- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) - Rutgers has become a place more known for March sadness than madness. The Scarlet Knights haven’t been a part of the NCAA Tournament for more than a quarter century.

But despite another season without postseason play, there’s optimism in Piscataway that things are about to change.

“We accomplished a lot of things,” first-year coach Steve Pikiell said. “We got some respect back to Rutgers basketball.”

It’s been 26 years since Rutgers made the NCAA Tournament. It hasn’t made the NIT since 2005-06. Between the 1990-91 season and now, the program has been a national laughingstock.

With Northwestern getting an NCAA berth this season, the Scarlet Knights have the longest NCAA Tournament drought among schools in Power 5 conferences.

Along with losing, Rutgers has been marred by scandals. Most famously is former coach Mike Rice, who was fired in April 2013 after video surfaced of him hurling basketballs and gay slurs at players in practice.

Favorite son Eddie Jordan, who helped Rutgers to its lone Final Four appearance during an undefeated regular season in 1975-76, was hired as the replacement. Soon after, news emerged that he had not actually received his diploma from Rutgers.

While he ended up finishing his degree during his coaching tenure and was a good caretaker of the program following a national scandal, things did not materialize on the court.

Jordan was fired and Pikiell entered the season with no expectations.

A disciple of Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun as both his point guard and assistant coach at UConn, Pikiell came to Rutgers after spending 11 years building Stony Brook into a postseason tournament regular. Stony Brook made the NCAAs for the first time and Pikiell earned conference Coach of the Year honors in 2016.

“It’s a journey,” Pikiell said. “I’ve been a part of these builds. I’ve been very confident we’re going to build this thing, the right way. It takes time. We got to make a lot of improvements. You saw the improvements we made. Moving forward here, we got to continue to do that playing in this league.”

The Scarlet Knights were the first No. 14 seed to win in the Big Ten Tournament; albeit, they’re the only program to have the No. 14 seed since joining the conference in 2014. But they started the season 11-1 and won more Big Ten games this season than they did in their first two years combined. They lost conference games by an average of 22.7 points the previous season but lost by 13.6 points per game in Big Ten play this season.

It made for a much different feel following the regular-season finale win over Illinois.

“It’s very different (from last year),” junior guard Mike Williams said. “Last year the student section would be empty. Now you see the student section packed for every home game. The fans are into it. The crowd’s been into it. There’s been a lot of times where the (Rutgers Athletic Center) has been louder than when we beat (No. 4) Wisconsin two years ago, so it’s just very different. I appreciate Pikiell and the staff; came in here with a good game plan and it’s just working. You’re seeing the results.”

With a head coach and a staff filled with former college point guards, Rutgers has been led by its guards all season and will be going forward with Williams, Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson. Sanders feels he doesn’t even have to sell recruits on the potential.

“I don’t even have to say anything,” Sanders said. “I think that that’s something that they can see. Hopefully that’s motivation for more people to want to join us and change this thing around. It’s not going to happen one by one or tomorrow morning. We just need a lot of people to buy in.”

Rutgers has to deal with the loss of two seniors, only one a major contributor in C.J. Gettys.

There are finally shovels in the ground for a new practice facility, something that has been discussed for years without coming to fruition. Building the foundation of a program now provides the extra boost of the future amenities of other Big Ten programs.

“This has been a year we got a great staff together, taught a team that wasn’t great defensively to defend and rebound. Got them to compete every night in a league that’s excellent,” Pikiell said. “Played the hardest schedule, or second hardest, whatever you want to call it, in the league. Able to do a lot of firsts: first road win, first tournament win, getting off to the great start in the non-conference.

“Better days ahead for Rutgers basketball.”


More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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