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The Morning Dish – Monday, December 19, 2016

December 19, 2016 The Morning Dish No Comments

For years, Rutgers has felt even further away from their glory days in the 1970s than they were. Their Final Four appearance in 1976 has probably felt like it happened in 1796. The program has long had no shortage of struggles, seemingly one that could never win enough and was a coaching graveyard. It was the butt of jokes, said to be in the Big East in name only when it was there. Now that they are in the Big Ten, where they simply don’t fit geographically, you can be sure there is more of that.

We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but right now there is, for once, a sign of hope. We have to be careful in saying that, though, because the program has had plenty of false hope in recent years.

When the program went to the Big East after four straight seasons with a losing Atlantic 10 mark, the program didn’t exactly rise to play with the better programs. They had an embarrassing coaching search in 1997, getting turned down by several coaches. Gary Waters had a little better success, including a run to the NIT title game, but in the end was a Midwest guy at a school that needed to get the top talent that is in New Jersey. Fred Hill offered hope of getting the top kids from the state with his career of doing that, and he got some of that talent. The end results never matched the hope, and the same was the case with Mike Rice before he was fired for mistreatment of his players. Eddie Jordan was part of the 1976 Final Four team, but never got them going in his recent tenure as head coach.

Simply put, when Rutgers has been nationally relevant the past quarter century, it has not been for good reason on the hardwood.

Enter Steve Pikiell.

After a long run at Stony Brook that featured consistent winning and several heart-breaking losses in the America East Tournament before finally winning it, Pikiell took over for Jordan and brought top lieutenant Jay Young with him to Piscataway. He also lured Karl Hobbs, a terrific recruiter he worked for at George Washington before he went to Stony Brook.

With a 68-53 win on Sunday over Fordham, another program experiencing hope of a resurgence in Jeff Neubauer’s second season, Rutgers is now 11-1. It’s the kind of start the program hasn’t really had over the years save for a couple, like the last year of the Big East as we knew it when they went 9-2 in non-conference play. Even that year, though, they lost to St. Peter’s in the opener. So Rutgers fans must not get too excited.

Rutgers held Fordham to 32 percent shooting and out-rebounded the Rams 51-22, making a 34-20 halftime lead stand up. On the season, they are holding opponents to 37 percent shooting and out-rebounding them by more than 13 per game. Offensively, they have more turnovers than assists and are shooting over 54 percent, but below 30 percent from long range.

The other reason for caution – the bigger one, really – is the fact that they haven’t really beaten anyone yet. They lost at Miami in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and the Hurricanes are by far the toughest opponent they have played yet. They have only one win – at DePaul – against a team in the top 200, and the Blue Demons aren’t even in the top 150. The Scarlet Knights can do a little better in their final non-conference game at arch-rival Seton Hall on Friday, with the Pirates being a top 50 team.

Even so, this season isn’t about making the NCAA Tournament, though the players, staff and fans would love that. A new staff’s first year in a rebuilding situation is about changing the culture and setting the stage for future success. The early returns are indicative that Pikiell and his staff are doing just that.

 

Side Dishes

The matchup of most interest on the day was probably Gonzaga‘s visit to Tennessee. The Bulldogs had a comfortable 43-29 lead at the break and made it stand up, beating the Volunteers 86-76. One other matchup of note also had an SEC team at home, with Clemson winning at Alabama 67-54 to go to 8-2.

The hits keep coming for Michigan State, as the Spartans’ non-conference slate to forget added an 81-73 loss to Northeastern on Sunday. The banged-up Spartans are still without stud freshman Miles Bridges, and Northeastern, who knocked off UConn earlier this season, took advantage and handed the Spartans their first home non-conference loss in nearly two years.

 

Tonight’s Menu

It’s not a light slate in terms of the number of games, but there aren’t many matchups that jump out at you.

  • Florida State hosts Samford at 2 p.m., while Duke (Tennessee State), Notre Dame (Colgate) and Syracuse (Eastern Michigan) all have home games on the evening that tip at 7 p.m.
  • An interesting in-state rivalry matchup has UNCG visiting UNC Asheville at 7 p.m.
  • LSU hosts College of Charleston (8 p.m.) in a return of a game the Cougars won at home last year
  • In an in-state rivalry, Air Force hosts Colorado at 9 p.m.
  • Stanford visits SMU at 9 p.m. in an underrated matchup

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