Rutgers basketball: Why Tom Izzo's 'Flintstones' comment was high praise

It was the ultimate compliment.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the dean of Big Ten basketball, delivered a message to Rutgers’ two longest-tenured players Saturday after the Scarlet Knights grinded past his Spartans 61-55 at Madison Square Garden.

“I told (Paul) Mulcahy and (Caleb) McConnell after the game, ‘They’ve been great for the Big Ten, they really have,’” Izzo said. “I actually hope I never see them again. I really respect how they play, how tough they are, and their demeanor.”

Their resiliency enabled Rutgers to overcome an eight-point halftime deficit and the loss of starting forward Mawot Mag, who limped off with a knee injury that will require an MRI.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Paul Mulcahy (4) celebrates after basket with guard Caleb McConnell (22) against the Maryland Terrapins at Jersey Mike's Arena.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Paul Mulcahy (4) celebrates after basket with guard Caleb McConnell (22) against the Maryland Terrapins at Jersey Mike's Arena.

Izzo correctly pointed out that Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell looks for tenacity in recruits. It’s not something easily quantified by metrics or the recruiting-rankings industrial complex.

“It reminds me of the Flintstones I had,” Izzo said, referring to Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell, who hailed from Flint, Michigan and led the Spartans to the national championship in 2000. “A bunch (of) guys were just tough, could get after it and don’t care about anything but winning. That’s what it seems.”

The Scarlet Knights are 16-7 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten. Their hold on second place in the league will be tested this week with trips to 21st-ranked Indiana (16-7, 7-5) on Tuesday (6:30 p.m.) and Illinois (16-7, 7-5) on Saturday (2 p.m., Fox Sports 1). It’s the toughest week of the season for Rutgers, even tougher if defensive stopper Mag is sidelined. Indiana’s Assembly Hall will be bonkers after the Hoosiers knocked off top-ranked Purdue Saturday. Normally that might trigger a letdown in the host, but Indiana has dropped six straight games to the Scarlet Knights – including a 63-48 humiliation in Piscataway in December.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Paul Mulcahy (4) runs up court after a basket in front of Michigan State Spartans guard Tyson Walker (2) and forward Malik Hall (25) during the second half at Madison Square Garden.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Paul Mulcahy (4) runs up court after a basket in front of Michigan State Spartans guard Tyson Walker (2) and forward Malik Hall (25) during the second half at Madison Square Garden.

The prize dangling ahead for Rutgers is a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which means geographical preference for that opening weekend (most likely, Albany). A 1-1 split this week would keep that in view.

As Izzo said Saturday, Rutgers is formidable because “defense travels.” He also pointed out that the Scarlet Knights must improve their perimeter shooting to do real damage in March. He’s a straight talker, which is why when he says McConnell and Mulcahy have been great for the Big Ten – not just for Rutgers, but for the entire conference – it means something.

“For him to say that, a Hall of Fame coach who of course has run a great program for years and years – they ran this league for years and years – it’s just awesome to hear it coming from him,” McConnell said. “That’s a proud moment for me and Paul, for all the work we put in over the years to get this team to where it is now.”

Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Caleb McConnell (22) celebrates after a three point basket during the second half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Jersey Mike's Arena.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Caleb McConnell (22) celebrates after a three point basket during the second half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Jersey Mike's Arena.

Before the Michigan State game, McConnell approached Pikiell and asked him, “Who do you want me to guard?’”

That’s not usually how it works. Players expect to match up against comparable guys on the other side. McConnell is a guard.

“If it’s a five-man he’d say, ‘Let me guard him,’” Pikiell said. “And Paul is just about winning; that’s what he really cares about that.”

Between them, they’ve played in 242 college basketball games. Whatever Indiana, Illinois and their fans throw at them this week, they've seen it before.

“It’s great to have leadership like that, guys who have been through a lot,” Pikiell said.

Izzo knows that better than anyone. On Saturday, he sounded a little envious.

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 jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers basketball: With Indiana next, a look at Izzo's high praise