Steve Pikiell never had more cachet. Coming off Stony Brook’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016, the 11th-year coach knew it was time to leave. When a Big Ten program came calling with a five-year, $8 million offer, the decision was made for him. That decision, though, seemed like it would lead Pikiell to disaster. Instead, less than four years later, Pikiell somehow made one of the hardest jobs in the country look like one of the most fun places to be.

After three losing campaigns, last January Pikiell led the Scarlet Knights to their first national ranking since 1979. Entering March, Rutgers was ready to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991. Then, the team spent most of 2020 wondering what could have been.

However, unlike several teams which missed once-in-a-generation opportunities, the Scarlet Knights return four starters — including Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Myles Johnson — and nearly all of the veteran, passionate and defensive-minded core of that 20-win team for another chance to make school history.

Why Rutgers will make the NCAA Tournament

Experience. Defense. Motivation. Rutgers was set to snap a 29-year March Madness drought, and the roster has only improved, with the addition of four-star freshman forward Cliff Omoruyi and the return of five of its top six scorers. It’s not whether the Scarlet Knights are going dancing, but for how long.

Why Rutgers won’t make the NCAA Tournament

The hype won’t help a program unaccustomed to expectations. No opponent will be caught by surprise. Too many times, strong defense won’t be enough to make up for repeated scoring issues. Perhaps most importantly, one of the best home-court advantages in the country has been erased by the COVID-19 pandemic.

3 Questions

Will the fan-less RAC hurt the home-court advantage?

It sure won’t help. Rutgers won a program-record 18 games at home last season, defeating the likes of Seton Hall, Maryland, Illinois and Penn State. The RAC became a house of horrors for opponents. Piped-in crowd noise won’t have the same impact as a sold-out building full of screaming, scarlet-clad fans.

How does Rutgers respond to expectations?

Last year’s team was picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten. An NIT berth would’ve been considered a success. Now getting to the NCAA Tournament is the bar. There is a bull’s-eye on the Scarlet Knights’ chest. Being the hunted is very different from being the hunter.

Has the offense improved?

Rutgers was 72nd in adjusted offensive efficiency last season, according to the analytics website KenPom.com. As a team it shot just 31 percent from 3-point range and averaged 69.9 points per game, tied for the 237th-lowest figure in the country. Those numbers need to improve if Rutgers is going to make a memorable run in March.

X factor

Paul Mulcahy

As a freshman, the Bayonne, N.J., native put up modest numbers, averaging 3.7 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists. More will be expected this year, especially with key reserve Caleb McConnell taking a medical redshirt due to a back injury. Mulcahy has the size of a wing, at 6-foot-7, and the skills of a point guard, leading Pikiell to say he will play a “huge role for us” this year.

Games to Watch

Rutgers vs. Illinois (Dec. 20)

The first marquee matchup comes against a Final Four contender. The Scarlet Knights defense will face an early challenge against preseason All-American Ayo Dosunnmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn.

Rutgers at Ohio State (Dec. 23)

Will empty arenas erase Rutgers’ road struggles? In the second away game of the season, the Scarlet Knights face another deep and experienced roster in Columbus.

Rutgers vs. Iowa (Jan. 5)

Rutgers was no different than every other team in the nation last season, unable to stop Luka Garza. The 6-foot-11 All-American put up 28 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in Iowa’ 85-80 win last season.

Rutgers vs. Wisconsin (Jan. 15)

Being in the Big Ten means facing multiple Final Four threats each season. Like Rutgers, the Badgers boast one of the nation’s best defenses, with the whole far greater than the sum of the parts.

Rutgers vs. Michigan State (Jan. 28)

Last season, the Spartans opened the season as the nation’s top-ranked team. But without Cassius Winston, the separation between the two programs — historically the size of a canyon — has shrunk. Don’t be stunned if Rutgers sits above Tom Izzo’s team at season’s end.

Prediction

This season won’t be as special. It can’t be. It won’t have the novelty, the unexpected exhilaration, the packed crowds. But it will ultimately be more fulfilling, with the Scarlet Knights finishing fourth in the Big Ten, breaking their 30-year NCAA Tournament drought and winning their first tournament game since 1983.



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