The Rutgers men’s basketball team has a game to play Friday night.
Ask the man in charge of the Scarlet Knights about it and you’ll come away with the impression that the their final non-conference game is against a mid-major from a conference midway across the country.
“I go one game to the next and this is the next game,” said head coach Steve Pikiell before practice Thursday.
But the game Pikiell’s team is playing two days before Christmas is much more than just the next one on the schedule. The Knights travel to the Prudential Center Friday night to face Seton Hall to fill in the next chapter of a state rivalry with a long history stacked to the brim with close games, wild finishes and often times strange circumstances and events.
This particular meeting is the most highly-anticipated edition of the clash in quite some time. For evidence, look no further than the projected attendance — the game was announced a sell-out on Tuesday, three days before opening tip.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people that have graduated here saying how excited they are about the game, a lot of people asking me for tickets, and I promptly gave them the Seton Hall ticket number,” Pikiell said. “I think our players are (excited), our fans are and the state of New Jersey is.”
When asked about the sell-out, neither of the two guards regularly providing sparks for Rutgers off the bench were surprised. Junior guard Nigel Johnson pointed towards the way both teams have kicked-off their seasons.
The Knights enter the Rock at 11-1, their best record through 12 games since their greatest ever season in 1975-76, which ended in the Final Four after an undefeated regular season.
Meanwhile, Seton Hall is in the midst of its best stretch as a program since its glory days in the 1990’s. The Pirates are 9-2, having handed No. 16 South Carolina its only loss up until this week when the Gamecocks were upset by their own bitter in-state rivals Clemson on Wednesday. They're in good position to return to the NCAA Tournament after a first round exit last season.
“I figured as much,” said junior guard Mike Williams when asked about the sell-out. “I feel like this is a new Rutgers team so everybody on our fan base is going to want to see us there, and it’s Seton Hall. Seton Hall always sells out the Prudential Center.”
Around 2,000 Knights’ fans are expected to make the half-hour drive up the Turnpike from New Brunswick to the Prudential Center hoping the game trends differently than the last three times the teams met.
Rutgers lost each one of the contests under Eddie Jordan in his tenure over the past three years. Jordan, a star on that 1975-76 team back when he was a point guard for the Knights, took over as head coach in Piscataway during a dark period in the program’s history clouded by the recently occured Mike Rice scandal.
The former NBA head coach not only had to juggle the public relations circus surrounding his program off the court, but he also led the Knights in a pair of conference transitions, first in a year in the American Athletic Conference before moving permanently to the Big Ten.
The moves came as a result of a disbandment of the original Big East conference, and with that came the end of an annual home-and-home series between the Knights and the Pirates.
To maintain the rivalry, both parties agreed to hold an annual meeting alternating between the Rutgers Athletic Center and the Prudential Center. It would become known as the Garden State Hardwood Classic and its winner would take home a trophy in the shape of the state of which the bragging rights for are being contested on the court.
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The first two years of its existence coincided with the last pair of Jordan’s three years at the helm on the Banks, but it was Seton Hall and its head coach Kevin Willard who would take the trophy back to South Orange.
A 6-point loss a year before the inaugural showdown showed signs the trophy would be closely contested, making the trip up and down I-95 every few years.
The early results — a pair of blowouts losses of 27 and 29 points — proved that, at least for the developmental stage of its life, the Garden State Hardwood Trophy was blue.
“It hasn’t really been on my mind lately because this is a new season, a new team,” Williams, whose only experience in the rivalry has been on the wrong side of a blowout, said of the recent past. “I’m just ready for Friday night.”
If the game was played on paper, the third time would not be the charm for the Brooklyn native — the Pirates are 10-point favorites to win and a large majority of the media are predicting a fourth straight win for Friday’s home team.
Members of the Hall haven’t been shy in assuming the favoritism either.
"They could be No. 1 in the country, we're still going to beat them," Delgado told reporters after an 81-68 win over the Blue Hens. "I'm coming with the mindset that we're not losing this game. That's how I feel, that's how I'm always going to feel. If I stay another year here, I'm going to still beat them, too. That's how I feel.”
But rivalry games are different than run-of-the-mill matchups against otherwise indifferent opponents. Strange things happen amid the chaos, the high tempers flaring and the raucous crowds seemingly standing over the court as the players pace back and forth on the hardwood in a rivalry game.
Just this year, an unranked Iowa team ended a three-year losing streak to bitter in-state rivals Iowa State, defeating the 25th-ranked Cyclones by double-digits.
Just two days ago, No. 10 Louisville defeated No. 6 Kentucky for just the second time in 10 meetings during the John Calipari era in Lexington.
Heck, even St. John’s, a program in a situation similar to Rutgers, going through one of the worst periods in program history under the watch of school legend Chris Mullin, managed to crush Syracuse by 33 at the Carrier Dome in the most head-turning result of the season so far.
Upsets aren’t exactly unheard of in this series, either.
While the last two meetings haven’t been tightly contested, 18 of the past 22 matchups between the Pirates and Knights have been decided by 6 points or less.
“It’s college basketball, anybody could come out and beat anybody on any given night,” Johnson said.
The potential for an upset adds to the already heavy implications of the result of the rivalry.
Postseason aspirations are either reinforced or crushed — or both — more often than not, but perhaps most importantly, bragging rights among the players, coaches and passionate fan bases who make the rivalry what it is are up for grabs.
And though the Knights won’t admit it beforehand, remaining as stoic as their head coach in fielding questions surrounding the game, what transpires on the court at the Rock Friday night will show just how emotionally invested they are in bringing an early Christmas present back with them to Piscataway.
“Rutgers and Seton Hall is historic. It’s a rivalry game,” Williams said. “Even long after we’re gone, we’re graduated, this game is going to be important, so I just tell the guys that Friday night, be ready for a dog fight.”