On Monday, Rutgers men’s basketball made it’s season debut in the AP Top 25 poll at No. 23 following wins over Northwestern and Ohio State last week. It was the program’s first appearance in almost two years dating back to February 8, 2021. It marks the 11th week that Rutgers has been ranked in Steve Pikiell’s tenure.
It’s now the third season in the last four overall that Rutgers has been ranked at least once. Prior to that stretch, RU had been ranked in just four different seasons over a 69 year span since the AP Poll began.
Currently in second place in the Big Ten standings with a 5-2 record and 13-5 overall, Rutgers continues to draw national attention. Winners of seven of their last eight games, the Scarlet Knights are No. 14 in KenPom and No. 17 in the NET rankings.
Three of their last four Big Ten wins came by less than five points with two by one possession. Co-Big Ten Player of the Week Cam Spencer hit game winning threes in both victories.
After Sunday’s 68-64 overtime victory over Ohio State, head coach Steve Pikiell was asked about Rutgers legitimately competing for a Big Ten title. As expected, Pikiell, much like his star center Cliff Omoruyi who had blocked six shots in the win, swatted away even the idea of such a possibility.
“No, you guys can talk about that. We’ve got Michigan State (next) and it’s the best league in the country. We don’t ever look down the road,” explained Pikiell. “These guys know how I am and I’ll never change. There’s a lot of season left and there is a lot of really good basketball and there’s a lot of things that go on, so we’ve got to stay focused on what’s important.”
It’s no secret the recipe for success for Rutgers has been playing defense at an elite level. At No. 3 nationally in defensive efficiency, the Scarlet Knights have held all 18 opponents below their season scoring average. In holding Ohio State to 15 points below its season average despite playing into overtime, RU has now limited 14 foes to at least 10 points below their season-average. The Buckeyes, who came into the game No. 3 nationally in offensive efficiency, scored a season low 64 points.
If Rutgers is to challenge for a Big Ten title and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, they’ll do it on the back of their defense.
“It helps when you have the National Defensive Player of the Year,” Pikiell stated in support of Caleb McConnell on a phone call on Tuesday. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has improved his block rate with almost as high a steal rate as last season. Furthermore, he’s improved offensively in playing a larger role for RU this winter.
Pikiell didn’t stop there.
”Mag has added so much to our defense too. Cam Spencer is as good a steals guy as there is in the country. You have Cliff blocking six shots. It helps when you have those pieces too.” He continued, “Paul is as good a team defender as there is. It really helps having Aundre coming off the bench and able to guard multiple positions. Derek changes speeds for us too, an athletic guy. Physical.”
The key for Rutgers is to continue to play with their trademark toughness. A program that’s risen to prominence with a backs against the wall mentality will have to learn to adjust. They’ve transitioned from the hunters to the hunted. Beating the Scarlet Knights is now a top of the resume victory for any team. RU has proven they can take a punch, even on the road, and respond in kind. However, can they keep their edge and handle a team’s best punch?
“I think these guys have been pretty focused all year long. I think they’re motivated,” explained Pikiell. “Paul is a senior and it’s Caleb’s last go around. Mawot is a huge part of this, last year he wasn’t playing a different role. It’s Cam’s first go around. Cliff is a junior. I think they’re motivated to just have a good year. That’s what we’ve really talked about.”
Asked how this team has become so resilient this season, Pikiell pointed to his veterans.
“We have some experience in the grind it out department,” Pikiell stated.
“We’ve had guys here who have grinded it out a lot. Paul, Caleb, Mawot. We’ve added some guys who can grind along with them. Cam, Derek and those guys. Every game brings obstacles.”
In regard to how to survive in the Big Ten, Pikiell discussed the flow of how the regular season can be a roller coaster.
“I’m watching Michigan State-Purdue, it’s a two point game. It’s the kind of league it is. It’s not just us, it’s everybody,” Pikiell reiterated. “The league is so competitive and so well coached and scouted that you have to be able to win some games. You get lucky a few games with all the shots going in. Some games no shots are going in so you’re probably going to struggle in those. The rest you have to figure out a way to grind it out. This group has been good. They’re coachable, they’re experienced, they’re connected.”
As for his steady hand and knack for pushing the tight buttons, Pikiell explained his usual message to his team.
“Don’t worry about the ups and downs, the daily fame or when you lose. Stay the course. Be where your feet are. Embrace the moment that we’re in. Embrace that we haven’t won at Michigan State. You can’t have any more respect for a program in our league than a place like Michigan State. That’s what we try to do.”
Rutgers travels to face the Spartans on Thursday night in East Lansing. MSU will be looking to bounce back after a one point loss to No. 2 Purdue on Monday. After years of RU being mostly non-competitive against Tom Izzo’s team, they’ve won the last two meetings, both at the RAC, dating back to the 2020-2021 season. However, if the Scarlet Knights want to make it a full fledged winning streak, they’ll need to stay focused.
“We’ve got Michigan State at Michigan State. We’ve never beaten them there,” Pikiell stated again. “I don’t spend anytime on what team is ranked. It doesn’t effect anything. We have to get ready to play a Hall of Fame coach in a gym we’ve never won in against a team that is playing really well. They’ve won seven out of their last nine games. That’s really what all of my focus has been. I’m hoping that’s what the guys are focusing on.”
Whether Rutgers is ranked or not, it’s keeping their identity that matters in regard to future success. They play as hard as any team, defend as well as any team, and lately can close out games as well as any team.
For this team to have its most successful season under Steve Pikiell, there is no magic to it. Rutgers just has to keep grinding. If they do, it will take them as far as this team can possibly go.