Upon entering the Big Ten Tournament, the Rutgers men's basketball team was reeling. The Scarlet Knights (19-14, 10-10) were 2-6 in their final eight games of the regular season, were sluggish at times on the defensive side of the ball and looked lost on offense.
Against Big Ten teams with winning records, Rutgers only averaged 55.8 points per game during that final eight-game stretch. On the eve of the Big Ten Tournament, the Knights were no longer a consensus pick to make the NCAA Tournament and were on the verge of collapse.
Before a potential do-or-die game against Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, head coach Steve Pikiell decided to make a statement by getting a hammer and smashing his phone.
Pikiell has always spoken of his distaste for cell phones, but it seemed like his hatred reached a boiling point. Whatever pushed him over the edge, the message was clear: Stay focused and block out all distracting noise.
"No, it was — the phones, you guys don't want to get me started on that," Pikiell said. "It's just a complete waste of time. Need the team focused."
The message was received loud and clear, as Rutgers looked like a revitalized team against the Wolverines (17-15, 11-9). The offense attacked the basket decisively, and the Knights were able to make timely shots. More importantly, the defense kicked back into high gear. They held Michigan to no field goals for a 14-minute period in the second half.
"This was one of the best 20 minutes of defense I've seen," said former Big Ten defensive player of the year and Big Ten basketball analyst Rapheal Davis. "Not just this season, but in my entire career."
Though Rutgers lost to Purdue, the game was close until the end, and the Knights put on a real fight. One more call going their way or a friendlier bounce, and Rutgers could have advanced to the Big Ten semifinals.
Basketball is not a game of what-ifs, and a loss is still a loss, but the energy on the court and the players' demeanor had noticeably changed.
In the final eight games of the regular season, the players looked tired, frustrated and mentally defeated. Against the Wolverines and the Boilermakers (28-5, 15-5), The Knights looked more confident, connected, focused and energized. Rutgers was flying around the court on defense, and it looked like the team could defeat Purdue until the very end.
An off-the-court phone smash was not the only thing that re-energized the Knights — a key decision on the court helped as well. Before the Michigan game, it was announced that freshman guard Derek Simpson would be inserted into the starting lineup for just the fourth time this season. It was Simpson's first start since filling in for the injured Mulcahy at the start of the season.
Simpson gave Rutgers another ball handler, speed, a player with the ability to create their own shot and a freshman swagger. The team seemed to rally around him on the offensive side of the ball.
While his lack of experience showed against the Boilermakers through his missing a couple of crucial shots, his confidence seemed to raise his teammates' spirits on the court. It also gave the Knights the first semblance of an offensive identity since losing junior forward Mawot Mag to a season-ending ACL tear.
A floundering team with seemingly no answers became a team hungry to win again, with Simpson and Mulcahy serving as the primary ball handlers.
While Rutgers ended up missing the NCAA Tournament, it will most likely play in the National Invitational tournament. It seems the once-lost Knights have reconnected with their identity over just two days in Chicago.
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