Why Rutgers is the nightmare team that nobody wants to play

NEW YORK — They are the only team in the country to beat Purdue.

Tom Izzo hopes to never see them again this season.

They are currently ranked second in the Big Ten.

And on Saturday, Madison Square Garden had 14,800 screaming fans inside the building, with at least 80 percent of them wearing red for a game featuring one of college basketball’s top brands, Michigan State dressed in green and white.

That’s the identity of the Rutgers men’s basketball team, and the result is a winner.

In Saturday afternoon’s 61-55 win over the Spartans, the Scarlet Knights showed their DNA, overcoming a 29-21 deficit two minutes into the second half and putting Michigan State in the meat grinder. Over the next 16 minutes, Rutgers outscored the Spartans 30-15 to take control and earn their 16th win of the season while moving to 8-4 in the Big Ten standings.

Rutgers with the alley-oop!

Rutgers with the alley-oop!

Paul Mulcahy found CLifford Omoruyi for an alley-oop jam against Michigan State on Saturday.

was it nice Far away. But what would you expect the college basketball program representing New Jersey State University to be? Of course not!

“It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was beautiful to me,” Steve Pikiell said after the win. “We found a way to win. Our guys have been in a position like this a million times, and they showed it today.”

The streak of success Rutgers has put together starts and ends with Pikiell, who is in his sixth season at the helm and has put together as strong a program as anyone in the country.

When he took over in 2016, Rutgers was irrelevant, stuck in the Big Ten basement after a 7-25 season under Eddie Jordan. After three years of putting the pieces together, the Scarlet Knights have become a consistent force and are on their way to a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, a program first.

“Rutgers, in my opinion, is the second-best team in the Big Ten,” Tom Izzo said. “I’m a big fan of Rutgers and a big fan of Steve. They have a lot of guys who are tough and don’t care about anything but winning.”

Those guys Izzo is talking about? They weren’t four- or five-star recruits in the backcourt. It’s a fifth-year senior, Caleb McConnell, who is one of the best defenders in the country. It’s a Paul Mulcahy senior point guard who responded with 17 points in the second half after going scoreless in the first 20 minutes.

“I told Mulcahy and McConnell after the game that they’ve been great for the Big Ten,” Izzo said. “I hope I never see them again. There’s just a demeanor about them. It seems like winning is first hand.”

“To say that, he’s a Hall of Fame coach, and they ran this league for years and years,” Mulcahy said when asked about Izzo’s praise. “It’s amazing to hear that coming from him. We have a lot of respect for him and what he’s built. We’ve seen it since we were little. As far as we’re concerned, it goes back to the program, the college and Coach Pikiell . we’re in a position to win.”

That winning element starts with an edge and toughness with this team, embodied by young big man Cliff Omoruyi. In his latest performance, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound junior from Nigeria recorded his fourth double-double in the last six games with 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Perhaps the biggest thing about the Scarlet Knights is that they are relentless on the defensive end, ranking second in KenPom on that end of that floor. It gives them a chance against anyone, as evidenced by a 65-64 win over the top-ranked Boilermakers on Jan. 2 at Mackey Arena. The Scarlet Knights are 16-1 on the season and 8-0 in the Big Ten when allowing 65 points or less.

“I love that we’re hanging in there. We’re staying the course,” Pikiell said.

“All year long … if we’re connected defensively, we wreak havoc and cause problems,” McConnell added. “That’s something we wanted to do today. We wanted to stifle them.”

And that’s exactly what the Scarlet Knights did at Michigan State, holding them to 31 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes and 4 of 21 from 3-point range overall.

Rutgers looked unfazed Saturday afternoon. When the Spartans went up by eight, the Scarlet Knights played harder. When might a contested call have happened? They forged And when the opportunity to take over the game presented itself, the Scarlet Knights took it like an A-1 driver on a summer Friday down the road to the Jersey Shore.

In a conference that prides itself on physicality and toughness, Rutgers will never lose in that department. The Knights have made a significant addition to the Big Ten in basketball, and on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, they didn’t shy away from the national spotlight. Instead, they showed how dangerous they can be.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @John_Fanta.

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