Dozens of college basketball teams and millions of eager fans sat through two long years waiting for the return of March Madness.
In a corner of the sport frequently reserved for torture, Rutgers waited three decades.
The celebratory moment, delayed when the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled by COVID-19, finally arrived Sunday when Rutgers was revealed as the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region, drawing No. 7 Clemson as a first-round opponent Friday, with a possible date against No. 2 Houston in the second round. It’s about as favorable a draw as could have been hoped for when the day began.
“For two years now, this has been a journey,” coach Steve Pikiell said. “Last year never ended. The season just stopped. Not being able to play last year just carried over to this year. These guys just kept plugging away.”
The reward is Rutgers’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991 — which was 30 years, seven head coaches, four conferences and 425 losses ago. The drought was the longest for any major-conference team in the country.
Back then, the Scarlet Knights blew a nine-point lead over Arizona State with 10 minutes to go and couldn’t overcome a controversial intentional-foul call in the final seconds. Pikiell, 53, was a senior playing for UConn in that bracket.
“Making history always feels good,” junior forward Ron Harper Jr. said. “Doing it in the state of New Jersey, where I grew up, and at the state university just makes it so much more special.”
Rutgers (15-11) stayed in Indianapolis — where all 67 games of the NCAA Tournament will be played at various venues — after losing in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, watched the Selection Show in a suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with CBS cameras tuned in, and now will quarantine before returning to the courts.
“We feel like we’re always looked over and talked down on,” senior guard Jacob Young said. “We have something to prove.”
Just hearing “Rutgers” on Selection Sunday is a coronation of a turnaround from last-place Big Ten finishes in each of its first four seasons in the conference, beginning in 2014. Pikiell took over five seasons ago, signed guard Geo Baker as the No. 414 national recruit out of New Hampshire and the two built a foundation where many others tried and failed.
“I was definitely a little nervous as the bracket was coming out. I think we all were,” Baker said. “When we saw our name get called, it was everything that we dreamed of, everything we’ve been waiting for.”
It doesn’t need to end here. Rutgers could win its first tournament game since 1983 and maybe become a Cinderella if it recaptures the early-season form that fueled a climb to No. 11 in the AP Top 25 poll after a win over now-No. 1 seed Illinois. A NCAA-high nine Big Ten teams were selected.
“I feel really good we’re ready for any challenge,” Pikiell said. “We’ve seen every style. We’re a confident group. When we defend and rebound, we can play with anybody. We have good players, and we’re an exciting team to watch, too.”
One year ago, Rutgers was on the cusp of an NCAA Tournament berth when the college basketball postseason was canceled just hours after the Scarlet Knights were warming up to face Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. Seven of the top eight players from that roster returned on a mission.
Clemson (16-7) has been up and down since a 9-1 start and actually was behind Rutgers in the KenPom and NET power rankings. The Tigers are defensive-minded and play at a deliberate pace, which is a good matchup for the Scarlet Knights.
“I expected to be here,” sophomore guard Paul Mulcahy, “and I expect more than just to be here.”
Meet the 2021 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Location: New Brunswick, N.J.
Enrollment: 36,039 undergraduates (50,254 total)
Coach: Steve Pikiell (5th season)
Last NCAA appearance: 1991
NCAA tournament history: Six appearances, 5-7
First round game: No. 10 Rutgers vs. No. 7 Clemson, Midwest Region
How they got here: Fueled by the heartbreak of the COVID-19-canceled NCAA Tournament that would’ve ended its 29-year drought, Rutgers (15-11) returned seven of its top eight players and started off 6-0, with three straight marquee wins against Syracuse, Illinois and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights reached No. 11 in the AP Top 25, survived a five-game losing streak in January and matched their deepest run in the Big Ten Tournament (quarterfinals). It’s been 45 years since a Final Four berth.
F Ron Harper Jr. (15.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.6 apg)
C Myles Johnson (8.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.5 bpg)
G Geo Baker (10.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.1 apg)
G Paul Mulcahy (5.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.8 apg)
G Jacob Young (14.4 ppg, 3.5 apg, 1.8 spg)
G Montez Mathis (8.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.8 apg)
F Caleb McConnell (5.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.6 apg)
C Cliff Omoruyi (4.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.8 bpg)
Player to watch: March is about big shots and buzzer-beaters, and the fearless Baker is especially dangerous off the dribble in isolation. Young has come on strong at both ends of the floor, but Baker, the former No. 414-ranked national recruit, is the heart-and-soul of the program.
2 – Rutgers head coaches with a winning record (Pikell is 79-76, Gary Waters was 79-75) since Tom Young left in 1985.
3 – Four-star recruits who stayed home after playing at a New Jersey high school (Harper, Mulcahy, Omoruyi).
4 – True road wins, matching the most since 2005-06 for a program that typically lives off its home-court advantage.
5.2 – Blocked shots per game by Rutgers, tops in the Big Ten.
8 – Rutgers’ strength of schedule, courtesy of playing in the toughest conference in the country.