Rutgers Men’s Basketball Turns the Garden Red for One Day

The bundled masses, dressed in Rutgers red, crossed the Hudson River — something that any true Jerseyite does begrudgingly, even when the temperature isn’t hovering in the single digits. They filed into Madison Square Garden on Saturday morning, filling the arena nearly up to the Harry Styles banner in the rafters.

Long before chants of “R … U” rang through the arena, they echoed down below in the concourses of Penn Station. Hoots and hollers — would you expect anything less? — accompanied a rousing national anthem by a Rutgers student.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey and the Rutgers football coach, Greg Schiano, sat courtside, while not far away was Todd Frazier, the former Met and Yankee who most proudly identifies as Toms River’s favorite son.

“It’s our New York extension,” Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers, said with a smile as he surveyed the crowd.

The Garden State takeover of the Garden felt whole from start to finish for Saturday’s matinee as the Scarlet Knights scratched and clawed their way past Michigan State, 61-55, to remain in second place in the Big Ten.

It was what has become a characteristic performance for Rutgers (16-7, 8-4), which has gone from doormat to respectable to formidable under Coach Steve Pikiell. The Knights are rarely the biggest or the quickest team, nor are they often the most skilled. But they swarm, they compete and they are a headache to play against.

They trailed by 8 points early in the second half, made 3 of 16 3-pointers, surrendered 13 offensive rebounds and missed 12 free throws. Yet they managed to win by locking down the Spartans — surrendering just two baskets over a 12-minute stretch, a performance befitting a team that is among the nation’s best in defensive efficiency.

“It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was beautiful to me,” Pikiell said.

The crowd — announced at 14,844 — was nothing like the one the last time Rutgers played here, a 2020 loss to Michigan shortly before the coronavirus pandemic ended the season. That game felt like one at a neutral site, with a large contingent of Michigan fans. But not Saturday.

“It was scarlet all over,” said guard Paul Mulcahy, who scored 17 points.

Paul Mulcahy was the leading scorer for Rutgers with 17 points on Saturday. He also had three steals.Credit…Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The idea of playing at the Garden came not from Rutgers, but from the Big Ten Conference, which wants to expand its presence in the country’s biggest media market. That was, after all, the premise for inviting Rutgers into the Big Ten more than a decade ago — as if Piscataway were just another leafy suburb across the river.

As basketball coaches are wont to do, Pikiell did not exactly embrace the idea. As he saw it, he wasn’t gaining an experience he called “spectacular” afterward. He was losing a home game at the raucous Jersey Mike’s Arena, which has as formidable a home-court advantage as exists in the Big Ten.

Holloway, a former football player at Stanford, saw the greater benefit from his seat.

“A sports program, if you’re doing it right, can be an amazing thing for the community,” said Holloway, who has been frank enough to acknowledge that the Rutgers athletic program, which is perpetually in the red, will probably never be self-sustaining. “This puts our name out there.”

Rutgers’s board of governors followed along this month by approving a contract extension for Pikiell, a former UConn guard who spent a decade coaching at Stony Brook before he was hired in 2016.

“We want Steve to know Rutgers is the place we want him to be,” Pat Hobbs, the Rutgers athletic director, said of the extension.

The board’s approval comes shortly after Rutgers handed top-ranked Purdue what until Saturday night was its only loss and the Knights received a commitment from Airious Bailey, a forward from Georgia who is among the top prospects in the class of 2024. Rutgers is also hopeful of landing another elite recruit from that class, Dylan Harper, the younger brother of Ron Harper Jr., who finished at Rutgers last season.

The elder Harper was among a group who in 2021 lifted the Scarlet Knights to the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time in 30 years. Among the few holdovers from that team is Caleb McConnell, a sinewy 6-foot-7 guard from Jacksonville, Fla., who wasn’t anybody’s idea of a blue chipper when he arrived.

Now, though, McConnell is a sticky-fingered defender — pestering guards like Michigan State’s Tyson Walker, who is 6-foot-1, or wings like the 6-foot-9 Joey Hauser or bruising forwards like Malik Hall. McConnell had four steals on Saturday, turning the game in the second half with his defense, while adding 9 points, drawing 6 fouls and adding 3 assists.

“Everyone gets ranked for offense, and we evaluate the other 50 percent of it,” Pikiell said of recruiting evaluations. “Nobody appreciates that the way I do. Our kids aren’t becoming 5-stars because they play defense. Caleb McConnell was a 5-star defender, but he wasn’t a 5-star player. He’s a 5-star to me.”

After the game, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo pulled aside McConnell and Mulcahy, a senior who grew up in nearby Bayonne. He told them he appreciated what they’d done for the Big Ten and how they played the game — and that he hoped he never saw them again.

Izzo said Rutgers players’ tenacity and commitment to winning basketball reminded him of the core of his national championship team in 2000 — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, who grew up in Flint, Mich., a group that was christened The Flintstones. Izzo noted that Rutgers’s perimeter shooting could use some work — and that forward Mawot Mag sustained a knee injury midway through the first half — but that it might be time for more observers to think about Rutgers in a different light.

“People, especially at Michigan State, will think, well, you lost to Rutgers,” Izzo said. “Rutgers, in my humble opinion, is the second-best team in this league.”

And, on Saturday at least, the favorite team in New York City.

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