For Dalip Bhatia, Tuesday's matchup with Saint Peter's pits Rutgers' director of basketball operations against his mentor, John Dunne. (Photo courtesy of the Newark Star-Ledger)
For the second straight season, Rutgers and Saint Peter's will feature more than just one common thread when the two programs face off in Piscataway Tuesday night.
Aside from their status as Garden State rivals, the Scarlet Knights and Peacocks share a familiar name on the bench in the form of Dalip Bhatia, Rutgers' director of basketball operations who cut his teeth in the Division I ranks for five years as an assistant to John Dunne at Saint Peter's before returning to his alma mater shortly after Eddie Jordan was hired to replace Mike Rice.
"When the opportunity arose, it was definitely something I was interested in," Bhatia said with regard of joining the Rutgers staff in May of 2013. "I'm excited for what's going on at Rutgers under Coach Jordan's leadership, and I'm just grateful that he's allowing me to be a part of his program and helping him build the program through class, integrity and character, with dedicated student-athletes."
"I'm just grateful that I've been able to learn, both from Coach Dunne and from Coach Jordan, how to build a program," Bhatia recalled when comparing his tenure at Saint Peter's to his current atmosphere at Rutgers, "but the one clear similarity between both of them is doing it with integrity and character and finding dedicated student-athletes who want to succeed in the classroom, want to build a championship-caliber program, and want to be good citizens in the community and on campus."
Yet in an industry where some up-and-coming coaches sometimes forget their roots as they ascend the ladder, Bhatia is an exception, a humble upstart who proudly reminds everyone of who gave him his first shot.
"One of the things I always had in my back pocket is that I always had Coach Dunne's support to pursue that opportunity," Bhatia proclaimed of his mentor, who will lead Saint Peter's into battle against Rutgers, where his former assistant is now firmly entrenched in his latest stop on a road to stardom. "He obviously gave me a very strong recommendation, and I'm very grateful for him helping me through that process."
"I'm grateful to Coach Dunne for giving me the opportunity to be a Division I assistant, teaching me the business and really preparing me for the opportunity at Rutgers. He gave me a lot of responsibility, pushed me to be a good Division I assistant. He had me well prepared to move on to the next step in my coaching career."
In five years in Jersey City, Dunne not only guided Bhatia through his formative years as an assistant coach, but more importantly, instilled a sense of knowing just how involved of a process winning can be at the Division I level, as Saint Peter's gradually went from the cellar of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to a contender, with the highwater mark of Bhatia's tenure on the Peacocks' bench being a MAAC championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011.
While on Dunne's staff, Bhatia helped recruit the Peacocks' current core, led by seniors Desi Washington, Marvin Dominique and Jamel Fields, all of whom he remains close to as the trio attempt to return Saint Peter's to the MAAC's elite, along with reigning league powerhouses Iona and Manhattan.
"My last year there was Desi's first year playing after sitting out, and Marvin and Jamel redshirted," Bhatia stated, "and I'm just very lucky that I got to work out with those guys and really help them individually with extra skill development. I'm just happy to see those guys have success going into their senior year, I know they won seven of ten to close out last season, and they've got a very talented group with a couple of really good players in Marvin and Desi, who I'm very close with, so I'm happy to see the success they're going to have as individuals and as a team as the year progresses."
All familiarity aside, though, Bhatia recognizes the job that must still be done Tuesday night, offering a realistic summary of his family reunion, so to speak.
"To be honest, it's just another game," he advised. "I think in the coaching profession, you're always facing friends, obviously Coach Dunne is a very good friend of mine, a mentor that I rely on for guidance, and I'm still very close with a lot of the guys on the team there; I helped recruit them, coach them, and obviously, I want them to succeed, but to me, it's just another game. All of us will shake hands and give hugs to each other before the game and after the game, but when the ball tips, I'm sure all the players, all the players and both coaching staffs, want to win."
"I'm sure Coach Dunne is going to have his guys prepared, and I know Coach Jordan is going to have our guys prepared. I think they'll come out, it'll be a war right from the tip, and as a Rutgers Scarlet Knight, I'm looking forward to a win for the Scarlet Knights, and hope that everyone has a safe and healthy game."