NEW YORK - Minutes before the Michigan menâ€™s basketball team was set to depart Madison Square Garden, Zavier Simpson was asked a question that had nothing to do with how the Wolverines played.
Instead, it was about their opponent, who has quickly become one of the top stories - and feel-good stories so far - in college basketball over the past few months that includes a rise from Big Ten basement dweller to a stint in the AP top 25 for the first time in 41 years.
How different is this Rutgers team than the ones he used to face?
â€śIt was very different,â€ť Simpson said after the two played on Feb. 1. â€śWhen guys were out there, you could tell they were locked in. They have a great coaching staff that was extremely engaged.â€ťÂ
If anyone within the Big Ten has seen the progression of the Scarlet Knights on the court, Michiganâ€™s senior guard has plenty of experience to rely on. Simpson has never lost any of the four career games heâ€™s played against Rutgers and has twice beaten them by 12 points or more, including a 77-65 win last season and a 62-47 drubbing his sophomore year.
But on the first Saturday in February, Simpson and the Wolverines had to fend off the Scarlet Knights twice, once at the end of each half, before coming away with a hard-fought 69-63 win.
â€śIt wasnâ€™t surprising,â€ť Simpson said. â€śWatching film you can tell how good of a team they are.â€ť
A lot of that has to do with what the man Rutgers Athletic Director Pats Hobbs hired at a New York City diner in 2016 to lead a massive rebuilding project of a program that hasnâ€™t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and what that coach is currently building in New Brunswick, New Jersey.Â
That man and two of his players walked into the media room at Madison Square Garden shortly after Michigan left and when Steve Pikiell, Rugters head coach, sat down, he put on display what has endeared him to not only the schoolâ€™s brass, but his players and the fans as well.
Rutgers, which entered Sunday with a 16-7 record and a 7-5 mark in the Big Ten, has sold out all of its home games. Itâ€™s home arena, Rutgers Athletic Center, has become a tough and intimidating place to play. Madison Square Garden, which was officially a Michigan home game, was ablaze with red.
There is an excitement around the Scarlet Knights that hasnâ€™t been felt in a long time.
â€śI just think every year, weâ€™ve gotten better and better and weâ€™re just continuing to climb the best league in the country,â€ť said Pikiell, a Bristol native and St. Paul graduate. â€śThatâ€™s what weâ€™re trying to do.â€ť
When Pikiell was hired to lead Rutgers, it wasnâ€™t the flashiest hire. He wasnâ€™t a big name or from a big program. But what he lacked on that front, he promised to bring a steadiness to a team that has had anything but since that 1991 season.
The program has had six head coaches from that year to the time Pikiell was hired. Most of it hasnâ€™t been good and there have been plenty of scandals and poor performances along the way.
There was Bob Wenzel (1988-97, 128-135 record), who had a sub .500 record his last five seasons. Kevin Bannon (1997-2001, 59-60), followed and had players claim he made them strip ro missed free throws and had to practice naked. Gary Waters (2001-06, 79-75), won 20 games in 2003, but missed a game in 2006 when he chose to fly to Kent State for a Hall of Fame induction and got snowed in. Fred Hill (2006-10, 47-77), was next and after he was told to stay away from the schoolâ€™s baseball field after being involved in shouting match with Pittsburghâ€™s baseball coach during a game, returned anyway.
The previous two coaches before Pikiellâ€™s tenure were perhaps the worst. Mike Rice (2010-13, 44-51) and he was fired after videotapes revealed a string of abusive behavior toward his players, including throwing basketballs and using homophobic slurs. Eddie Jordan (2013-16, 29-68) was hired after he was lauded as a Rutgers alumni. But an investigation showed he never graduated and more importantly, he didnâ€™t win.Â
And since entering the league in 2014 following the dissolution of the original Big East, the Scarlet Knights have been an abysmal in Big Ten games. They had four straight last-place finishes in the 14-team conference and a 10th-place finish in 2018-19 competing against the likes of Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
But such a challenge also happens to be Pikiellâ€™s specialty. Heâ€™s overseen plenty of rebuilds, even going back to his days as a player.
