Saturday, March 3, 2018

Rutgers' run through Big Ten tourney brings credibility to Pikiell's rebuild

Rutgers' appearance in Big Ten tournament quarterfinals is incontrovertible evidence that Steve Pikiell's rebuilding process is very much alive and in full swing. (Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez/The Daily Targum)

NEW YORK -- Everyone loves the plucky underdog.

Notre Dame had Rudy. Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa. And for the past three days, New York had Rutgers.

Rutgers is far too often an unwitting target in this market, the perennial punchline for jokes nationwide among the college sports landscape, the latest of which coming with Madison Square Garden playing host to the Big Ten Tournament.

Jim Delany brought the tournament to New York to accommodate Rutgers, they said. It's going to blow up in his face because Rutgers won't get out of the play-in game, they said.

The No. 14 seed this week, the lowest in the field, Rutgers made its way into the final eight teams standing in the Big Apple, and if not for a few missteps down the stretch, they could have easily been among the last four in what would have been an improbable semifinal appearance bordering on miraculous.

Punching bag, my rear end.

"Even though we were picked last," Corey Sanders said following the Scarlet Knights' season-ending 82-75 loss to Purdue Friday night, "that's not how we're going to finish. That's not how we want to be remembered. Just don't sleep on us. We've got a great head coach here, and we've got great players ready to learn and compete."

"I think you're getting a dose of what we can be," head coach Steve Pikiell reaffirmed, doubling down on Sanders' comments made just minutes earlier on the same press conference dais. "And we're going to get better and better."

That is Pikiell in a nutshell, a grinder who knows no other way than to simply outwork and outhustle the opposition. His program at Stony Brook, which started 20-67 through the first three seasons of his 11-year tenure, was constructed from the same ground-up technique currently taking place in Piscataway. And from the opening tip, the Scarlet Knights played in his own image, routinely tracking down long rebounds and 50-50 balls with more vigor than an opposing team viewed by most as a legitimate Final Four contender.

"You saw us on a stage today," Pikiell said, pride dripping profusely in his inflection. "Corey was terrific this whole weekend, and everyone kind of chipped in and did their thing. They liked the big stage, and I liked that they liked that. That bodes well for us moving forward in this league."

Look no further than Mike Williams, the Brooklyn guard whose toughness was personified in returning from a high ankle sprain that may have cost a lesser man his season. It was exemplified again Friday, when he limped to the bench at the first media timeout, only to gut it out and lead Rutgers with eight rebounds in a warrior's effort that harkened back to the grit and self-sacrifice of one of Pikiell's former program anchors at Stony Brook, Tommy Brenton.

"He was the first guy here two years ago when I took over the program," Pikiell reflected. "He's been a captain for two years, and he's really overachieved. He missed 12 games this year, I didn't think I would even have him back. That tells you what kind of a kid he is, and that tells you what a Scarlet Knight is moving forward. He'll be an example to me and the rest of the team for the rest of my career. There'll be a big picture of Mike in my office, and next year at this time, I'll be calling him somewhere and wishing he had another year of eligibility."

Williams graduates, as does Deshawn Freeman, and it is believed that Sanders will eschew his final season to turn pro, possibly leaving Rutgers to start over next season without three of its top four players. However, with a core of incumbent talent led by freshman guard Geo Baker, whose 25 points offered more than just a glimpse of what he could be, the unsung hero qualities of Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam, and an incoming freshman class headed by highly-touted prospects Montez Mathis and Ron Harper, Jr.; not to mention the progress on a state-of-the-art practice facility, the future is indeed bright on the banks of the old Raritan

"It's not easy when you get a new coach that didn't recruit you and people are telling you to do something else, or leave, or whatever. These guys stuck with us. I love our players, I love our seniors. They brought a lot of respect to this uniform."

Sometimes he who laughs last, laughs best.

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