The plan, for Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan, is finally beginning to come to fruition, even as the losses continue to mount in a tough Big Ten Conference.
The Scarlet Knights sit at 10-10 and 2-5 in the Big Ten, their latest losses to Michigan—by four at home—and at Minnesota—a game where they whittled down a double-digit deficit to five points in the second half. Rutgers has lost three straight since an impressive upset over Wisconsin two Saturdays ago, but Jordan has the program on the rise and it is showing.
That win over Wisconsin, a program that has been ranked in the Top 10 for much of this season and that made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last year, showed that Jordan’s team has the potential to be solid in the not so distant future.
“Tomorrow morning when I wake up I’ll have it for you. It means so much the next morning when you’re by yourself and you ask ‘What happened?’ It’s a great win for the program,” Jordan said after that game. “Our crowd was here to witness it. Hopefully that taste in their mouths will make that happen more. We need them to be here for us, so it’s just a classy effort for our group.”
Now in his second year with the Scarlet Knights, Jordan seems to have the program pointed in the right direction, even as they have endured the growing pains of playing Big Ten basketball. Last year’s 12-21 record and a beatdown from Louisville in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament were a necessary evil for this year’s growth. And they have Jordan to show them the way.
A former loyal son of Rutgers, Jordan parlayed his time “On the Banks” into eight years in the NBA and then three decades spent in the League as both an assistant and also a head coach, most notably with the Washington Wizards during the Gilbert Arenas era. He comes back to the school looking to build a winner from a program that is overshadowed to the north by programs like Seton Hall and St. John’s and to the south by Villanova and Temple.
It seemed a couple years ago that Rutgers was on the rise, ready to be a top program in the northeast. They were winning recruiting battles and keeping players from the parochial powerhouses in the northern part of the state from leaving for top-tier programs. Then a national scandal brought down then head coach Mike Rice and Jordan inherited a program that seemed to be mired in despair.
That win over Wisconsin and even Tuesday night’s 54-50 home loss to Michigan show that a program that was supposed to struggle mightily in the Big Ten isn’t far off.
For much of the game, Rutgers and Michigan were neck and neck. Rutgers was down by one with just over 11 minutes left when Jordan called time out. The Scarlet Knights stormed out and for the next three-minute stretch they dominated the Wolverines to take a six-point lead. In a flash, Rutgers showed its capability and it’s future. A team that has battled for their coach all season long, even with only ten scholarship players on the roster.
Senior performers Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack and Malick Kone have laid down the foundation on how to compete. The next step forward for the Scarlet Knights is for promising guards Bishop Daniels, Mike Williams and exciting talents Junior Etou and DJ Foreman to figure out how to win.
Naturally, top players transferred out in the wake of the Rice scandal, leaving Jordan with a shell of a program. This past season’s struggles showed a team that lacked depth. But now with two recruiting classes brought in, there seems to be a little momentum building in central New Jersey. In a talent-rich state, Jordan has a fertile recruiting ground to develop a program, but he lacked that big signature moment with which to sell recruits that he had more than a vision. Beating Wisconsin is something for Jordan to build on.
Since that win, Rutgers has lost twice on the road, both hard-fought losses at Maryland and then Minnesota this past weekend showing that the Scarlet Knights aren’t far away. They took confidence away from that Wisconsin win, beating a team that then was ranked No. 4 in the nation.
“I thought we did a good job. It was over and done with,” Jordan said following a 73-65 loss at Maryland, a tough road loss to a ranked team. “We had the confidence to play with the best teams in the country and we have to keep proving… I think we understand if we do things right for the most part of the game, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Big Ten opponents expect Rutgers to bring a defensive intensity every given night. Jordan has the team really getting after it and contesting each shot, even if the talent level isn’t quite there. They are holding their opponents to 31 percent from beyond-the-arc and 46 percent from the field. Few expected Rutgers to stand in the Big Ten’s top five in defensive efficiency but there they are.
This team still needs to show the ability to win conference games away from home. In all likelihood, Rutgers won’t make the postseason once again this year aside from the Big Ten conference tournament. The average current Rutgers student wasn’t alive when the Scarlet Knights last made the NCAA Tournament in 1991. Yet, there’s an energy about the program that can’t be ignored. Rutgers has started its climb back to respectability following the competitive fire of its coach and leader, Eddie Jordan. This has been a season of growth and silver linings that should pay off with a return to the post season next year.
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps. He contributes to SLAM’s coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft. Follow him on Twitter @LeighAlanKlein. Images via Getty.