BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Fifth-year Rutgers senior Geo Baker spent the summer reflecting about Rutgers finishing its season with a 63-60 loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament. It bothered him all offseason knowing if he shot better down the stretch, Rutgers would have gone to the Sweet 16. It was a blown opportunity he lamented after that game was over.
Making the tournament for the first time since 1991 wasn’t enough for him. He understood going to the Sweet 16 would have been special for him, his teammates and Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell. It’s an opportunity that does not come by often. He knew that, and that’s why he was so morose after the game. He failed them in his mind.
This explains why he decided to stay one more season. He used his fifth-year eligibility to stay at Rutgers for a chance to get the program to the Sweet 16 this time around. It isn’t just about making the tournament for the second straight season.
For Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell, this is their senior season. They got a taste of the tournament last season. They want to get to the Sweet 16 as much as Baker does.
Harper, McConnell and Baker served as Pikiell’s first recruiting class when he became the Rutgers head coach. That trio will be remembered fondly for putting Rutgers back on the basketball map and in the consciousness of the New York sporting public. It certainly was meaningful last season when they led Rutgers to dance its way to March Madness.
Even though they cemented their legacy long ago, they know getting to the Sweet 16 is a great way to go out on top. Who knows? If they get to the Sweet 16, maybe they can be that Cinderella team that goes to the Final Four.
Rutgers could have been that team last season. We will never know. This is why losing to Houston was disappointing from Baker’s perspective. Opportunities don’t come like that often.
This time around won’t be easy. Rutgers faces Notre Dame as its first opponent in Dayton on Wednesday night. It will be a challenge itself. The winner of that game faces Alabama at San Diego on Friday night. If somehow the Scarlet Knights get by Notre Dame and Alabama, the winner of Texas Tech/Montana State will be waiting.
First things first. Beating Notre Dame. Can’t go to San Diego without beating a well-coached team. They understand that. A loss and all this talk about redemption would be hollow.
The Scarlet Knights are banking on conference play to help them toughen enough for the tournament. Experience with playing good Big Ten teams should prepare them for a grind like this. It showed last year when they ground their way to a 60-56 victory over Clemson in the first game of the NCAA Tournament and when they gave themselves a chance to win against Houston. Maybe what they applied from the postseason last year can help this season.
Rutgers being experienced now helps them a great deal. It also helps the Knights are so well-coached just by watching them play defensively and executing the offense so well. It’s why it wouldn’t be surprising if they go to the Sweet 16 this year. They are equipped to beat teams like Notre Dame, Alabama and Texas Tech.
They know it can be done, and that’s why they are determined to finish the deal.
For Baker, this is a chance of redemption. He struggled down the stretch against Houston. Rutgers relied on him to win that game. It didn’t happen. The shots never fell in. He has been waiting for this opportunity since that night.
For Harper and McConnell, this is a chance to finish on a high. They were recruited for games like this, and this is their last stand. They have had a fine career here at Piscataway.
This is their final journey. There won’t be any more next time. It’s now or never.
It was surprising Baker decided to stay one more year with really nothing to prove, but he wanted to be part of something special with Harper and McConnell finishing their Rutgers careers.
If college basketball gods would smile on someone, it would be Baker, Harper and McConnell for being all-in on Rutgers from the day they signed their signatures to be Scarlet Knights. They never bailed on Rutgers unlike Eli Carter and Mike Rosario.
They deserved this shot to get to the Sweet 16.