Rutgers Roundup: Championship, unblemished record, hope for future
Welcome to the Rutgers Roundup, a weekly segment in which we reflect on what happened surrounding Scarlet Knights athletics over the past seven days before acknowledging top performances during the span with our Targum awards.
It's been a busy week in Piscataway for the second straight Roundup, one filled with signature wins on both an individual and collective level. Let’s dive right into it with…
The Biggest Win of All:
He emerged from the mat, some weight of expectations off his back, if only for the moment he took to take in the scenes.
Anthony Ashnault, seconds removed from defending his title as the Big Ten champion in the 141-pound category, looked towards the crowd at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, where he found his mother cheering and blowing kisses at her son.
That son, a junior on the Rutgers wrestling team, is slowly building his case as one of the greatest athletes in school history — his resume includes two titles in the best wrestling conference in the country and as many All-American placings.
With another season of eligibility, he's 34 wins shy of breaking the program record in career victories. Considering he won 32 matches in his sophomore year and still has another weekend remaining in his junior season, there is a likely possibility he achieves the feat.
But when he sat down with the Big Ten Network minutes after winning his conference title, he showed why he’s been able to rack up all those victories and put his name in program lore.
“The goal going into the match was just getting the win,” Ashnault said of the Big Ten final. “I wanted to be dominant, show the country that I’m the man to mess with and I want to be at the top of the podium at the NCAA tournament and performances like that and going out with a pace like that, that’s what it’s going to take.”
With a ways to go before becoming the greatest winner in school history, Ashnault managed to earn the biggest victory in a week full of them for the team’s from the Banks.
Let’s go through them.
- Coming close to reaching the levels of magnitude of Ashnault’s win was the Rutgers men’s basketball team, which began its first ever winning streak in Big Ten play since joining the conference three years ago in emphatic fashion.
The Scarlet Knights closed their regular season with a dramatic win over Illinois a day before Ashnault defended his title, their second consecutive win on Senior Day. An outstanding win in its own right, they doubled down in Washington D.C. four days later with their first ever Big Ten Tournament win, one in which they used their effort to will themselves past an apathetic Ohio State team Wednesday night at the Verizon Center.
It was the first conference tournament win for the Knights since they defeated South Florida in the 2014 American Athletic Conference tournament in what was their only year as a member of the league. But more importantly, it validates the work Rutgers has put in under its first season under head coach Steve Pikiell and the improvement that's come as a result, not only for the fans but for the players as well.
“It’s a big step forward in the direction Coach Pikiell is trying to take this team,” said senior center C.J. Gettys in the locker room after the win, and he wasn’t the only one.
“We know we’re better (than our regular season record),” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders. “All we gotta do is keep playing hard.”
Rutgers wouldn’t be able to repeat the magic against Northwestern, falling to the Wildcats Thursday night as they take another step towards confirming their first ever appearance at an NCAA Tournament.
When Northwestern sees its name on Selection Sunday this weekend, the Knights will hold the longest NCAA Tournament drought among teams in the top six conferences in the country — this year marks the 26th season since their last appearance in 1991.
If they improve in year two under Pikiell half as much as they did in the first, in which they: doubled their win total, earned more Big Ten wins (4) than in their first two seasons in the conference combined (3), including a first ever Big Ten road win, and saw a plus-134 rank improvement in RPI, as well as major NCAA ranking improvements in rebound margin (+305), scoring defense (+277), three point FG defense (+252) offensive rebounds (+244), rebounds (+238), field goal percentage defense (+238) and blocks (+107) — the drought won’t last much longer.
- From a program on the rise to one earning national attention, the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team continued it rolling start to the season by defeating No. 19 Brown 13-11 at home last Saturday.
The win, the 600th in the program’s 100th year in existence, earned the Scarlet Knights (5-0) a plethora of rewards, including a rise in the national rankings from No. 10 to No. 7 in the USILA Coaches Poll and weekly conference awards for junior Michael Rexrode (Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second straight time) and Kiernan Mullins, who won Big Ten Freshman of the Week after scoring a career-high four goals, including the dagger in the win over the Bears.
A year removed from being snubbed out of an NCAA Tournament bid despite tying a single-season record for wins with 11 — including two over Johns Hopkins, the team that took the final spot in the competition over them — the Knights are well-positioned to break that record.
No. 14 Stony Brook, their biggest challenge thus far, presents their next chance to get halfway to the record-setting win total of 12 when it comes to Piscataway Friday night.
