Rutgers is fast, very fast. Get the ball, break downcourt, pass, shoot, score. Press, steal, score again. The Scarlet Knights have turned their basketball schedule into a relay race and lapped their first 13 opponents. They are quick of hand, fleet of foot and swifter than the Old Raritan.
When the Knights are not attacking an opponent from one direction, they come from another, scoring 97.2 points a game on offense and forcing 27 turnovers on defense. After Boston College absorbed a 105-82 licking at home last month, Eagle Coach Bob Zuffelato said he had never seen a faster team.
Other coaches are not too sure what the blur was. A game can be in doubt, when suddenly Rutgers revs up and starts burning rubber, turning close contests into routs (23 points is its average margin of victory) and leaving skid marks up and down the court. "It's just a matter of time before it happens," says play-maker Ed Jordan. "When it does, it's fun just to watch," adds reserve Guard Mark Conlin. "Like going to the circus," concludes Assistant Coach Joe Boylan.
Led by All-America candidate Phil Sellers, the Scarlet Knights already have broken the school single-game scoring record with 119 points against Seton Hall and won Rutgers' first tournament ever, the Poinsettia Classic. With a schedule that does not include an opponent in the current Top 20, the Knights also have a good chance for their first unbeaten regular season. As for the NCAA tournament, Penn Coach Chuck Daly was boosting Rutgers for the final four even before his Quakers were blitzed 95-80.
This kind of get-up-and-go excitement is long overdue at the New Brunswick, N.J. university. Only 17 miles from Princeton, it has suffered a sub-Ivy inferiority complex for most of its 210 years. And despite its long history, Rutgers' athletic accomplishments are surprisingly few. It did host the first college football game, against Princeton in 1869, but the site of that grand occasion is now a parking lot. Similarly, the nearby birthplace of alumnus Joyce Kilmer is an American Legion hall. (I think that I shall never boast/My home is now the Legion post.)
Rutgers had maintained such a low profile athletically that when Coach Tom Young arrived from American University in 1973 he did not realize that it was New Jersey's state university. "I just knew it had a great location for recruiting," he says.
That location—halfway between the basketball hotbeds of New York and Philadelphia—seldom has been exploited. From 1950 to 1965 the Knights enjoyed only one winning basketball season. There have been 10 straight .500-plus years since then, with the greatest success coming after Young's arrival.
He coached Rutgers to 18 victories and an NIT bid in his first year, and 22 wins and the school's first NCAA invitation the next. But Young's public recognition has lagged behind his accomplishments. He played and roomed with All-America Gene Shue at the University of Maryland and, following an interruption for Army service, returned to co-captain the Terps to their only ACC championship in 1958. He spent the next 15 years coaching in the Washington area, starting as the 24-year-old head man at Catholic University, returning to Maryland for two seasons as an assistant and finishing at American.
Young has guided his teams to 248 victories in 388 games, clinging all the while to any old towel he can find and usually squatting in front of the bench. It may look funny but it works.
So does his lenient attitude toward his players. The Scarlet Knights may stay out late, grow beards, stuff the ball in practice and even drink beer on the team bus after games. His coaching philosophy also suits them. "The players got excited about full-court pressure defense when they realized it was the quickest way they could get the ball back and score again," Young says.
Young learned the virtues of all-out aggressiveness the hard way, during a 91-78 NCAA tournament loss to Louisville last season. Convinced, he adopted the Cardinals' high-energy style for his own. Now the Scarlet Knights come on like greyhounds, not bothered at all by their lack of muscle and inconsistent outside shooting.
They have more talent than size. The only starter taller than 6'5" is Center Jim Bailey, a 6'9½" freshman who provides valuable rebounding and shot-blocking. Another frosh, 6'7" Abdel Anderson, does the same coming off the bench. Sellers and Mike Dabney, both four-year starters, are the top scorers with 21.7-and 18.8-point averages. Jordan, a 6'1" junior, a 14.3 scorer and the team leader in assists, is a defensive harasser who reminds one pro coach of the Chicago Bulls' combative Norm Van Lier. And Young thinks that sophomore Hollis Copeland, averaging 12.8 points, could be the school's best player ever before he is through.
He will have to go some to outclass Sellers, who is enjoying his fourth season as the team's leading scorer and rebounder and his first as a nice guy. The 6'5" forward is taking it easy on referees, opponents and teammates, he says, because he wants to impress the pros with his maturity. Unfortunately, not everyone is getting the message. "I don't know if I can recommend him," one scout says. "He's a good player and he works hard, but there's still a lot of bad boy in him." In a recent game Sellers showed just how much by making a steal and laughing at his opponent before scoring a layup. But his teammates see a difference, and it's a welcome one. "When I was a freshman, Phil got on me so often it was scary," says Conlin. "Now he's less critical."
Sellers has improved his game as well as his behavior. He is finally playing defense, and he is so impressed by his teammates' talents that he is willing to share the offensive load—and the credit. Three other starters have earned game-scoring honors at least once this year, and in Rutgers' toughest test so far this season, a seven-point win over Georgia Tech, it was Dabney who led with 30 points.
Young knows he was fortunate to inherit both Sellers and Dabney as sophomores, but he also feels the players he has recruited will continue Rutgers' success. "At Catholic and American I couldn't even talk to the top high school stars," Young says, "and if an ACC team became interested in anyone I wanted, I started looking elsewhere. Now I'll compete for players with anybody. Look at this newspaper," he says, pointing to a story that headlined a recent visit he made to a New Jersey town. "Now it means something when the Rutgers coach comes to see a kid play."
It can mean even more when the Rutgers team comes to town, as a couple of New York City opponents have learned lately. While Young crouched on the sideline shouting instructions through his Linus towel, the Knights scorched Fordham 93-55 and Columbia 94-65. "That's as nasty as our defense has been all year," he said after the Fordham game. Following the Columbia win, Young praised his offense, which had raced to a 61-31 lead at halftime. "That's absurd," he said. "No team should be able to do that in 20 minutes."
Rutgers was back home last weekend, defeating Bucknell 105-82. Although largely a repetition of earlier victories, it did take on special significance when Sellers, who had 19 points, set a school career scoring record of 2,047.
All three games featured significant contributions by Anderson, Conlin and the other reserves, something Rutgers rarely got last season. And that becomes increasingly important as the Knights look ahead to the tougher opposition they will face in the NCAA tournament; a team that routinely runs so hard demands bench strength. Young is now so confident of his subs that he lets his starters take themselves out when they tire.
"I keep expecting us to let up, but so far it hasn't happened," says Young. "I guess the players are enjoying themselves too much to slow down."
If that is true, it is the ideal incentive, the one all coaches seek. "We came into this game looking for a blowout," said Jordan after the Fordham victory. "That's what we always want."
And, so far, have gotten.
Jordan's steal at Fordham is typical of the 27 turnovers per game caused by Rutgers' press.
Young's ubiquitous towel is not for crying.