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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Rutgers And Geo Baker Making NCAA History, But Also Trying To Prove A Point

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When Rutgers lost to Arizona State in the first round of March Madness in 1991, it was the year the NCAA began distributing tournament revenue to schools in units, which translated into dollars for each game to which they advanced. 

That money then was distributed and shared by those universities’ conferences.  

Since then, any revenue the Scarlet Knights have received from the Big Dance has come from someone else’s hard work. Until now. 

Rutgers (15-11), which tied for fifth in the regular season in the Big Ten at 10-10, received the 10th seed in the Midwest Region and will face seventh-seeded Clemson (16-7) in the first round Friday at a site to be determined in Indiana. If the Scarlet Knights win, they will meet either No. 2 Houston, the tournament champion of the American Conference, or No. 15 Cleveland State on Sunday. 

It is Houston’s highest seed since 1984, when it reached the championship game and lost to Georgetown in the days of Phi Slamma Jamma and Hakeem Olajuwon. 

But first things first, as Rutgers broke the longest current NCAA Tournament drought for a Power 6 conference school. 

“Making history always feels good,” said Rutgers small forward Ron Harper Jr. 

“I’m just happy it finally came true,” power forward Myles Johnson said when asked to describe the moment when Rutgers’ name was revealed on CBS-TV’s selection show. “It was just a great feeling.” 

Although it seems like the culmination of 30 years of being in the basketball wilderness, it isn’t merely that for the Scarlet Knights. It partly is unfinished business, because they all believed they had an at-large bid sewn up had the 2020 NCAAs not been canceled by COVID-19.  

“No one gives you credit for last year. … (But) last year never ended,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “The season just stopped. Last year carried over to this year.” 

And the Scarlet Knights had to do it without the support of their rabid fan base, which had become accustomed to filling to cozy 8,000-seat RAC and making life miserable for opponents. Because of COVID, spectators were not permitted at Rutgers’ home games this season until the home finale against Indiana on Feb. 24, when players were allowed two family members in attendance. 

Not surprisingly, despite a victory that night, the Scarlet Knights’ home record dipped from 18-1 last season to 10-4 this year. Still, they persevered and as senior guard Geo Baker said, “We’re making history and that’s something that’s always going to be special.” 

Because of the unusual setup of this year’s tournament, thanks to the very unusual circumstances caused by the continuing coronavirus concerns, Pikiell chose to keep his team in Indianapolis after their quarterfinal loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament on Friday. 

They spoke to reporters on a virtual media session from a hotel at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

“It’s only going to help,” Baker said of the Scarlet Knights being sequestered in Indianapolis since last week. “We’ve kind of been out here for a little bit. We’re kind of familiar with it. I think it will help us for sure.” 

And, after finally getting this far, their attitude is not to be satisfied. 

“We feel like we’ve got something to prove,” guard Jacob Young said. “We feel like we’re always looked over and talked down on.” 

“I expected to be here and I expect more than just to be here,” guard Paul Mulcahy said.

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