The calendar says February 19th, so it must be that time of year when hearts are broken while others seem on par for a felicitous merger...no, I'm not talking about Valentine's Day, that's still weeks away (oops) - I'm referring to the Madness. Complete and utter Madness of the type only found in March.
Before we embark on a potentially dizzying journey for the next couple of weeks, one that could realistically (yes, realistically - pinch yourself if you must) see the Scarlet Knights dancing for the first time since anyone can remember, it may suit us to recognize where we are now compared to where we realistically could have been. Could have been you say? By whose standards? Well, by the coaches, by the media, by the fans (our own as well as those of the opposition)...
The date is October 29th, 2003 and the setting is Madison Square Garden...The Big East Pre-Season Coaches Poll is unveiled. Hardly a surprise to anyone when Connecticut and Syracuse are selected first and second, respectively. Seton Hall, Rutgers' arch nemesis seems slightly better than middle-of-the-pack and is ranked pre-season number 6. No doubt citing the apparent lack of any front-court beef as a primary reason for certain future failure, the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers are selected 13th...ahead of lowly Virginia Tech, an abomination of a basketball program that has maintained its stronghold on the Big East cellar every year and that has averaged less than 10 (yes, for the entire season...) wins in their brief Big East basketball history. Hardly an elite group to be around...
Surely the fans had a different take, right?...well, not exactly...
"This does not look like a competitive Big East basketball team. 10 wins if we're lucky. Five hundred gets GW a "Coach of the Year" award."
"This is not a BE team. They are not good. You folks will be calling for GW`s head by mid season. "
"Get used to the fact that 6' 8" Sean Axani is our starting center, being backed up by the 6' 8" Freshman Joynes and....."
"Too bad this is not a 6'5" and under league..."
My intention is not to sound condescending - all the points being made were valid...coming off last year's 12 win performance was there any reason other than Ricky Shields maturation (hardly a given) and Herve's progression into an elite All-Big East 4-man (once again, hardly written in stone) to harbor any optimism? No point guard, no true center, an all-freshman backcourt, at least until Calvin Wooten's return (was Juel Wiggan more than a 10 minute filler?)...all the ingredients simmering, thickening, and slowly taking the gruesome shape of an absolute disaster.
Well then, maybe the so-called experts saw something different...Collegehoops.com didn't. They predicted a 10th place finish devoid of any post-season. SI.com was slightly more optimistic:
"Minus a proven point guard and with three freshmen and Wiggan, a career reserve so far, offering the only possible solutions at the position, they [Rutgers] suddenly become a mystery team again."
Ofcourse, that analysis was pre-Tweety's denied entrance and well before Calvin Wooten's gradual Houdini act. Taking the previous into account, SI would have lowered the hammer much as everyone else did.
Fast forward to February 19th...where do we stand now? Right smack in the "meaty part of the curve. Not showing off, but not falling behind." At 6 up and 6 down in the Big East, the Scarlet Knights have not embarrassed themselves. Hardly the case as Rutgers has worked its way onto the proverbial NCAA bubble. Indeed, while SI.com currently has Rutgers boasting a whopping RPI of 36, the Sagarin Ratings list the Scarlet Knights at an unfavorable ranking of 61. Teamrankings.com attempts to reach a consensus while placing Rutgers at 41. So, in essence they have yet to accomplish anything bona fide. Infact, the only accomplishment so far has been a performance sufficiently competent so as to make the remaining 4 contests mean something. However, when considering where we all thought the program would be not more than 3 or 4 months ago, this is no small feat. Moral victory? Perhaps...Can it be translated into something tangible, something that can be turned into palpable momentum for the foreseeable future? Yes...But the margin of error is zero.
The first test presents itself this coming Sunday, at Boston College. A few things worth mentioning...
Rutgers is 1-6 vs RPI #1-50 (teamrankings.com) and 1-4 vs RPI #1-40 (usatoday.com)...the committee will frown on this.
Rutgers is 2-7 away from the friendly confines of the RAC and a ghastly 0-5 away vs RPI #1-50 (teamrankings.com)...the committee will seriously frown on this.
Rutgers lacks good victories...other than Providence the Knights have no other wins vs RPI #1-50 (teamrankings.com).
Things don't look too rosy, right? Well, once again, not exactly. Rutgers still has contests against Boston College (usatoday.com RPI of 44; teamrankings.com RPI of 40; si.com RPI of 28) and Seton Hall (usatoday.com RPI of 35; teamrankings.com RPI of 34; si.com RPI of 18) giving the Knights the most opportune occasion to bolster their record against RPI #1-50 teams. Moreover, one of these two contests is away and provides a much needed opportunity to improve upon the (perhaps) most dubious obstacle plaguing Rutgers for much of my recent memory - an inability to travel well. It goes without saying that the middle 2 games (at Virginia Tech and home for West Virginia) are must (though by no means am I suggesting either of these 2 games are automatic) wins.
Where do we stand then? The season has come down to 4 games, right? Well, no, not exactly...it has come down to 1 game, versus Boston College. There is only a single opportunity left to improve upon the problematic perception that Rutgers is perfectly suited to present itself as dainty road-kill (of course, road-kill is not exactly dainty, though it may be for whoever is doing the home-cookin') against decent competition. With a road record of 3-8 (assuming a loss at Boston College and a win at the Va. Tech) Rutgers will not receive the Cinderella treatment come selection Sunday, but something most Rutgers fans have begrudgingly (do I hear a collective groan?) become quite used to over the years...the pink slip, the way out, the front door...
A win at Boston College and the Scarlet Knights live for another game. And that's precisely the miracle of this season - Rutgers controls its own destiny with four realistically winnable games left...and who, pray tell, could have predicted that?
Mike and the Big Dog's LLC