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Rutgers needs to play NIT for themselves



Mar 9, 2023; Chicago, IL, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights players celebrate after defeating the Michigan Wolverines at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers men’s basketball team has a choice. They can decide to play the NIT like it’s the NCAA Tournament or they can let the heartache take them out early.

There would be no shame if Rutgers struggles on Tuesday against Hofstra. For one, the Pride are a very good mid-major team. They won the CAA regular season title and beat NCAA teams Charleston, Iona, and Princeton. Aaron Estrada is a star and Speedy Claxton can coach. They’ll come to the RAC looking to make a statement. They’re no patsy.

In addition, the 48 hour turnaround time from the NCAA Tournament Selection Show to the first round of the NIT will be an emotional challenge. Failing to earn a NCAA Tournament bid has to be devastating for them. The team’s goal was to go dancing and a shift in focus is needed. It won’t be easy. Steve Pikiell was absolutely correct in deciding to play. Of course, this team has been through a ton of adversity this season. Will this task prove one too many?

There are plenty of reasons to be motivated too.

Caleb McConnell is just two steals away from passing Eddie Jordan as the program’s all-time leader. It’s a bonus game at the RAC for him and could elicit a big time performance.

While everyone else on the roster can return next season, this could mark the end for players who chose to move on in the offseason. Playing at the RAC when you thought there were no more opportunities to do so could be inspiring.

For freshmen Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk, the chance to keep building on the progress they’ve made the last few weeks is huge.

As a team, they’ve only won 20 games twice over the last four decades. Win Tuesday and they’ve done it again.

The 2004 Rutgers team showed what is possible by making a run to the NIT title game before losing to Michigan.

The 2006 team, the last time RU played in the NIT, beat Penn State before losing to St. Joseph’s.

While it’s never the first choice for any team that plays in it, the NIT has history. It’s also been a jumping off point for many programs in the past that have won a title. Most importantly, it’s another opportunity to play.

I’ve seen plenty of comments from fans that Rutgers can get revenge, payback or make a statement to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee by winning the NIT title. While I appreciate that sentiment, if the committee didn’t watch the Big Ten Tournament, why would they watch the NIT? But I digress.

The point is there is no payback. The March Madness dream is dead.  It’s a harsh reality but it’s the truth.

Rutgers shouldn’t play for vengeance. They should play for themselves, the program, the fans, the university and for each other.

This isn’t the game they wanted to play in, but it’s the one they got. You can either make the most of it and move forward or see the season end in unceremonious fashion. They deserve more than a sad ending.

It’s both ironic and symbolic that Rutgers is playing Hofstra on Tuesday. The Scarlet Knights will literally be playing for pride while trying to beat the Pride at the same time.

While this team is no doubt hurting right now, they have a choice to make. They owe it to themselves to give it their best shot. They might do that and still lose to Hofstra because it is college basketball. Having the season end due to playing with a broken heart and empty gas tank would be understandable. Either way, playing true to themselves is enough to walk away whole.

Rutgers deserves as much support as possible at the RAC on Tuesday. We are all disappointed, but giving up is not the way. Of all things, Jim Valvano’s famous speech is on the wall outside the court. It is a sign.

I hope Rutgers plays well against Hofstra. I hope they advance to the second round against the winner of Cincinnati-Virginia Tech. No matter what happens, I hope this team plays for themselves. The pressure is off. Whatever happens, I hope Rutgers can build on last week’s turnaround in some way.

It’s not about proving people wrong. It’s about proving to themselves they deserved better and make the most of a unfortunate situation. If they can do that, these players will have a head start in becoming winners after basketball too.

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  1. thevinman

    March 13, 2023 at 10:56 pm

    They can decide to go out there and have some fun playing basketball.

  2. BataliBoli98

    March 13, 2023 at 11:53 pm

    Absolutely, just have fun and play loose. I’d love to see Cliff and Wolf get some time on the court together. I think Antwone has the potential to be a really strong 4 in this conference so let’s see what he can do when he doesn’t have to match up with the opponents biggest player. My fear is that the team will be more deflated than motivated by the snub. We’ll see in about 24-hours. Go RU!

  3. pj43

    March 14, 2023 at 3:30 am

    I expect Pikiell will have the team ready to play hard & I’ll be surprised if they just go through the motions. If they win tomorrow, I like their chances to build momentum & advance. As always, the inability to score will make every game a battle to the end. I like Simpson starting & Hyatt off the bench, as Simpson is bringing energy & playing with energy, bounce, and an “I don’t know any better, so I just play” attitude. Since the loss of Mag, this team needed more of that mindset. Add Woolfolk to the mix with his awakening as a football player morphing into a basketball player before our eyes, and just maybe the younguns can lead the way!

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