Quarterfinal Run at #B1GTourney Shows Rutgers Can Play With Elite Conference Teams And Freshman Geo Baker is Ready For Primetime (Video)Read Now
The Big 10 Tournament is a wrap and the Michigan Wolverines are your back to back conference tournament champions. More on that in another article. This event began under a cloud of negative criticism, mainly around the condensed schedule and the venue being Madison Square Garden in NYC. To be fair a lot of that criticism was correct and warranted. Take away the closest member school to Madison Square Garden (Rutgers is in Piscataway, NJ is only 31 miles away), and the next closest is Penn State which is 201 miles away. The distance to travel was ludicrous and having conference games start in December and forcing certain teams to play several games in a week was criminal. They are students after all, right? We know this was about money and commissioner Jim Delany all but admitted as much without actually saying it. But, that doesn’t mean the tournament wasn’t a success and a school like Rutgers has a chance to really build something off the strength of this past week.
Since joining the Big 10 in 2014 the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have been bottom feeders in the league. The program hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in 27 years and hasn’t posted a winning record in 12. But there was something different about this year’s team and it’s quarterfinal run during the conference tournament in NYC. Second-year head coach Steve Pikiell’s team was competitive during regular season conference play, despite only posting 3 league wins. The Scarlet Knights defeated in-state rival Seton Hall for the first time in 5 years. A Seton Hall team that was ranked in the top 25. Then there was the spirited play in NYC at Madison Square Garden, that included a win against Minnesota, a 16-point comeback in an upset of Indiana, and a tough hard fought 7-point loss to championship runner-up Purdue.
Pikiell is building something on the Banks of Piscataway, NJ. It will take some time but Rutgers’ run showed he is developing the foundation for a solid program poised for long-term success in the future. Earlier last week in the leadup to the tournament he was asked about what he’s building at Rutgers, saying:
I’m very confident in what I’m doing. I’m very confident in the build that we have. I know everyone wants 20, 25 wins — that’s (not) how it works. I’d like that, too. But you gotta go through these tough times and we’ve gone through them but we’ve been in every game pretty much and these guys keep fighting. And we’re growing the program.
This is all true and while it may seem like “coachspeak” Pikiell really believes this. Following the aforementioned quarterfinal loss to Purdue, where his team fought particularly hard, there wasn’t a whole lot he could complain about. Purdue was and is a better basketball team, but Rutgers was right there. In the postgame presser he said:
I mean, you guys have seen a lot of basketball. That’s a very good basketball team. They space you out. They have inside. They have outside. They have veteran guys. They have versatility…But I thought we did a great job, I really did. I thought we just hung around there. And they made some tough shots, too. They hit a banked 3 at one point in time. Again it’s hard.
A big part of the team’s success in NYC was the backcourt duo of Corey Sanders and freshman Geo Baker. They combined for 48 points on 21-40 from the field. They were efficient, confident and even defiant in many moments of a back and forth contest. There was no fear in their eyes. You expect that from Sanders, a junior college transfer and upperclassman. That was likely his last game as a Scarlet Knight as he’ll look for professional opportunities.
For Baker, this could be the beginning of a big-time career at Rutgers and in the Big 10. The freshman was often the most fearless player on the floor in the quarterfinal game against Purdue. He hit a variety of step back jumpers at the end of the shot clock in the face of tough defense. More importantly, he showed the kind of maturity in high leverage situations that bodes well for his future. Following the game Baker reflected on his play on the big MSG stage and future within the context of the loss, saying:
It feels really good. I’ve got great teammates and a great coach, always telling me to stay confident and ready. I was really just playing for the seniors, to be honest with you. I really didn’t want to go home because I know when we go home it’s their last game ever in this program. But in terms for me, it felt really good going forward.
Next season will be a big year for Pikiell, Baker and the Rutgers program. With Sanders likely leaving, and the departure of seniors, the incoming class and Baker’s leadership and improvement will be critical. A strong showing like this past week in NYC will go a long way in helping Pikiell achieve the desired success for the program.