PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It used to be easy to criticize Rutgers’ schedule and scoff at its 9-3 record. That changed last weekend.
The Scarlet Knights’ upset of then No. 15 Seton Hall has been a boost to Steve Pikiell’s program. Beating the Pirates has shown Rutgers has gotten over the hump after close losses against once-ranked Minnesota, No. 24 Florida State and No. 2 Michigan State.
“We just showed everybody that we can play anybody in the country,” senior guard Mike Williams said.
Moments after defeating Seton Hall, Williams was brimming with confidence and reiterated his preseason proclamation that the Scarlet Knights would end their NCAA Tournament drought.
“I really feel like this is the year that we’re going to do it,” Williams said. “That we’re going to go to the tournament.”
Rutgers in the NCAA Tournament would shock the college hoops world. Picked to finish last in the Big Ten in the preseason poll, Rutgers hasn’t made March Madness since 1991. With Northwestern making the NCAAs last year, Rutgers has the longest NCAA Tournament drought of the Power Five schools.
Just making the NIT for the first time since 2006 would be a major accomplishment for Pikiell. He took over a team last year that had posted a 7-25 overall record and a 1-17 mark in the Big Ten in 2015-16.
Williams said the win over Seton Hall raised the team’s hopes.
“They’re going to go to the (NCAA) Tournament again, I feel it,” Williams said. “We just have to keep our momentum up.”
That could be easier said than done. Before re-entering conference play, Rutgers closes out non-conference play against two mediocre opponents in Stony Brook on Friday and Hartford next week.
Those contests will be played in a half-filled arena without much buzz, the opposite of last Saturday’s intrastate rivalry.
“We can’t really stay complacent. We just have to keep coming out and playing our game,” freshman guard Geo Baker said. “We can’t just be happy with just beating Seton Hall.”
Pikiell, who coached at Stony Brook before coming to Rutgers, is already focused on the future.
December success won’t mean much if Rutgers struggles in Big Ten play. Not to mention the weak RPI from its non-conference schedule makes selection for any postseason play more difficult, so upsetting Seton Hall can’t be its only big win of the season.
“The good part is even the other day I didn’t think we played great. There’s tremendous room for growth. We’re still figuring it out,” Pikiell said. “What we want to do is continue to be good and tough in those areas you can bring every night and that’s rebounding and defense.”