Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker were in the crowd Monday as Rutgers began a season it hopes ends in a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The prospects look bright after the Scarlet Knights delivered a record-setting defensive performance in their home opener.

Like the other fans in Piscataway, N.J., former Rutgers players Harper Jr. and Baker enjoyed watching their former squad cruise in the season opener, and the school seeks a second straight win Thursday night when it hosts Sacred Heart.

The Scarlet Knights (1-0) made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances thanks to Harper and Baker. The duo’s last game was a double-overtime loss to Notre Dame in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. The team returned plenty of talent with Clifford Omoruyi, Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell and also added Cam Spencer as a transfer from Loyola (Md.).

In Monday’s 75-35 rout of Columbia, Spencer shined on both ends as Rutgers allowed its fewest points in the shot-clock era. After averaging 18.9 points in 2021-22, Spencer scored 17 points and also collected six of his squad’s 14 steals to highlight a defensive showing that saw them score 31 points off 25 turnovers, allow 23.4 percent from the field and hold Columbia to 1 of 21 from 3-point range.

“I kept the same mentality, if I’m open, I’m going to shoot it,” Spencer said. “I was just going in the second. The crowd was a new and great experience for me. I’m having a blast here.”

Besides Spencer the Scarlet Knights placed five in double figures including Aundre Hyatt (12 points, 10 rebounds), whose role figures to increase.

“What Ron, Geo and Caleb have done here in years past just gives us more confidence as a team going forward,” Hyatt said. “The impact that those guys have had on this program in the past gives us all more motivation going forward.”

Sacred Heart (1-0) is picked for second in the Northeast Conference preseason poll behind Merrimack and opened the season with a 77-70 win at Hartford on Monday. Joey Reilly, who averaged 4.7 points last season, scored a career-high 23 points to lead four players in double figures as Sacred Heart shot 43.5 percent.

“If you want to be picked something, you want to be picked a favorite,” Pioneers forward Nico Galette said. “I think they’re wrong by one place, but we are taking it with a grain of salt.”

–Field Level Media