Frankie Sarracino was working an internship at the Pinstripe Bowl last month with a couple of Penn State students and decided to chat them up about college basketball.
Sarracino is president of the Rutgers Riot Squad, the university’s student-fan group, and he’s organizing a trip to Penn State for the Scarlet Knights’ game out there Feb. 26.
“I told them, ‘It should be a good game – you guys have a really good team,'” Sarracino said. “They said, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know that.’”
Penn State is 13-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, and could give Rutgers (13-6, 5-3) fits in their first meeting Tuesday in Piscataway (6:30 pm, Big Ten Network). Sarracino’s story is instructive: These Nittany Pinstripe Bowl interns probably could recite James Franklin’s entire two-deep depth chart by heart but wouldn’t recognize All-Big Ten-caliber guard Jalen Pickett if he sat next to them in the dining hall.
“I was cracking up,” Sarracino said. “I knew Penn State students didn’t care about basketball, but knowing how competitive their team is, it’s kind of crazy.”
The Shaka Smart comparison
His story reinforces an anecdote Shaka Smart told Saturday after his Marquette Squad won at Seton Hall. Smart left Texas for the Marquette job in 2021, and during Saturday’s postgame press conference he was asked what the difference is coaching at a Big East school, where basketball is at the forefront, versus at a football-driven place like Texas.
“It just means more,” Smart said of hoops. “I just met a woman upstairs (at Prudential Center), MJ, who graduated in 1967 from Marquette, and she lives in the area. She’s a Jersey girl and she has all this Marquette paraphernalia on. It matters. You just feel that more at these types of schools.”
Penn State is like Texas. But where does Rutgers fit in? As the men’s hoops program becomes a fixture on the national stage, with Jersey Mike’s Arena constantly packed and students clamoring for tickets, can it be both a football and basketball school? Is that even possible?
“We want to be an all-around athletic school,” Sarracino said. “We’ve been there at everything.”
When the men’s lacrosse team made a run to the NCAA Tournament semifinals last spring, the Riot Squad was there. When the men’s soccer team won the Big Ten Tournament title in November, the Riot Squad was there. When football edged Temple in Philadelphia in September, the Riot Squad was there.
When the Scarlet Knights face Michigan State in Madison Square Garden Feb. 4, the Riot Squad will be there along with a bunch of friends – nearly 500 Rutgers students in total.
But does this core of dedicated supporters represent Rutgers students as a whole?
“There are so many students who just love to watch the basketball team,” Sarracino said. “The vibe right now is at an all-time high.”
Back to the roots
Rutgers was a basketball school in the 1970s and ’80s. Things changed around the Millennium when resources were poured into football, which took off under Greg Schiano as basketball atrophied. Steve Pikiell inherited a men’s hoops program with broken shooting machines and beds that were too short for his big men, their feet dangling over the edge each night.
Those days are over. Both programs are well-resourced now, with plenty of fan support. But football has struggled mightily since joining the Big Ten while basketball is carving out an identity as a Big Ten contender. During Pikiell’s early seasons, he noticed the generation gaps in fans who showed up at the RAC and Court Club meetings – a fair amount of Tom Young-era Baby Boomers, some Generation X faithful from the brief flourish under Bob Wenzel, and that was pretty much it. Millennials were all-in for football and avoiding the RAC like the plague.
So the ripple effect of Pikiell’s run of success will be seen for years as Sarracino and his peers remain loyal supporters long after they graduate. When comparing Texas to Marquette, Shaka Smart is dealing in extremes. But Penn State shows his underlying point has merit: Basketball is either in your DNA or it isn’t.
Hoops will never hog the stage on Rutgers’ campus, but it’s taken the leading role because it was always in the DNA, waiting to be awakened. Sarracino had no problem rounding up a crew to visit State College next month. They don’t have to explain it to them.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at [email protected].