PISCATAWAY — It took 225 long strides to get from a sense of boiling anticipation to hopelessness.
The Rutgers students who started a C-shaped line outside the ticket window at Jersey Mike’s Arena four hours before tipoff Thursday night came ready to wave pom-poms, volley around pool floaties in the form of donuts and rubber ducks, and make mind-numbing noise in support of the best men’s college basketball program in the area. Any of the approximately 2,000 students in line who dared show up with two hours or less to spare should’ve taken a cue from the STOP sign that they passed to get at the end of the line for an allotment of 1,400 seats.
“Everybody in this arena believes there is no ceiling on this program,” athletics director Pat Hobbs told Post Sports+.
Before Hobbs arrived in 2015 and hired head coach Steve Pikiell a few months later, a dimly lit basketball arena probably was an indication that a ceiling light burned out and some unlucky maintenance worker had to navigate 100 pieces of red tape to fix it. Thursday’s backdrop was a planned “Blackout” promotion, and the 27th straight sellout drew Super Bowl 57 touchdown scorer Isiah Pacheco back to his alma mater and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to courtside.
“It’s Thursday — a big party night on campus — but this is the place to be,” freshman Matt Mucciacciaro said after hurrying to his front-row seat from an exam.
Welcome to an era of great expectations. And the fallout that comes with it, like the boos that bounced off the renovated 46-year-old arena’s sound-trapping walls when five-point favorite Rutgers finished shooting bricks and squandering an early 10-point lead in a 58-45 loss to Michigan.
“The fans have their opinions and I love them: We have a lot of assistant coaches now,” Pikiell quipped about hearing the frustrations. “Stay with Rutgers basketball.”
Even with a fourth loss in the past five games, Rutgers (17-11, 9-8 in the Big Ten) is closing in on a program-record third straight NCAA Tournament berth — likely as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed, bracketologist Brad Wachtel told Sports+ after the game — but people around the program are quick to remind you that the streak would be four if not for the year March Madness was cancelled due to COVID-19. Ending a 30-year tournament drought that dated to 1991 wasn’t some one-time fluke. They have sustained success amid the transient nature of NIL deals and the NCAA transfer portal.
“It’s the standard,” senior guard Paul Mulcahy said, pausing for a second to reflect on how it reached that point. “Belief, getting the right people in the program and continuity in the coaching staff to build culture. People want to be here. We want to put ‘winners’ next to the name Rutgers. Grit is a big word for us.”
Why shouldn’t they boast? There are traffic jams outside and lines for alcohol sales inside (available since 2019) now. The building was full enough to execute a trademark “R! U!” chant with 49 minutes to go in pregame warmups. Ten years ago, the same arena hosted a late-scheduled game against Division III Stillman College that drew fewer than 50 people by hand count.
“It starts with leadership and giving leadership the resources they need,” said Hobbs, crediting every athletics department division from communications to marketing. “There are moments here you cannot hear, not [just] the person next to you, but hear yourself think. Seven years ago, I said the word that I would like to eliminate from the Rutgers vocabulary is ‘long-suffering.’ Well, we have eliminated long-suffering.”
Hobbs and then-Stony Brook program builder Pikiell met at the Tick Tock Diner across from Madison Square Garden in March 2016 after Danny Hurley withdrew his name from consideration to replace fired head coach Eddie Jordan. Pikiell laid out a plan that showed an appreciation — not naivety — for the challenge and a vision that is on center stage.
“I drank the diner’s coffee,” Hobbs said, “and I drank ‘The Pikiell Coffee.’”
This is a different Rutgers team than its recent predecessors. A voice on loop on the speakers welcomed fans in line to the “Trapezoid of Terror” with an evil muahahaha laugh, but the aura of invincibility that the Scarlet Knights created at home in recent years has dissipated. The loss to Michigan dropped Rutgers to 14-4 at home, after going a combined 32-5 in the past two seasons played in front of crowds.
An improved ability to win on the road — Rutgers beat the Big Ten’s top two teams, including then No. 1-ranked Purdue — is providing distance between the Scarlet Knights and the dreaded tournament bubble. Two program icons — Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker — left after last season, and the winning continued. Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell and Cliff Omoruyi could leave next. No fear: a four-star recruit is signed for next season and a five-star recruit is committed for 2024. Pikiell is signed to an eight-year, $30.8 million contract through 2030-31, per NJ Advance Media.
“This is Steve Pikiell’s program as long as he wants it to be,” Hobbs said. “Our commitment will always be there for him. We love the players that he brings in and the style of basketball they play. If I have my way — and if the 8,000 people in this arena have their way — this will be the last stop in his career.”
Today’s back page
🏀 Josh Hart wants long-term marriage with Knicks: ‘Perfect situation’
⚾ SHERMAN: Mets’ Brandon Nimmo following Brett Gardner’s path to significance
🏈 COSTELLO: Why there’s no reason for Jets to rush pivotal QB decision
🏒 Rangers drop third straight … as roster moves signal they’re getting closer to Patrick Kane deal
Knick of time
Death Valley National Park grows spectacular wildflowers about once every 10 years — or about as frequently as the Knicks emerge from their own midseason death valley to provide a much-anticipated second half of the season. Welcome to the blooming period .
