearly two years and putting them at 3-0 for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
Mike Williams, a then-junior guard whose hard-nosed play style embodied the type of basketball Pikiell wanted his team to play, led the way with 14 points and nine rebounds.”We had just finished a very bad losing season.” “It was just like, ‘wow, this is new,’ to start 3-0,” Williams said this week.
Rutgers basketball had something to celebrate for the first time in a long time.
“That was the first plane ride home that we had some excitement on,” said Dadika, who now works in financial planning and wealth management. “Normally, you’re on the bus, and you’re beaten down because it’s another loss.” “Winning was a great way to get started.”This momentum carried over into an 11-1 start.
It came against the country’s second-weakest schedule at the time, and Rutgers eventually crashed back down to earth when it lost 17 of its final 21 games, but that didn’t matter: the Scarlet Knights believed for the first time in years.
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