Most of the last three or four decades have been dismal for the Rutgers University men’s basketball program but clearly, since Steve Pikiell arrived on campus in 2016 things have trended mostly in a positive direction.  Rutgers was just under .500 in his first three seasons but the Scarlet Knights won 20 games in 2020 and would have made the NCAA Tournament had it not been cancelled because of COVID -19.

The positive strides continued this season when Rutgers finished sixth in the ultra-competitive Big Ten and won their first round game in the conference tournament. It earned them their first NCAA berth since 1991as the 10th seed in the Midwest Region and they made the most of it by knocking off Clemson on Friday night…it was the programs first win in the tournament in 38 years.

Then came Sunday night in Lucas Oil Stadium when as an 8 ½ point underdog they outplayed Midwest Region second-seed Houston for much of the game especially in the second half when they built a 10-point lead.  It appeared pandemonium was indeed about to return to Piscataway as with under five minutes left to play Rutgers had a 9 point lead and was on its way to the “Sweet 16” for the first time since 1979.

However, as we know you sometimes wake up from a dream and realize it was just that and right in front of our eyes we watched that dream actually turn into a nightmare.  Whether it was a matter of playing not to lose or a case of a team that simply did not know to close out an opponent on the ropes the final 4:55 saw the Cougars outscored Rutgers 14-2 and somehow pull out a 63-60 victory.  The Scarlet Knights took bad shots, missed easy ones, turned the ball over, could not come up with big rebounds and committed several questionable fouls.  Add it all up and it left players and fans in Indianapolis and throughout New Jersey in tears. It was as bad a loss as you could come up with at this time of year and will sting for a long time.

But the sun will come up today and next November many of the same players will likely put on their red and white uniforms and take the court.  They can’t erase the pain of Sunday night in Indianapolis but Rutgers basketball is relevant once again, the RAC will be packed and the future is bright.

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