BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Home-court, home-field and home-ice advantage are not the same anymore. Athletes have gotten better. Most modern buildings tend to be sterile in the sense the fans are not that close to the action with the addition of luxury suites and such. Technology changed the way sports are played.
This makes Rutgers home-court advantage so unique. Everyone says playing at the RAC gives the Scarlet Knights an advantage in the sense it’s a rare arena that fans get to be at the top of the action. The home players feed off from it, and the away players tend to be rattled.
After Rutgers celebrated a 70-59 blowout victory over Illinois Wednesday night at Jersey Mike’s arena, Ron Harper Jr. tweeted the RAC is the best home-court advantage in college basketball. Who is anyone to argue that point? Maybe outsiders still don’t get it, but locally, we should.
From watching Rutgers men’s basketball for decades, it sure sounded like a myth considering the team has been wretched forever. But with Steve Pikiell coming in as a head coach and recruiting and developing a good roster, it now makes sense that the RAC can be a powerful weapon for the Scarlet Knights.
13 of Rutgers’ 16 wins come from home, including beating ranked opponents such as then-undefeated Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and now Illinois. Rutgers also beat quality opponents such as Michigan and Iowa at the RAC. In other words, the Big Ten teams should no longer count on going to Piscataway and leaving with victories anymore. Oh, and they should expect to get some bruises as they leave.
Keep in mind the Scarlet Knights won 10 of their 16 games at home en route to a 16-12 season that resulted in their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991.
The RAC plays a role for Rutgers being in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, which would be the first time since 1975-76
This serves as a great thing because it’s hard to win games on the road in the Big Ten. In fact, it’s hard to win a conference game because of the grueling schedule that comes with playing in this conference.
Seton Hall and St. John’s can only envy Rutgers for the home-court advantage it has. Rutgers plays in a campus arena while Seton Hall and St. John’s play in an arena that houses professional sports teams. This helps Rutgers a great deal with the students coming from campus to root on the team in the student section, and the players can get that energy from the crowd that they would not get in playing in a sterile arena like Madison Square Garden and Prudential Center.
Illinois clearly did not know what it was in for on Wednesday night after beating the same Rutgers team 86-51 on Dec. 3 at Champaign. Rutgers took Illinois to the woodshed by outrebounding its counterpart 46-28, which turned out to be the key to this victory. To add insult to injury, Rutgers outworked Illinois for fastbreak points at the margin of 14-2, paint points at 40-32 and second-chance points at 16-9. Illinois basically wanted to go home. There was no doubt Pikiell had his players ready to go in this rematch.
It’s amusing and interesting why Vegas even picked Illinois to win by four against Rutgers. It showed Vegas has no clue considering Rutgers has been so dominant at home.
I figured Rutgers would win at home by six points, but to blow out a good Illinois team was something no one expected. This four-game winning streak against the ranked teams should make Rutgers players and coaching staff realize how good they can be in the next few weeks. February should be the time where everything has to come together for what could be a special time in March.
Rutgers now play two games on the road against Purdue and Michigan. If it can win at least one, Pikiell could be on to something with his team, especially after it can beat Wisconsin at Madison next week.
This much we know: With Pikiell building good teams through recruiting and development, the RAC will be the place to be for a long time. It’s been a long time coming. This old barn deserves a winning atmosphere with the fans being devoted to the program, even when it stunk.
It’s something college students should not take for granted to be part of this type of festive atmosphere in their own campus, especially in a big-time conference that Rutgers is. The players shouldn’t, either. Think Seton Hall players and St. John’s players would kill to play in a campus arena like the RAC?
The beauty of Rutgers being back to prominence is the RAC can have an identity that college basketball can be proud of. Think Cameron Indoor Stadium. An arena where it can have a distinct home-court advantage through characters (players) and character (identity)
The best is yet to come. Rutgers fans will have more moments like these last two seasons. This is a program that is built to last.
When every game at home has become an event, it’s a sign of home-court advantage and a team being back to prominence.
For a tri-state area that lacks college basketball soul for a long time, this is a great thing.