Scarlet Knights’ head-turning wins changing the culture of Rutgers hoops

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Eddie Jordan’s return to Rutgers had been rough.

Taking over a program that made national headlines two years ago when Mike Rice was fired for verbally and physically abusing his players, Jordan helped changed the atmosphere. But the product failed to improve.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights finished a 12-21 season with a 92-31 loss to Louisville.

UPCOMING GAMES IN B1G
Jan.


14
@ Maryland
Jan. 17 @ Minnesota
Jan. 20 Michigan
Jan. 24 @ Penn State
Jan. 27 Michigan State
Jan. 31 @ Indiana

It didn’t appear that much had changed this season as Rutgers joined Maryland as new members of the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights were blown out by New Jersey rivals Saint Peters (68-50) and Seton Hall (81-54). Yet Jordan saw signs of improvement, evidenced by a road win against Clemson in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a win against Vanderbilt and then the Scarlet Knights’ first league win, against Penn State.

Then came Sunday.

While then-No. 4 Wisconsin was clearly not at full strength — coming into the game at the Rutgers Athletic Center, without Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and then losing Traevon Jackson to a broken foot in the first half — Rutgers overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to win, 67-62.

It was the biggest upset in a Big Ten game this season and ended an 18-game losing streak for the Scarlet Knights against top-25 competition. Half of the losses in that streak came since Jordan — a point guard on the 1976 Rutgers team that reached the Final Four — rejoined the program before last season.

Considering that, it wasn’t surprising to see Jordan, a former NBA coach, show so much emotion in his news conference after the game.

“It’s been an enormous response to our win and the presser after,” Jordan said Monday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “A lot of faithful Rutgers alums, donors, supporters felt the same way about the win, about the significance of the win, about the jubilation that was in the RAC.

“At the same time, I had to have some quiet time this morning just to filter it out. I had tons of texts and emails I had to respond back to — maybe half of them before I had to go back to work as ususal. It’s pretty hard for today to be as usual, but that’s what we have to get to. Another day at the office, get to practice and get ready for a heckuva team on Wednesday in Maryland.”

Rutgers (10-7, 2-2 Big Ten) plays the Terps (15-2, 3-1) — who dropped from 11th to 14th in Monday’s AP poll.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Rutgers’ upset win should “keep our guys focused.”

It’s pretty hard for today to be as usual, but that’s what we have to get to. Another day at the office, get to practice and get ready for a heckuva team on Wednesday in Maryland.
— Eddie Jordan

“Anybody that can beat Wisconsin is obviously playing well or played well,” he continued. “It will get everybody’s attention heading into that game, including our fans will be on alert. I think it worked out really well for us, trying to stay focused and continuing to get better.”

Jordan knows from experience on the pro, college, high school and Amateur Athletic Union levels that it can be tough trying to get a team to come back down following a big win. Jordan actually helped coach current Maryland point guard Melo Trimble during a summer with the AAU program D.C. Assault after Jordan was let go by the 76ers in 2010.

“We haven’t been in this situation before,” Jordan said of his Rutgers team. “Last year, in the AAC [Amercan Athletic Conference] we pretty much beat teams in the conference that were in the bottom half, no real signficant, signature wins. This year we’ve had some signatures and because of that — winning at Clemson, even the Penn State win — I think we have a little experience in bouncing back.”

Jordan said he wasn’t too concerned about his team’s early-season struggles because many teams across the country were experiencing the same thing, most notably fellow Big Ten member Michigan.

“You see that all over the college basketball landscape, a lot of upsets, non-conference wins and losses,” he said. “We were right there with everybody else. We were not so much [more] down on our luck than anybody else. Those teams played well and made shots.”

Jordan doesn’t want to overstate where his team is — “We’re no Top 25 team,” he said at one point in Monday’s teleconference — yet he sees signs that the Scarlet Knights are not as bad as many predicted they would be in the Big Ten. Rutgers was a unanimous choice for last place and some predicted they would not win a single conference game.

“We have a hard time making shots,” said Jordan, whose Scarlet Knights rank last in the Big Ten in scoring average (58.5), field goal percentage (38.9) and 3-point shooting (29.8). “Our defense has gotten better and better. … I like the way we’ve come to work every day. We’ve got good kids who go to school every day, and we’re rebuilding the program.”

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