Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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With back-to-back wins at Madison Square Garden, Rutgers showing it belongs in the Big Ten
By ADAM ZAGORIANEW YORK — While Deshawn Freeman was sitting on the set of the Big Ten Network following Rutgers’ come-from-behind 76-69 win over Indiana at Madison Square Garden, a Rutgers fan yelled at him.
“Hey, Deshawn,” Dan Baumlin shouted, “they said Rutgers didn’t belong in the Big Ten.”
The fan and his friends then began serenading the player with chants of “De-shawn Free-man, De-shawn Free-man,” before turning their attention to the coach with chants of “Steve Pik-iell.”
Yes, Freeman, Corey Sanders (game-high 28 points) and their Rutgers teammates are showing they do indeed belong in the Big Ten Conference. After finishing last in the league with a 3-15 regular-season mark, the No. 14-seeded Scarlet Knights have now beaten No. 11 Minnesota and No. 6 Indiana on back-to-back days and will face No. 3 Purdue in Friday night’s quarterfinals (8:55 ET). Rutgers remains a 300/1 longshot to win the Big Ten Tournament, per Bovada.
But Rutgers has won multiple conference tournament games for the first time in 20 years, and suddenly looks like one of the hottest teams in the league.
“You have to have a great weekend and we’ve had a couple good days so hopefully we can make it a great weekend,” Pikiell said.
Pikiell has breathed new life into a Rutgers program that has been a laughingstock for seemingly forever, with one scandal after another, one coaching change after another.
In March 2016, when former coach Eddie Jordan was fired, Freeman and Sanders considered transferring, but opted to stay in part because Pikiell kept Greg “Shoes” Vetrone on staff from Jordan’s old staff.
“Shoes staying was a big part of fit,” Freeman told me in 2016. “Coach Pikiell telling us that Shoes was going to be here, that helped a lot.”
Vetrone was at the Garden Thursday night, and although Pikiell didn’t mention him by name in the postgame press conference he knows his team would look a lot different right now had those guys bolted.
“I’m proud to be the coach and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Pikiell said. “They could’ve left two years ago, they stayed.”
But on this night, Sanders was right in the middle of it as Rutgers fought back from a 16-point deficit in the first half to take a 29-28 halftime lead. Freeman also came up big with 15 points and 8 rebounds.
Down the stretch, Sanders, a junior who has publicly flirted with leaving Rutgers after this season to pursue a pro career, was throwing down one dunk after another in transition and Indiana had no answer.
“Corey was terrific again and I think he has something to prove,” Pikiell said.
“If you look at Corey Sanders’ game tonight, I thought he did a great job of getting down hill,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “He’s a tough guy to stop and he got going one-on-one.”
Miller also praised Freeman for his efforts.
“I thought Deshawn Freeman really hurt us with his ability to play off the lane and really drive,” Miller said of the senior. “I thought just the tougher team won tonight.”
And that tougher team is proving during March Madness that it belongs in the Big Ten Conference.
As they walked off the floor following their massive comeback, Freeman had just one thought. He wanted to keep playing more games for Rutgers. In the Big Ten Conference.
“It felt good,” he said. “We went out and just played hard. I didn’t want this to be my last game.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.