Losing streak will not dampen spirits for Rutgers on, off court
Nobody said it was going to be easy.
It’s a message that’s understood by every player and coach on the Rutgers men’s basketball team and one that head coach Eddie Jordan repeats on the jumbotron every home game during the Scarlet Knights’ team introduction video.
That message, of course, refers to rebuilding a Rutgers program reduced to scraps nearly two years ago following the infamous Mike Rice scandal.
The incident saw the team’s head coach, athletic director and majority of top players depart, leaving an already struggling program tarnished and without guidance.
What did remain, however, was unity.
Despite the negative criticisms received from both media and even some Rutgers students, six players elected to stay.
Among those were star senior guard Myles Mack and senior forward Kadeem Jack who declined transfer offers from multiple programs to stay and finish what they started.
When Jordan was introduced as the program’s new coach on April 23, 2013, he not only understood the monumental rebuilding task at hand but also the importance of that unity and loyalty.
It’s the reason he named Mack, Jack and then-sophomore center Greg Lewis as captains over some seniors in the Knights’ lone season in the AAC.
It’s also the way Jordan plans on restructuring the program, focusing on the positives and stressing team cohesion over wins and losses.
For a team that has now lost nine-straight games, it has played a large role in the keeping the locker room optimistic.
“We have a good support system with our players,” Jordan said following the Knights’ third consecutive double-digit loss at home against Purdue last Thursday. “Guys who don’t play a lot, they cheer and they support their teammates. We didn’t give up so we fought our butts off. …What can we build on? Just that. That we gave great effort, that they like coming to practice every day. Every day is a fresh day. Every day is a new day. There’s nothing behind us, and there’s not a whole lot in front of us.”
The mood of the squad is something Jack can attest to having experienced firsthand in the highs and lows Rutgers has gone through in its inaugural Big Ten season.
“This is a group of good guys. Nobody’s negative,” Jack said. “Everybody keeps their head up, comes into work and just keeps going hard.”
It’s that emphasis on work ethic and unity that Jordan has valued above all else, even if it’s at the expense of a loss.
Against Northwestern on Dec. 30 in their Big Ten opener, Jordan decided to bench Jack for the first 10 minutes for showing up late to a team breakfast.
The Knights lost by four points, but the following game Jack responded with a team-high 12 points to lead them to their first ever conference win against Penn State.
Three weeks later during the away trip to “Happy Valley," sophomore wing Junior Etou was left home for failing to meet team expectations.
Though the short-term result was a 79-51 thumping by the Nittany Lions, Etou has averaged over five more points per game in conference play since the incident.
The punishments are Jordan’s way of setting a standard throughout the team regardless of status, and the response to that punishment has been a testament to the team’s character.
“They’ve got good character in that locker room,” Jordan said. “They support each other. They understand that it’s a process, they are learning how to play basketball and look, they have some ups and downs as far as learning curve and some days where you’re just a little bit down, but our coaching staff does a good job of telling them what this is about. The Big Ten is a no-joke league. We’re just coming in, we’re trying to play up to that level and it’s going to take time.”
Given the locker room issues currently plaguing in-state rivals Seton Hall, Jordan’s emphasis on cohesion and accountability has shown its value.
But losing this many games still takes its toll, especially on Mack whom Jordan has said takes losing harder than anyone else.
It’s a tough stretch for any player to go through especially for someone who knew nothing but winning during his time with St. Anthony High School (N.J.).
Although wins have been hard to come by, the Paterson, New Jersey, native understood what he was getting himself into, which is why developing a cohesive culture is just as valuable.
“It’s just the chemistry we have on and off the court,” Mack said. “We’re with each other every day, no matter if it’s going to class or going to the [dining hall]. … Now that we aren’t winning, the chemistry doesn’t stop. We’re still all together.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow @SeanStewartRU and @TargumSports on Twitter.