Only longtime Rutgers' men's basketball fans remember the 1991 NCAA Tournament game against Arizona St. in Atlanta. On March 15 of that year, the Scarlet Knights fell to the Sun Devils 79-76, beginning the steady downswing that would lead to the eventual end of the Bob Wenzel era on the banks of the ol’ Raritan.
That was the last time that RU played in the NCAAs. To put the drought into perspective, current assistant coach Craig Carter ran the point for that squad.
Fast forward to the summer of 1997 and cue the entrance of a slick, sharp basketball mind in Kevin Bannon.
With thick New Jersey roots, Bannon was seen as a potential savoir for a program that had quickly slipped into mediocrity (later on, this would be the same “tag” given to football head man Greg Schiano, women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer and recently appointed men’s coach Freddie Hill).
Even I got caught up in all of the Bannon hype. The guy could coach, plain and simple. The schematic genius of his sets was evident to even those with the most amateurish eye for the game (I was nine-years-old at the time and still getting a firm grasp on the game).
Add that to a successful first campaign that was marked by RU’s first ever trip to the Big East tournament semifinals (courtesy of Geoff Billet’s infamous “Shot and a Cheer” against Georgetown at MSG) and the hype around Bannon was just beginning.
Growing up and following the art of recruiting only made me understand how powerful Kevin Bannon could make the RU men’s basketball program. Recruiting only enhanced Bannon’s nearly perfect image.
He signed Dahntay Jones, a highly-touted local product who would finish his career at Duke (thanks to Bannon’s antics), as well as Todd Billet (who would finish his career at Virginia because of an awful decision to fire his brother Geoff as an assistant).
However, near misses on future Duke star Jay Williams and Notre Dame standout Troy Murphy gave Scarlet Knights fans a great deal of fools' gold excitement.
False hope was a trend for Rutgers' fans during the 1990’s and the entirety of Scarlet Nation set themselves up for the disappointment that would be forthcoming. Buzz over NIT appearances and Big East Tournament wins were too quickly triggered and RU fans felt on top of the world—as if a climb was in the near future.
To further put the whole mess that would ensue into perspective, Rutgers' basketball was not always an afterthought before Wenzel’s arrival (he won the 1989 A-10 championship in dramatic fashion at a raucous Rutgers Athletic Center over Penn St.).
While the Craig Littlepage days were more than forgettable, the Scarlet Knights had appeared in the 1976 Final Four under Tom Young, boasting a 31-0 record before losing twice that weekend to finish off the best season in school history.
Led by greats in Mike Dabney, Phil Sellers, James Bailey, Hollis Copeland, Abdel Anderson, and current Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan (amongst others), RU proved to be the class of northeast college basketball.
Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights' program, Kevin Bannon made some poor choices when it came to motivational tactics. Ultimately a “naked free throw shooting scandal” led to his firing in 2001 along with the relative disgracing of the school and basketball team.
Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy was left searching for a coach. The end of the process led to a five year period that would restore character to Rutgers and create some slight improvements, basketball wise.
The team, however, was still nowhere near where it needed to be during an era when the Big East was starting to become the power conference that it is today.
Strike one, swing and a miss on Eddie Sutton (hallelujah on that one!). Strike two (the one that hurt) on Jay Wright.
Due to perception being at an all-time low, Mulcahy took the safe but correct choice at the time, as he hired a man of great faith and a winning pedigree at Kent St.—Gary Waters.
I get blasted for this all the time, but I was one of the staunchest supporters of GW. He took a job that nobody dared to step into and established the RAC as a top five home court in the nation within three years. His defensive tactics were second-to-none and he clearly knew the game.
But, Waters' inability to recruit in the tri-state area, his lack to show a set offense, and an unfortunate “Snowgate” incident (he missed a game due to a blizzard that grounded a flight back from Ohio) gave assistant Freddie Hill his chance and first win (of many more to come in the future).
In five years, respect was restored but Waters was gone to Cleveland St.
When I watched the press conference for Freddie Hill’s hiring, I couldn’t help but flashback to Greg Schiano’s hiring for Rutgers' football. His intensity, his love for New Jersey, and his goal to win a national championship were all there.
Quincy Douby, a former Rutgers' star shooting guard and current Sacramento King, once told me that people just don’t understand what Freddie Hill (and assistant Jim Carr) are capable of recruiting and coaching-wise.
QD credited Hill for his development into an All-American shooting guard and believes Hill’s NJ recruiting prowess will make RU a premier program sooner rather than later.
In 2005, Hill landed Newark Eastside’s Corey Chandler on a very early verbal commitment. In 2006, Senegalese seven foot center Hamady N’Diaye committed. 2007 brought RU’s first McDonald’s All-American, Mike Rosario of St. Anthony’s. And in March, St. Benedict’s center Gregory Echenique completed the Hurley family duo of commits for the Scarlet Knights.
Freddie Hill has the ball rolling for Rutgers' basketball. Very soon, RU fans will be able to take in new memories of postseason hoops. The Scarlet Knights' program is on the rise…and there is no stopping that.