Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) becoming one of college basketball’s most hostile environments
The combination of alcohol sales, the largest freshman class in university history and the simple presence of Greg Schiano is turning the RAC into a mad house for college hoops.
There’s been a different aura at the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center) this season. A 68-48 romping of in-state rival Seton Hall on Saturday moved the Rutgers men’s basketball team to 8-3 and a perfect 8-0 at home this season.
The atmosphere at the RAC on Saturday was so disruptive to Seton Hall that head coach Kevin Willard was caught off guard by the level of energy that impeded his team’s efforts.
“I didn’t do a very good job of getting these guys ready for this atmosphere,” Willard said. “I didn’t want to get them thinking about it, but I didn’t do a good enough job to get them to understand what this game and what this atmosphere is like. I’ve been here now 13 times and I should have done a better job … this is by far the best atmosphere I’ve seen.”
In the Willard’s 13 trips to Rutgers, he never had to leave with a loss quite like the one he suffered on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights’ 20-point margin of victory was their largest over the Pirates since 1998, and largest over any ranked opponent in program history.
Statistically, the win was one of the best defensive games they’ve played under head coach Steve Pikiell against an opponent of Seton Hall’s caliber. Early on in particular, the defensive pressure, combined with the crowd, forced Seton Hall to miss its first nine shots, including a pair of free throws. Rutgers led by as much as 21 in just the first 10 minutes.
“The crowd kinda got into them a little bit,” said junior captain Geo Baker. “They were having trouble running plays … they couldn’t really hear each other, what they were saying to each other, and that makes a big difference. That helps us a lot and we really enjoy this home court.”
Graduate senior transfer Akwasi Yeboah was recruited by Pikiell this off-season, and since coming to Rutgers, says his defense has improved drastically. For him, the atmosphere of the RAC gives his defense and edge and intensity not found in other arenas.
“I try to make plays on both ends of the floor … but I feel like I’m taking a huge stride in my defense,” Yeboah said.
The performance also moved Rutgers’ home court advantage rating up to 3.7 according to KenPom, the 69th best in the country. But the rate that Rutgers’ home court advantage rating has increased, is one of the fastest in the country as well, particularly this season.
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Why was the crowd for this year’s Garden State Hardwood Classic such a larger factor than years prior?
The answer might actually be found in university operations outside of athletics. In 2019, Rutgers admitted the largest freshman class in its history. That induction of youth into the student section can make for a jolt of energy on similarly historic levels.
This past Spring, athletics director Pat Hobbs also moved ahead with the legal sale of alcohol at athletic events, so this year’s men’s Rutgers basketball season is historic for that reason as well. The 2019-20 season marks the first in which spectators can get drunk in the stands at the RAC, bringing a very different kind of energy than the building has seen in years past.
Finally, the presence of football coach Greg Schiano, and a halftime speech that had the ceiling of the RAC on its last legs, was the most visible evidence for the chaos on Saturday. While Schiano is not likely to make an appearance at every halftime this season, his presence on the campus alone has brought about a change in climate to Rutgers as a whole. This energy may continue to carry over into the RAC as the season progresses, especially if Rutgers continues to dominate at home.
The Knights will play three of their next four games at home, including a showdown with cross-state rival Penn State to open the new decade at the RAC. So far this season, every Big Ten conference game has been won by the home team, so a home win against the now-ranked Nittany Lions would bring a similar swath of hostile energy to the RAC that was seen against Seton Hall.
A team that has dominated at home, but has seemingly been hapless on the road (0-3), will take every home game it can get.
How far can simply being dominant home take them if they can’t prove they can win away from the RAC?
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