- Women’s lacrosse and baseball, two very different sports going through similar early season struggles, each got a win last week.
It took overtime to decide it, but the Lady Knights eventually defeated Drexel last Saturday in Philly behind a game-winning goal from junior forward Kerri Puckhaber. The win comes a week after playing No. 10 Penn tight before ultimately losing by two goals at home.
Meanwhile, the Knights got an emphatic win with a 12-3 blowout of Iona in New Rochelle, New York. They’re now 4-7 after winning 3 of their last 5 outings.
- As a collective, the Rutgers women’s track team wasn’t able to make it to the podium at the ECAC Indoor Championships, finishing sixth, but there were a pair of impressive individual performances.
Junior Bria Saunders was named the competition’s Most Outstanding Performer with silver in both the 60m and 200m races, while senior Bryanna Grant set a program record in the triple jump, an event she won for the fourth time this season.
We’re midway through the Rutgers Roundup, and you know what that means — it’s time for our off-topic question of the week.
Last week’s question was, admitedly, a niche one and the low level of response said as much. So that’s why this week, we’ll go with a battle-tested question that is sure to get people’s blood boiling no matter who comes out on top.
You know what the question is.
And now, onto the rewards...
Athlete of the Week:
There is no one more deserving than Anthony Ashnault for all the reasons listed above.
With an extra week to prepare for the NCAA Championships, don’t be surprised if he earns this award again in two weeks time.
Team of the Week:
We’ve got our first title defense in the Rutgers Roundup awards, with the Rutgers men's lacrosse team defending its Targum Sports Team of the Week title.
Until the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team drops a game or shows signs of their blazing start beginning to cool down, it’s going to take a massive effort from other team’s to knock them off the perch.
Quote of the Week:
“It’s always sad when it ends. I love basketball. I hate when we hang up the uniforms.”
— Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell after an 83-61 loss to Northwestern knocked the Scarlet Knights out of the Big Ten Tournament and ended their season.
What to Watch:
While most of the student body is on Spring Break next week, most Rutgers athletes will be hard at work in the midst of their spring season or, in one case, fighting to finish their winter season strong.
Here’s what to look out for:
- The Rutgers wrestling team competes in the NCAA Championships next weekend
Ashnault is the favorite to go furthest in St. Louis, but there are another six Knights who qualified for the competition. Of the seven Knights competing, six were seeded and three will be making their debut. As always with this team, there will be a multitude of storylines throughout the tournament.
- The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team hosts a nationally-ranked opponent before doing the same with an in-state rival
No. 14 Stony Brook is next up on the Scarlet Knights’ schedule and present the biggest challenge they’ve seen all season, but getting past the Seawolves would only be passing the first of many obstacles they’ll face this season.
Four days later, they’ll welcome Princeton, an in-state rival who may have been the team who knocked the Knights out of the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Had Rutgers taken care of business on an ugly, rainy night in Princeton last spring, the committee would’ve had no choice but to give the Knights the automatic bid into the tournament. But they didn’t, so now they’ll have a chance to earn revenge on a night where the forecast predicts anywhere from 12 to 18 inches of snow. It sets the scene of another cold night for a rivalry that just keeps heating up.
One Last Thing:
Izaiah Brown will not compete at the NCAA Indoor Championships due to injury, according to a release on ScarletKnights.com.
“My calf had not been feeling 100 percent heading into Big Ten’s, but after I ran my preliminary race at the conference championships, I felt like I was able to perform,” Brown said in the statement. “Despite being able to produce my top finish in the finals, I took two weird steps on my final turn and re-aggravated the injury. Because of this calf injury, I was unable to run the 4x400m relay after my individual race at the Big Ten Championships."
It's the second consecutive season in which Brown is scratched from the NCAA Championships after winning a Big Ten title. He defended his title with a time of 45.32 seconds, the second best time in the nation this season that set both a Big Ten and program record in the process.
One of the favorites to win the national title going into College Station, Texas, Brown won't even get to have a chance.
That's the end of our second Rutgers Roundup. This column, young as it may be, will take its first spring break along with me next week. Let’s hope both of us come back refreshed in a couple of weeks.
New Justin Bieber is better than old Justin Bieber.
See you guys (and gals) at the same time in two weeks.
Brian Fonseca is a correspondent for the Daily Targum. He can be reached with any comments, questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter for updates.
The Rutgers Roundup is a weekly column looking back on the past seven days of action within Scarlet Knights' athletics. For updates on all things Rutgers sports, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.