By Lenn Robbins
Steve Pikiell was just a few weeks on the job when a visitor showed up unexpectedly at his Rutgers University office. Pikiell had built my alma mater, Stony Brook, into an America East force, finally getting the Seawolves into the 2016 NCAA Tournament for the first time as a Division I program.
When Rutgers came calling he was ready – ready to take the next step, ready to haul out the brick and mortar and build another program. It had taken him five years to get Stony Brook to the NIT in 2010, the university’s first post-season appearance ever, so he knew a thing or two about program building.
“We have to change everything,” Pikiell told me that day about the Rutgers basketball losing culture. “It has to be knight and day. Knight and day.”
Daylight officially dawned for Rutgers basketball Friday night when the Scarlet Knights won their first NCAA Tournament game in 38 years, edging Clemson, 60-56. It was the perfect game for a program that has had to fight tooth, nail, broken heart and soul.
The Knights led by 11 (50-39) with 9:37 left but a Clemson program with much more tournament DNA tied it at 55-55 with 4:12 left. That’s when the Scarlet Knights went back to Pikiell Ball, squeezing the Tigers, who scored one point – one! – the rest of the game.
“We had enough grit,” said Pikiell. “We had enough Jersey tough.”
That toughness has been tested. Rutgers (16-11) was certain it was headed to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years last season. The Scarlet Knights were halfway through their Big Ten Tournament game when play was stopped. Pikiell and the team flew back to New Jersey. When they landed, word was out that there would be no Big Dance.
“A bad memory,” said Pikiell.
Finally, Rutgers has its first good memory since 1976 when the Scarlet Knights went 31-0 in the regular season and got to the Final Four, which took three wins back then. Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album was released in 1975. Yes, it’s been a while.
The next challenge for the No.10-seed Scarlet Knights is a Texas-size one. No.2-seed Houston (25-3) crushed Cleveland State, 86-56 for its 8th straight win.
“We’re going to enjoy this for about two seconds,” said Pikiell.
It’s enough time to watch knight turn to day.
Bracket Bruises: Here it was, Day 1 of the first round of the NCAA Tournament and my bracket is pristine. Virgin snow. I feel so good I actually Face chat, that’s what I’m calling it, with the great sports columnist, Jenni Carlson, in Oklahoma about the prospects of picking a perfect bracket. Or a perfectly imperfect bracket.
Knowing my track record, we agree there’s a better chance of the latter occurring. And so it begins.
Arkansas, which I have going to the Final Four, is down 14 points to Colgate. Colgate! Forget the toothpaste jokes. OK toothpaste was invented there. Not! Even worse, my son and I have a side wager: he’s convinced Colgate is his upset special. Close.
The Hogs finally change defenses and use their superior athleticism to blitz the, uh, Raiders, that’s right, the Raiders. They go from 14 down to 13 up and win 85-68 in the most misleading score of the day. Kudos Raiders.
No sooner have I wiped the sweat from my brow when Virginia Tech, my sleeper, leads for the first 35 minutes against Florida. The Gators close strong and go up 62-57 with just over a minute left. I’m toast. Then crazy March happens: the Hokies hit a 3 with three seconds left and I have a second life – OT. Not!
The Gators control OT and win, 75-70, and I have to pull over on and 2nd Avenue and 24th Street into order to shred my bracket. Breathe. Breathe. Screw that. I pop into Mike’s pizza and grab a center slice of Sicilian. By the time I get home, I’m cool. Until I turn on Greg Gumbel and friends.
Oral Roberts is beating Ohio State! I had Virginia Tech beating Ohio State. I know someone outside of Oral Roberts has picked the, uh, the Golden Eagles, that’s right, the Golden Eagles to pull the upset behind Max Abmas, who’s last name doesn’t even rhyme with Christmas.
Some other savant’s gain is my loss. Always my loss.
I’ve been tormented enough for one day but, of course, there’s more. No.4 Purdue, which I have winning two games, falls behind North Texas, which I know is the Mean Green. The Boilermakers fight back and force OT. I have a second life. Not! North Texans owns the OT and wins, 76-
By the time the Rutgers-Clemson game is about to tip I’ve lost Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Purdue and almost lost Arkansas. Ohio State is a bigger loss for those having the Buckeyes going to the Final Four.
Most Impressive Team: Illinois looked like a No.1 seed, taking control over Drexel and never letting up. Houston and Baylor also were dominant. But No. 4 Oklahoma State gets the vote, even over Oral Roberts. The Cowboys kept their composure and held off a solid Liberty team.
Cade Cunningham scored 15 points but he only went 3-of-14 from the field. Avery Anderson III had a career-high 19. The best word to describe this performance was professional. The Cowboys will be a hard out.
Most Disappointing Team – It’s a tie. Tennessee played as if it didn’t want to be in the NCAA Tournament, which is an indictment and a shame. They got dusted by Oregon State, 70-56. The Vols scored 19 points in the first half.
North Carolina looked like a team that made zero improvement from the start of the season until the end, an 85-62 loss to Wisconsin. The Badgers didn’t have an impressive win since a Jan. 28th win at Maryland. Wisky methodically pulled away from the Tar Heels.