â€śItâ€™s all about getting ready for the challenges ahead,â€ť Pikiell said.
After a remarkable career at St. Paul, where he led the Falcons to a Class L runner-up as a senior and is the boys basketball programâ€™s No. 3 all-time scorer with 1,487 career points, Pikiell helped turn UConn into a force in the Big East. He was part of the beginning of the Jim Calhoun era that saw the Huskies go from last place in the conference his freshman year to a second-place finish, No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and an Elite Eight appearance as a junior in 1989-90.Â
As a coach, heâ€™s been a part of helping to lead two teams (Central Connecticut State and Stony Brook) from mediocrity and obscurity to their own NCAA Tournament appearances.Â
Pikiell was an assistant for Howie Dickenman when the Blue Devils improved from a 4-22 season in 1996-98 to 25-9 just two years later. And when he finally got his chance at being a head coach when the Seawolves hired him in 2005, Pikiell took a program that had never won its conference or been to a postseason tournament and left in 2016 with four league regular-season titles, three NIT appearances and an NCAA berth.Â
That success soon caught Rutgersâ€™ attention and it hasnâ€™t taken long for the Scarlet Knights to reap the benefits.
In September, the school opened a much-need upgraded facility to help with recruiting. The RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center is a 307,000-square-foot, four-story building that houses menâ€™s and womenâ€™s basketball, wrestling and gymnastics. It also has areas for strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports medicine.Â
And the results Rutgers was hoping to see on the court have started to materialize in Pikiellâ€™s fourth season, already surpassing his last three teamsâ€™ win totals. He went 15-18 (3-15 in the Big Ten) his first year, 15-19 (3-15) in 2017-18 and 14-17 (7-13) last season.
â€śCoach Pike always preaches to us about being together and being connected,â€ť sophomore guard Caleb McConnell said. â€śI feel that if we come into every game with the same mindset of being connected, we can be really difficult to beat.â€ť
Thatâ€™s been the result of being able to bring in players that fit his system and buying in to what Pikiell is preaching.
Rutgersâ€™ roster ranks 243rd in experience per Pomeroy and of the eight players Pikiell uses the most in his rotation, five are underclassmen.Â
Ron Harper Jr., the teamâ€™s leader in scoring (11.5 points per game) and minutes played (27.5 minutes per game), is a sophomore. So too is center Myles Johnson (8.8 ppg, 23.7 mpg), McConnell (8.0 ppg, 24.3 mpg) and Montez Mathias (7.7 ppg, 23.0 mpg). Thereâ€™s also freshman Paul Mulcahy (3.4 ppg, 17.9 mph).
â€śPlaying for Coach Pike is a great opportunity to have,â€ť Johnson said. â€śIâ€™m glad I get to play for him every day. He wants to you to play as hard as you can. To have a coach who understands and is there for you is great.â€ť
Of course, there is still plenty of season left and Rutgersâ€™ goal of getting back to the NCAA Tournament is far from certain. The Scarlet Knights play at Ohio State Feb. 12 and against No. 19 Illinois on Feb. 15 before hosting Michigan in a rematch on Feb. 19. The team will then close out its regular season at Wisconsin at No. 22 Penn State, host No. 9 Maryland and play at Purdue before hopefully making the Big Ten Tournament.
But Rutgers remains confident it can and will make the NCAA Tournament and be a consistent contender going forward. After all, the head coach has plenty of experience taking a program that hasnâ€™t had a lot of success before and making it a winner.
â€śItâ€™s just a credit to the guys,â€ť Pikiell said. â€śTheyâ€™ve sacrificed, theyâ€™ve worked really hard this year. They prepare. Rutgers is a great place and a great university with great people. I think they appreciate heart.â€ť
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or