In February 2020, afterwards Rutgers basketball dropped an 8-point conclusion at Wisconsin, head double-decker Steve Pikiell spoke with his players in the locker room most areas for comeback.
“As he’s walking out, he turns around and says, ‘By the way, Geo Baker scored his 1,000th point — congratulations,’” old guard Nick Brooks recalled. “Everyone started clapping. Geo started crying.”
Tears of joy, these were not.
“I was similar, ‘damn,’” Brooks said. “He didn’t intendance about that. He was more upset about the fact that we lost.”
What RU must do to punch a ticket
The chestnut gets to the center of the grouping that will be honored on Senior Twenty-four hours Sunday, when the Cherry-red Knights host Penn State (noon, Big Ten Network) with an NCAA Tournament booth on the line. Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell and Luke Nathan raised Rutgers from the ashes by putting the team and their schoolhouse commencement. It was never about the stats, the accolades or their pro prospects. The transfer portal might likewise have been a shuttle to Mars.
You lot can measure out this group’s success past the numbers if you wish. Rutgers’ record over its beginning five Big X regular seasons was 16-76. Over the concluding 3, once these guys sunk their teeth into the programme, that marker is 32-27.
But there’s more to it than winning games. There’southward establishing a culture. This group built something everyone associated with Rutgers Academy can be proud of.
To mensurate that, yous demand to hear the stories.
Good teammates, adept friends
“I’ve dealt with a lot of feet and depression over the years,” Brooks said. “I’one thousand non afraid to tell people about it because mental health is a really big thing. I’ve had deep, nighttime conversations well-nigh it with Ron and Caleb. They were receptive to it. They supported me with information technology.”
Brooks, a Rutgers Prep grad who hails from South Brunswick, joined the program the same year as Harper and McConnell. He was a valuable fellow member of the scout squad, which preps the regulars for the upcoming opponent. Harper and McConnell treated him like an equal.
“Every time I needed them to be somewhere, an event for clemency or where I was coaching picayune kids in my neighborhood, if I called them and said tin can yous come, they’d be there,” he said.
Brooks said McConnell spent offseason weekends in the gym, often lone.
“I call back his ceiling as a thespian is so much higher than people realize,” Brooks said. “He’s so mature, he didn’t mind taking a back seat to Geo and Ron and embracing his role. He’d improve win (Big Ten) Defensive Player of the Year or I’ll accept a trip to Illinois and talk to the commissioner himself.”
‘Done it the right way’
To be a loftier-major basketball game player is to endure slings and arrows from fans — invective shouted at you from the bleachers on the road, and personal attacks on social media and message boards from those supposedly on your side. Pikiell once lamented that his players are “either getting hugged or getting punched” past zealots — an extraordinarily unhealthy beingness for college students at the tail cease of their formative years.
For Baker, Harper and McConnell, a effect of leading Rutgers to relevance has been stepping into this line of fire. They’ve handled information technology remarkably well, with only a rare breech in decorum.
“Fans back up us, but at that place are fans who tin can go real nasty,” Brooks said. “Last twelvemonth when nosotros lost five games in a row, everybody wanted to riot. If yous look at the social media posts: abolish the season, burn down Pike, personal attacks likewise. They tell u.s.a. to ignore it and we effort, but it’s hard.”
Withal at that place was Harper, publicly apologizing to fans afterward a home loss to Maryland in January. There was McConnell, embracing Wisconsin star Johnny Davis in the handshake line after last week’southward loss to the Badgers.
“They have done it the correct style, with course,” Pikiell said. “Not just bang-up basketball players, simply smashing kids and students.”
Sad solar day, great twenty-four hours
January 2019, just three years ago, Baker sat on the interview belvedere, his eyes red and his vocalisation cracking afterward an eight-signal home loss to Northwestern. Rutgers was 1-six in the Big 10. At that place were two,500 empty seats at the RAC.
“Nosotros’re not getting last place in the league,” the sophomore said. “That’s (goal) number 1. No matter what, we’re not getting terminal identify in this league.”
It was a line in the sand, and the Scarlet Knights didn’t finish last. A yr subsequently, they would win twenty games. A year after that, they notched the program’s offset NCAA Tournament victory since 1983. Now they’re playing for a double-farewell in the Big Ten tourney. Blinding talent didn’t change the course of Rutgers basketball, as the recruiting rankings will tell you. Attitude did.
“If you told Luke Nathan to put his pes out in the middle of the route and let a auto run over it and so our team could go to the Sweetness 16, he would do information technology,” Brooks said.
Honoring that spirit, to a higher place all else, is what Sunday is nearly. In an era when players change schools like socks, this group stayed the course. And they changed information technology.
“It’due south going to be a sad solar day,” Pikiell said, “but information technology’s going to exist a great day.”
In that location is a flake more than of the script to exist written, but no matter how it ends, appreciate this class. Information technology has a once-in-a-generation feel. You might not run into another 1 like it.
“The stop of an era,” Brooks said. “But this is the beauty of collegiate sports: The guys who are leaving have already laid the groundwork for the guys who are coming back.”
There’s a word for that.
It’s called legacy.
Here’southward one writer’s ranking of Rutgers basketball game’s nigh impactful classes in the modern era (post World War 2).
1976 (Phil Sellers, Mike Dabney, Mike Palko, Jeff Kleinbaum, Bruce Scherer):
Difficult to top a 31-2 curtain call. It will have another Final 4 appearance to claiming this group’s place atop the pantheon.
1979 (Abdel Anderson, James Bailey, Tom Brownish, Rodney Duncan):
Won 64 games over their final iii seasons, capped by a Sugariness sixteen advent. Anderson and Bailey also contributed to the Final Four run.
2022 (Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell, Luke Nathan):
Arrived at low tide. Broke the 30-year NCAA Tournament drought and showed Rutgers could compete in the Large Ten.
1967 (Bob Lloyd, Jim Valvano, Doug Clark):
The first group to put Rutgers on the hoops map, their senior squad advanced to the NIT semifinals at a time when that was still significant.
1983 (Roy Hinson, Kevin Black, Rich Brunson, Clarence Tillman, Chris Neiberlein):
Two league titles, two twenty-win seasons and an NCAA Tournament victory.
1991 (Craig Carter, Tom Savage, Keith Hughes, Earl Duncan, Brent Dabbs):
Carter and Fell helped Rutgers reach two NCAA Tournaments; Hughes, Duncan and Dabbs transferred in and led the 1991 squad to the second.
1969 (Bob Greacen, Dick Stewart, Lou Goetz, Doug Brittelle, Jack Penhall):
Went out with a 21-4 record afterward having helped the 1967 squad to the NIT semis. Iii winning seasons nether Bill Foster.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.