The All-Star break broke up the rhythm of a 5-1 finish to the first half by the Knicks (33-27), who resume play Friday night against the lackluster Wizards. The memorable second half of the 2020-21 season, when the Knicks went 22-13 to clinch a playoff spot after a 19-18 start, built a buzz but had pandemic attendance restrictions in place and didn’t start with the same anticipation as exists right now.
Since 2012-13, when the Knicks started 32-18 on the way to a 54-28 finish, their best first-half record prior to this season was the 19-18 of two years ago. The mostly disastrous second halves of the past decade include just three other winning records — 12-11 last season, 22-13 two seasons ago and 17-13 in 2013-14. The Knicks accumulated at least twice as many losses as wins five times during that time frame.
Here are 5 games not to miss in the second half:
Feb. 27 vs. Celtics: The first of two games — one home, one away — against the East-leading Celtics in a six-day span. Led by MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, the Celtics rank third in offense, fourth in defense and first in net rating, but the Knicks showed comeback grit winning their last meeting in overtime.
March 1 vs. Nets: The Knicks won for the first time in 10 meetings on Feb. 13, in the first game after the dissolution of the failed Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant partnership. The Nets still are in front in the Eastern Conference standings, but the Knicks need to double down with another win to begin reclaiming this rivalry.
March 12 at Lakers: A good time to check in during the middle of a grueling five-game stretch. The first two are at the contending Kings and Clippers. A four-game West Coast road trip finishes in Portland before a home game against the West-leading Nuggets. On the basis of records, the Knicks need to beat the Lakers, but LeBron James just declared the second half as “23 of the most important games of my career,” so no messing around.
March 22 at Heat: Three of the final 22 games are against the Heat. This is the middle one and the second trip to Miami. The Heat were uncharacteristically quiet at the trade deadline (one of just three teams not to add a player), choosing to rely on injury recovery and securing Kevin Love on the buyout market.
March 31 at Cavaliers: Possible first-round playoff preview. The Cavaliers boast the second-best scoring differential (+5.4 points per game) in the league, the second-best home record in the Eastern Conference (25-7) and the trade prize that slipped away from Knicks fans (Donovan Mitchell).
NFL Draft dissection
Can you identify future Giants and Jets from the crowd of 319 college football prospects invited to descend on Indianapolis next week for the NFL Combine? The buzz begins Tuesday with select head coach and general manager interviews, and the schedule for the NFL Network-televised 40-yard dashes, vertical jumps, shuttle runs, position-specific drills and other on-field workouts looks like this:
Thursday, 3 p.m. ET: defensive linemen, linebackers, edge rushers
Friday, 3 p.m. ET: cornerbacks and safeties
Saturday, March 4, 1 p.m. ET: quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends
Sunday, March 5, 1 p.m. ET: running backs, offensive linemen
Here is an early look at three prospects to watch for the Jets and three for the Giants:
OT Broderick Jones, Georgia: General manager Joe Douglas has used two first-rounders and two fourth-rounders on the offensive line in his first three draft classes. And still the line was an injury-depleted mess last season. Jones made 19 career starts at left tackle (Mekhi Becton is a right tackle now) and displayed easy athleticism. Watching 310-pounders run the 40-yard dash in under five seconds is sneaky fun.
DL Lukas Van Ness, Iowa: Is he going to be a Combine creation? Van Ness’ package of strength, agility and explosiveness is expected to wow scouts into bumping him up the board despite zero career starts in college. Yes, zero. He did have 70 tackles and 13 sacks in 27 games. The Jets employ a deep and versatile defensive line, so Van Ness could be eased into the rotation.
C John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota: Again, it’s offensive line as priority No. 1 in the draft (No. 2 to quarterback in the offseason). Schmitz was one of the biggest risers out of the Senior Bowl, and if the Jets are looking at how the Chiefs rebuilt their offensive line in one offseason (2021), the key was drafting center Creed Humphrey in the third round. If you enjoy offensive line technique, watch Schmitz’s hands in drills.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State: Scouts rave about his smooth route-running, but worry about his durability after managing just five catches in three games last season. On a team with 2022 NFL rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson (Jets) and third-place finisher Chris Olave (Saints), Smith-Njigba had 95 catches to Wilson’s 70 and Olave’s 65 in 2021. A chance to be their Week 1 No. 1 receiver.
CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon: Speed runs in the family, and Gonzalez’s two All-American sprinter older sisters are not going to let him run anything other than a blazing 40-yard dash. He reportedly was tracked running 23.3 miles per hour in college. Gonzalez’s fluid hips are good for turning and running in man-to-man coverage, and he would fill the void opposite Adoree’ Jackson.
ILB Trenton Simpson, Clemson: A potential second-round steal who fits coordinator Wink Martindale’s position-less defense. The Giants had a turnstile of inside linebackers last season, but Simpson’s sideline-to-sideline range is 100 tackles waiting to happen. He should be at or near the top of the linebacker results in 40-yard dash, broad jump and vertical jump.