No. 24 Rutgers, enjoying rare ranking, opens with Sacred Heart

NCAA Basketball

Rutgers finally experienced success last season for the first time as a member of the Big Ten Conference and was on the cusp of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991 before the world changed on March 11.

After seeing their likely bid for an NCAA berth canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 24th-ranked Scarlet Knights have high expectations as they host Sacred Heart on Wednesday in the season opener for both teams.

After going 20-11 last season and finishing with a winning record for the first time since being the runner-up in the NIT in 2003-04, Rutgers will begin a season ranked for the first time since 1978-79. The only other time the Scarlet Knights entered a season in the AP Top 25 was 1976-77, when they were coming off a Final Four appearance.

Last season, the Scarlet Knights’ appearance in the Jan. 20 poll was their first national ranking since the final AP poll in 1978-79.

The Scarlet Knights, who tied for fifth in the 2019-20 Big Ten regular season, were picked fifth in the Big Ten’s preseason poll earlier this week as they head into their first game since winning at Purdue in overtime on March 7.

“I’m very thankful for our guys that they have done a really great job of sacrificing and staying healthy,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said at the team’s media day. “I’m excited about the season. Our program has come a long way. I’m excited about the development of our veteran guys and our young guys coming in. Very thankful to be back for my fifth year. It feels like I started five minutes ago.”

Rutgers returns most of the same cast from last year’s team, including Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, who were the only two scorers to average double figures. Harper contributed 12.1 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting while starting each game. Baker averaged 10.9 points on 39.9 percent shooting for a Rutgers team that averaged 69.9 points and shot 44.7 percent.

The Scarlet Knights are opening a season against a Northeast Conference opponent for the third consecutive season. Last year, Rutgers nearly blew a 16-point lead before escaping with a 73-71 win over Bryant.

Sacred Heart went 20-13 last season and finished fourth in the conference but was picked last in the 2020-21 NEC preseason poll.

The Pioneers lost five of their top six scorers from last season, including E.J. Anosike, who averaged 15.7 points but subsequently transferred to Tennessee. Their leading returning scorer is Aaron Clarke, who averaged 11.3 points and ended last season by scoring in double digits in his final nine games.

“Obviously, we have lost some outstanding players from last season, but we feel we have several players that can emerge and have an outstanding season for us,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “The good news is we were in a similar situation two years ago with a lot of new faces and unproven players. That year we were picked ninth in the preseason poll and were a one-point loss away from being the No. 1 seed in the NEC tournament.”

–Field Level Media

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