Sunday night’s regular season finale marks the fourth consecutive season that Rutgers faces a must win situation. Despite the ups and downs of this season with more of the latter of late, the Scarlet Knight have an opportunity to punctuate their postseason resume with a clutch victory for the fourth straight year.
As difficult a loss that Thursday night was for Steve Pikiell’s team, it’s one game in 121 played the past four seasons. Rutgers is 72-49 (.595) during that time that includes two NCAA Tournament appearances and would have been a third if Covid-19 didn’t force the cancellation of the 2020 dance.
Over the last four seasons, only four teams have won at least ten Big Ten regular season games.
Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, AND Rutgers.
That’s the list.
Indiana has done it once. Maryland has done it twice. Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin have done it three times. But each have had at least one losing season in Big Ten play over the last four seasons. Those are programs with bigger names than Rutgers, but not more wins.
Taking the next step as a program matters. But so does being a consistent winner.
That’s what Rutgers has become.
Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson, Jacob Young, Montez Mathis, Cliff Omoruyi have been instrumental in that success as well. Akwasi Yeboah, Mawot Mag, Aundre Hyatt and other current players have played key roles on one or two teams as well.
However, only two players have been on all four teams. Hopefully, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy can lead Rutgers to a another pivotal victory on Sunday night and solidify the team’s NCAA Tournament case. It would be the perfect sendoff for both.
McConnell is playing his last game at the RAC for certain. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was just named College Gameday’s Defensive Player of the Year on Saturday. Hopefully, he is chosen as a repeat winner for the league and the national winner by Naismith as well. Even if he doesn’t, McConnell has been the ultimate warrior for Rutgers. Injuries throughout his career have been par for the course. He’s gone from intriguing freshman, key role player, and glue guy to the ultimate defensive stopper and big game scorer.
The one player to register a double double in the only NCAA Tournament win for Rutgers in the last 40 years has been Caleb McConnell. His offensive performance against Notre Dame last season in the dance would have been a headliner had Rutgers been able to win. His blocked shot from out of nowhere was an iconic moment last season.
McConnell’s versatility to defend the best player at multiple positions is not valued by fans enough. Most cannot attempt to do what he does very well. His attitude, his desire to get better, his will to win. McConnell is not the perfect player. Far from it. His offensive struggles at times can challenge the patience of most fans. But his dedication, his toughness, his defensive prowess make him an all-time Rutgers player.
Whether Sunday is Mulcahy’s last home game remains to be seen. He will walk as a senior and important to note he actually graduated after three years. Mulcahy said Friday he will decide whether he returns for next season after this one is over.
He’s struggled mightily of late. It’s been tough to watch such a fiery, tough player be unable to break out of whatever issues he’s battling. If Rutgers does make serious noise in the postseason, it will likely be in large part to Mulcahy breaking out from this recent slump. While it’s fair to wonder whether that will happen in time, it shouldn’t take away from all that he’s already done for this program. His impact has been significant.
There were the dagger threes to bury the Archie Miller at Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. There was the super hero stretch that propelled Rutgers to becoming the first unranked team to beat four ranked foes in four straight games. He became the first player to average more than 5 assists per game in a season in 37 years. Leading RU to wins at No. 1 Purdue and Michigan State at the Garden were major highlights this season. To think he doesn’t have anything left in March would be a mistake.
Sunday night against Northwestern is a huge game with major implications on the postseason. Rutgers has put themselves in yet another backs against the wall situation. The past three years, they’ve come through each time. Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy have been a key part of those teams and much more throughout their careers at Rutgers. Their perseverance, loyalty in staying, ability to overcome adversity and willingness to take a chance on Steve Pikiell and the program make them deserved of every fan’s gratitude. Their sacrifice, their impact and all the wins they’ve been a part of will not be forgotten.
The season is not over, nor are their standout careers. McConnell and Mulcahy came to Rutgers before the program had won in the Big Ten or had postseason dreams based in reality. Making yet another NCAA Tournament would the proper ending. Whenever they are done, they’ve played key roles in turning the program into a consistent winner. Their legacies are secure with the chance to enhance them still on the table.
Whether you are at the game or watching from home, tip your cap to them. Toast a drink to them. Say a word on their behalf. The last four years have been special. And after watching McConnell and Mulcahy through it all, I believe there is more that they will still accomplish this March.
Win or lose tomorrow, the seniors and this program deserve the ultimate respect from fans.
Editor’s Note: I highly recommend Jerry Carino’s profile on McConnell here.
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