While most Rutgers men's basketball fans are disappointed at not seeing their Scarlet Knights playing in the NCAA Tournament, on Tuesday they received a small consolation when head coach Steve Pikiell was awarded the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year Award.
Pikiell is responsible for bringing the program its first winning season in 14 years and its first national ranking since 1979. This is the coach's first national award, but not his first award as a head coach as he was a four-time America East Coach of the Year at Stony Brook.
March 19, 2016, was the day that Rutgers Athletics Director Pat Hobbs committed to resurrecting one of the worst major college basketball programs in the country. He did this by hiring Pikiell after the coach had just made his first NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the America East Tournament.
Before the hire, Rutgers was in a 25-year tournament drought, had finished last in conference play in every season since joining the Big Ten and had been through many head coaches, including Mike Rice Jr. and the national scandal he brought with the abuse of his players.
Hobbs knew that he needed someone who was a proven program builder, and he called upon Pikiell to bring a winning program back to the Banks. In his first two years, the Knights still finished last in the Big Ten, but it was clear that this situation was different.
The rebuilding effort was rewarded in 2017 when, in his second season, Pikiell guided Rutgers to a ranked win over in-state rival Seton Hall. The Knights had hope for a future, something that seemed decades away when Eddie Jordan said his team didn't practice rebounding. A run to the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals gave fans more reason to believe that the future was bright.
The year 2018 was another step forward for Rutgers. The Knights finished above last for the first time in Big Ten play and produced two ranked wins. The Rutgers faithful showed its support, selling out five home games in a noticeable change for the program. Coming into 2019, the Knights were expected to be an improved team, contending to be an NIT team or on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
Pikiell and his players took those expectations and surpassed them, bringing a refreshed level of excitement to this program. Rutgers produced its first winning record in Big Ten conference play since joining in 2014, and captured its first 20-win season since 2003. Additionally, the team had an 18-1 record at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), the best home record in the nation.
The RAC became known nationally as one of the toughest places to play in the country, with 10 home sellouts this year, setting a program record. The Knights were on their way to being in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years, and a road win over Purdue most likely secured their birth in the big dance, though the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic spoiled Rutgers' chances of going dancing.
Despite the premature ending to the season, Pikiell is looking to make sure that the future holds even more success for the Knights. He was able to get a commitment from Jaden Jones, a 6-foot-7-inch guard who is a top 100 player for the Class of 2021, and he also has a chance to recruit big man Cliff Omoruyi, a New Jersey native and Top 50 player in this year's class.
If Pikiell can land Omoruyi, it will be a significant signing and will show that Rutgers is going to be a force in basketball for years to come. The coach is committed to the future of the program, and the Knights recently reciprocated that commitment when Rutgers extended his contract through the 2025-26 season.
"Steve Pikiell has done an extraordinary job and I'm delighted to see him receive this recognition," Hobbs said. "In four short years he has transformed Rutgers Basketball into a program that will compete at the highest level for many years to come. Steve and his team exemplify everything we want Rutgers Athletics to represent."
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