July 18, 2018 | ° F

Not over the Hill just yet

Since the final stretch of last season, Rutgers men's head basketball coach Fred Hill Jr. has been on the hot-seat. Three and a half weeks ago after his team got shellacked by 23 points at Marquette, Hill was doing his infamous sideline squat on that seat because it was too hot to sit.

Then the Scarlet Knights got that illusive first Big East victory of the season against a streaky Notre Dame team. RU followed up the win with a second one defeating St. John's. At that point Hill should have been listening to the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive" on his drive home from the Louis Brown Athletic Center.

The winning streak ended at Freedom Hall when the Knights fell to Louisville, but rebounded in a big way and shocking the basketball world by defeating then No. 7 Georgetown at the RAC. RU then narrowly eluded a letdown game against Big East bottom feeder DePaul rallying from a 17 point deficit to win 68-64.

Going on a pair of two-game winning streaks within five games in the Big East is just what Hill needed to make what appeared to be a lost season at least somewhat salvageable. And have a chance to keep his job.

RU has won five of six, but a 70-62 win over Division II Caldwell — who was 3-18 at the time — is nothing to gloat about. Especially when scheduled in the middle of conference play.

Let me first say a few things about the Georgetown game.

It seems it was just a fluky couple nights for the top teams in the Big East. Then No. 3 Syracuse fell to Louisville at home the same night and No. 3 Villanova lost to Connecticut — RU's next opponent tomorrow — the next night.

Then there's what happened when the Knights traveled down to D.C. to play the Hoyas 22 days earlier. RU was embarrassed at the Verizon Center losing by 25 points. With such dominating performance in the round one, it would be hard for the Hoya players to think things wouldn't go the same the second time around.

Take nothing away from RU though; beating a top-10 team is not an easy feat no matter the circumstances. And in the strongest conference in the country — sorry Big 12 — a team has to bring it every night or they risk losing.

But with UConn on tap tomorrow and Hill's job still not completely secured for next year the fourth-year head coach couldn't have asked for a much better situation going down the stretch.

RU had its toughest part of the Big East schedule at the beginning. In the first six games the Knights faced the top three teams in the conference in Nova, Cuse and West Virginia, getting blown out by all three.

Tomorrow's game against Connecticut isn't as daunting as it has been in years past. UConn has had a down year and are sitting on a bubble that they hope doesn't burst come NCAA Tournament time.

After the Huskies, RU is at Seton Hall on Feb. 23, DePaul on Feb. 27, Seton Hall on March 4 and then closes out the regular season at Pittsburgh on March 6 before the Big East tournament on March 9. Unless they get a first round buy which isn't happening.

Hill has got to squeeze out at least one win out of that and based on the quality of the opponents, two wins is by no means out of the question. Realistically, the Knights could beat DePaul at home — because they're just awful — and split with inter-state rival Seton Hall. Winning just one of those games and then winning of Big East tournament game — which doesn't sound so farfetched anymore — would be enough.

Either way Hill would get to six wins, which would be a four-game improvement from last year and two less Big East wins than he had his first three years. That's enough to keep his job.

For a program that's been at rock bottom and stagnant since the beginning of the Hill era, you have to crawl before you walk. So baby steps should do. Especially when he's brought in talent like the school's first ever McDonald's All-American in sophomore Mike Rosario, freshman Dane Miller who is making a case for Big East Rookie of the Year and redshirt junior Jonathan Mitchell after winning a national title at Florida.

Questions on Hill's knowledge of the X's and O's come on a regular basis, but basketball has a lot to do with the players you put on the court. Great coaches typically have with great talent.

Bob Knight is an anomaly. The General had Army as a National Invitational Tournament regular during his time there. To go along with his well-known discipline, he's just that good at his X's and O's and teaching young men the game of basketball. Maryland head coach Gary Williams does more with less than most coaches too. He just doesn't go after highly touted players when recruiting. Hill on the other hand has shown the recruiting skills to do the complete opposite.

The backlash from the fans and media has been brutal toward Hill, but by showing improvement, even if it is just a few more Big East wins, Hill should remain the head coach. Athletic director Tim Pernetti wouldn't have the grounds to fire Hill because along with the improvement, Hill would get paid $1.8 million ($600,000 per year for three years) if fired based on the extension given to him by Pernetti's predecessor Bob Mulcahy.

So after staying alive, maybe Hill should start playing BTO's "Taking Care of Business" on his rides home because that's exactly what the Knights are going to need to do for Hill to be on the sidelines next season.

Matt Sugam is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and sociology.

Matt Sugam

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