NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Rutgers seemed to be a only couple of days away from ending a nearly three-decade absence from the NCAA Tournament.
Then the coronavirus changed everything.
After knocking off then No. 9 Maryland last week and winning at Purdue, all the Scarlet Knights (20-11) had to do was play in the Big Ten Tournament and wait — for Sunday’s announcement that they would be going back to the NCAAs for the first time since 1991.
The dream ended Thursday when the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
“I am a big game-play guy and there was no game plan for this thing,” coach Steve Pikiell said Friday from his office.
The past 24 hours has been a blur for Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights. They were 14 minutes away from tipping off against Michigan in a second-round Big Ten Tournament game in Indianapolis when the league scrapped its tournament.
After meeting with his team in the locker room, Pikiell gave his players the option of heading home for the next few days. Half took him up on the offer.
“I just reminded them we have another season coming up,” Pikiell recalled.
The other half and Pikiell boarded a jet and flew back to New Jersey. By the time the plane landed at Newark International Airport, the NCAA Tournament had been canceled.,
“The players knew before I did,” Pikiell said. “They had their headphones on and were on every website.”
It was a jolt.
“It’s tough because those are memories that are hard to come by, once in a lifetime in my experience as a player as UConn and then as a coach,” Pikiell said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s for your family, for a lot of people. These kids have worked hard to achieve it and not to be able to go. I understand safety is the most important thing, but everyone is disappointed.”
This has been a remarkable season for Rutgers, one of most the surprising teams in the college basketball this year. They were picked for finish 12th in the 14-team Big Ten in the preseason poll and achieved their first ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 in 41 years.
Their 20-win regular-season was their first in 37 years, and the first 20-win season overall since 2003-04. Their 11 conference wins were their most in 29 years while the winning record in the league also was the first in the same period. The winning season was Rutgers’ first since 2005-06 (19-14), the last time it made a postseason tournament (NIT)
The Scarlet Knights’ 18 wins at home were a school record. All that remained was the NCAA Tournament for guys like Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Akwasi Yeboah, Montez Mathis and Shaq Carter.
“We would have won some games, too,” said Pikiell, who also was disappointed for his staff, the pep band, the cheerleaders and the dance team. “We were playing good basketball. Our guys were confident. We had played everybody. Every style. The league had 11 teams ranked out of 14. We were real confident.”
Still, he said it would have been terrible for anyone to get sick over travel to a game.
Pikiell was adjusting to the different world Friday. He had no place to go. Normally he would be hitting the road to watch high school and junior college players in tournaments. No one is playing. He also does not know when he will see his players again because the university is conducting all classes online.
“We are all going to have to take a new lifestyle,” he said. “I have washed my hands more in the last week than I ever did in my life and I used to wash my hands frequently. I think we are all going to have to adjust.”
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