You think Illinois’ losing season is bad? Rutgers does this every year

By Alex Roux

Where is Rutgers?

It’s a question I’m often asked, and it’s a fair one. Nothing about Rutgers’ name suggests that it’s The State University of New Jersey, but Rutgers indeed is the flagship institution of the Garden State.

And the school’s location is hardly the only unknown among Big Ten fans when it comes to one of the conference’s newest members.

Unlike Maryland, who joined the Big Ten alongside Rutgers in 2014, the Scarlet Knights have little athletic prosperity in revenue sports to fall back on. The football program can claim participation in college football’s first-ever game, but not much else.

It saw some success in the last decade under former head coach Greg Schiano, but had only been to one bowl game in its history prior to 2005.

The basketball program has been worse lately. Much worse.

If John Groce is fighting an uphill battle trying to turn around the Illini program, current Rutgers head coach and former Scarlet Knights star Eddie Jordan is climbing Mount Everest. Rutgers hasn’t won a conference title or even been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, and has only been invited to the Dance five times in its history. To put that in perspective, Illinois has been to 30 NCAA tournaments.

You have to feel bad for Jordan, who has looked like the new kid in the school cafeteria at his first two Big Ten Media Days. Reporters flocked to legends like Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo and swarmed proven winners Thad Matta and John Beilein in the roundtable media sessions in hotel ballrooms.

Groce still draws a small crowd, even coming off back-to-back NITs. Jordan hardly gets any interest at all, and a fellow DI reporter told me he interviewed Rutgers’ head man last year out of sheer pity.

Such is the life when you’re trying to build a program from ruin. Rutgers’ basketball facilities are crap, and New York City — the closest major metro area — hasn’t consistently churned out good high school talent in a long time.

Their last coach was fired for physically abusing players in practice, and their last AD was ousted mainly due to poor oversight of the football program. Sound familiar?

It definitely should to Illini fans. While Illinois’ sports history is much prouder, their athletic turmoil this decade is on a similar level. And after the school’s respective basketball teams played an insane, almost endless three-overtime game last month in New Jersey, it’s fair to lump the Illini’s hoops product in the same group as Rutgers this year at the bottom of the Big Ten.

This season has been an anomaly in the injury department for Illinois, which means its current 11-14 record probably is, too. Knowing that sidelined talent should come back healthy to help out a solid core is a reassurance to Illini fans terrified at the prospect of remaining at Rutgers-level futility for the foreseeable future.

Illinois fans longing for the glory days of the mid-2000s need to reluctantly soak it all in Tuesday, if they’re even still paying attention.

Playing the 8 p.m., mid-week game in front of a small TV audience and even smaller crowd is the kind of irrelevancy Rutgers basketball is subjected to every year. It’s the college basketball machine going through the motions, proceeding only because the Big Ten demands each team play out its 18 conference games a season.

Soak it all in Illini fans, and hope Illinois basketball never feels like this again.

Alex is a senior in [email protected][email protected]