If Northwestern and Chris Collins can do it, why not Rutgers? Collins got his players to believe when history was against him.
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell accomplished phase one in his first season. Just ask his nucleus.
“I feel like we did a great job of coming together and learning how to play together.,” said sophomore Jonathan Laurent. “We're going to take it to the next level in the offseason. We're going to be an NCAA tournament contender.
“Everybody starts somewhere. Every program has had their downs and built their way up. I felt like (Northwestern) had a bunch of kids that came in and worked hard to get to where they are. Scottie Lindsey is a pretty good player. They just came in and became as good as they are. I feel like we can do the same thing.”
Program face Corey Sanders was on the fence between pro basketball or transfer after Eddie Jordan's departure. A year later, Sanders showed his buy-in on the court with his defense.
“I think we did a lot of big things this year for Rutgers basketball,” said Sanders, who led Rutgers in scoring, assists, minutes and steals. “That was the goal. We're going to keep striving for that goal, move on and just keep progressing like I think we did this year. I know a lot of people seen that. That's the goal, just to keep progressing. When I look back, I know we worked hard, played hard. That's the biggest thing about it.”
Add Big Ten tournament breakout player Nigel Johnson to the list of believers.
Johnson knows what it takes after a freshman appearance in the tournament with Kansas State. He wants the feeling again before his college career ends next season.
“I feel like we're going to the tournament,” Johnson said. “I'm not taking anything less for my senior year. We have what it takes. I feel like we proved that to a lot of people this year. We're going to come back better. We're going to be in the gym more. We're going to be more prepared. We're going to build off of (this season).”
Fellow rising senior Mike Williams want the same feeling after two trying seasons as an underclassman.
Williams projects to return as a team captain for his final season.
“If you look at where we are and where we came from last year, two years ago, I feel like we made tremendous strides,” Williams said. “Come this offseason, we're going to get back to work. Everyone has to get better.”
Rutgers (15-18) won its first game in a conference tournament in three years and tied for the most wins for the program since the Gary Waters era ended in 2006.
“We overachieved,” Pikiell said at the Verizon Center. “I'm excited about that. We need to do that moving forward, overachieve. “