It is almost March. Some people look forward to this month bringing warm spring days, while others start planning which bar crawl they will wait hours in line for on St. Patrick’s Day. However, for your basketball enthusiasts, it is the most exciting time of the year: March Madness. This month will bring excitement and devastation to the entire Nation as fans watch their favorite teams battle it out every single day for a chance at a national title.
For some conferences, making The Dance is expected, and embarrassing if you fail. If you were to look at which teams hold the most titles, you would see the ACC (10), Big East (8), and SEC (6) grinning confidently from the top. Historically, these conferences and their schools have dominated the tournament.
So then why are we always hearing so much about the Big Ten? Well in basketball, the Big Ten conference has been a lick away multiple times from a title. Unfortunately, they have been in a championship drought since Michigan State took hold of the gold in 2000. While their teams are tough, their grit has not been able to solidify those titles.
These teams have some of the best coaches in the Nation. Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Fran McCaffrey (Iowa), and Matt Painter (Purdue) are some of the most talented head coaches to recruit and develop players. They know how to coach great basketball, yet they still have fallen short when it comes to winning the NCAA tournament.
A name you have probably heard some buzz around is Steve Pikiell. He has been the head coach at Rutgers since 2016 and has been making huge strides in transforming the program. Before his arrival, Rutgers basketball was desperate for a rebrand. They had just joined a new conference in 2014, and after a 30-year absence from the NCAA tournament, fans were hopeful Pikiell could be the answer they needed.
The head coach’s goal was to do nothing short of bring this program back to life. So far, he is right on track. Over the last seven years, Pikiell has been able to coach Rutgers into two NCAA tournament appearances and four overall winning records. A program that once could barely fill half an arena is now a true contender for championship titles. The fans have Steve Pikiell to thank for that.
There was once a time when fans could show up to the Rutgers Athletic Center ten minutes before the game started and get a courtside seat for $20. Now? Jersey Mikes Arena is surging with energy as fans are more invested in this program than ever before. Pikiell is a great leader, and fans look forward to supporting him.
Not only that, but he treats his entire staff like they are family. Some forget about the hours of time and energy the unsung heroes, as the pep band and spirit squad put into the program. But Pikiell never does. He is often thanking them in post-conferences and giving them special recognition after away games. Julia Baumanis, the pep band’s director, says that Coach Pikiell waits for his players and staff to deboard, then he comes back and says to the students, ‘I want to thank you so much for making it.” (Jerry Carino, APP).
There are plenty of great coaches in the Big Ten. However, some are fortunate to be coaching a program that has notable recognition to influence all-star recruits to join their rosters year and year. What makes Coach Pikiell so special is what he has been able to do with “average” rosters and elevate them to a standard expected from Big Ten teams. Even with players whom some would expect minimum production from, he has been able to tap into their potential and develop athletes who have changed the course of the program forever.
This year is no different. While the Scarlet Knights had some great players return, a lot of their lineup has had to step up and fill some crucial holes throughout the season. At the beginning of their season, Rutgers’ captains Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell were injured. Pikiell had to make some smart adjustments, and it worked in their favor. These adjustments continued for the rest of the year as certain players got into foul trouble, and the young bench needed to step up and help their team.
I’m not saying this is something unusual, but it takes great leadership to lead a team when other players are less experienced and need guidance. The Big Ten is a very tough conference, and as the weeks progressed, more injuries accumulated as players naturally became tired and worn out. Pikiell has done a great job at keeping his team focused on one game at a time, something that can be hard to do especially for young players who see less playing time.
During their big matchup against Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, Mawot Mag suffered a season-ending knee injury. While his name was quieter among fans, after this injury, the Scarlet Knights went 1-4 and it was clear his presence was more valuable on the court than most realized. More adjustments needed to be made, and as the losses continued, some started to doubt if Pikiell had it in him as a head coach to find the keys they needed to be successful.
Pikiell has been able to coach an outstanding defensive team, and Rutgers has been top 5 for weeks now. Unfortunately, their offensive production has been lacking, and fans are worried that it won’t be enough to carry them to their 3rd consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
However, the head coach once again has proved the haters wrong. On Sunday evening, Rutgers had a miraculous road win against Penn State. They were down by 19 points with 16 minutes left in the second half. Most fans had turned the game off but were shocked as the Scarlet Knights chipped away at the gap and ended up winning 59-56.
This comeback win was anything but luck. This win came from a determined Rutgers team that refused to give up, and an outstanding coach who was able to lead his team to victory. Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry said in his postgame conference, “Pikiell coached circles around me.” The way Pikiell has revamped this program makes me guess that this probably won’t be the last coach he’ll do this to.
Rutgers basketball is currently 18-11 overall, and 10-8 in the conference. Recruits across the Nation are taking notice of what Steve Pikiell and Rutgers have been doing. The head coach has some promising commitments from outstanding recruits in the 2023 and 2024 classes. This says a lot coming from a basketball program that had to dive deep into untouched territories to find glimpses of talent in years prior.
As stated earlier, it has been a very long time since the Big Ten won a national title. Could Steve Pikiell be the head coach to do it? Only time will tell. But one thing for sure is that Pikiell is definitely a strong contender for Coach of the Year in the Big Ten.
He brings excellent leadership and coaching qualities that any program would be lucky to have in a head coach. The future is bright for the Scarlet Knights when Steve Pikiell is in charge. That being said, Rutgers should give this man a lifetime contract because they definitely do not want to lose him.