Loss to Michigan Sets Stage for Defining Finish for Rutgers
The dream of going undefeated at home is over for Rutgers, but now the stage is set for a real test. How will this team finish with three of their last four on the road, after suffering home-court heartbreak?
The days of leaning on the home record are over. The Rutgers men’s basketball team’s 60-52 loss to Michigan at the RAC on Wednesday put a tarnish on their once-perfect home record, but it also sets a gauntlet that could determine what kind of team head coach Steve Pikiell will take into the postseason.
The Scarlet Knights wasted several opportunities to steal a win on the road this season, only managing a 1-6 away record, but prided themselves on home dominance. It’s a pride they can no longer boast, as they prepare for three road trips in four games.
This year’s team never had to practice through the emotional strain of a home loss, until this week. Now, the Knights have to travel nearly 1,000 miles to face a Wisconsin team that’s battling for a top-four finish in the Big Ten. That game will be followed by a trip to No. 9 Penn State to face a Nittany Lions team hungry for some program history.
It’s a road trip that would hold a season-defining weight in normal circumstances, but the fact that Rutgers needs to go on the road after a crippling loss only emphasizes the scale of the task, just as much as the scale of the opportunity.
The Knights have a chance to make a statement about their mental fortitude, just in time for the part of the season in which it matters the most.
For graduate senior Akwasi Yeboah, the pain of his first loss at the RAC will serve as a motivator in practice this week. He believes that the harder the loss, the harder the edge.
“You don’t want to lose like that at home,” Yeboah said. “That’s definitely going to give you an edge.”
If that edge translates to success, and Rutgers is able to earn a legitimate road win on Sunday, it could be a win that balances out the aura of missing out on the undefeated-at-home dream.
It could also offer some traveler’s confidence heading into their biggest game of the season at State College, PA. Even if a road win against Penn State is the last win the team earns all season, it would mark a sweep over their cross-state rival. In the eyes of the fans, that might vindicate the season as a success by default.
However, a pair of losses would all but bury their morale, and chances at favorable seeding in the Big Ten Tournament.
As a program, the Knights have already gone above and beyond in 2020, shattering the 12-place expectation that was bestowed upon them in the preseason. However the true legacy of this team has yet to be determined, and whether or not they can persevere in the wake of home-court heartbreak will go a long way in the expectations of the program moving forward.
Pikiell has his work cut out for him with just three days to work with. All of his team’s last four games are rematches. The three road contests will be against teams that Rutgers has already beaten at home.
The one home game, a senior night rematch with Maryland who Rutgers lost to on the road on February 4, will likely mark the highest ranked opponent the Knights face all season. It would be a redeeming finish to their home season, despite the imperfect record.
But the bulk of Rutgers’ work will have to be done on the road the rest of the way. If this team can prove it can win on the road in these last three games, no one will be talking about a loss to Michigan come tournament time.
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