PISCATAWAY, N.J. - There was a moment, early last season, when Joey Downes pondered the thought that enters the mind of most walk-ons at some point.
“Why I am still doing this?” the Rutgers basketball guard recalled. “What am I getting out of this?”
The answers, for walk-ons like Downes and team managers Scott Scherer and Mike Sasso, are nebulous. They’re always giving, giving, giving. On Tuesday, before the Scarlet Knights’ high-stakes showdown with Maryland (7 p.m., Big Ten Network), they will get be getting something: a moment of recognition during Senior Night ceremonies.
Two starters, Akwasi Yeboah and Shaq Carter, are the ceremony’s headliners, and they have played key roles in the Scarlet Knights’ breakthrough after transferring in. But Downes, Scherer and Sasso have devoted a combined 12 years to Rutgers basketball. They’re the only guys left who arrived with head coach Steve Pikiell.
This is their moment, too, and it’s been a long time coming.
“You’ve got to love basketball,” Downes said. “You’ve got to love seeing other people succeed.”
Downes almost transferred back home to Massachusetts to play Division III ball and focus on his career path as an aspiring screenwriter. Ultimately he remained loyal to the coaching staff and friends on the team, and he was rewarded: Pikiell upgraded him to scholarship for the rest of his junior season.
“Joey has given blood to the program in so many ways,” Pikiell said. “He has a great vantage point. Some of the guys don’t understand that the RAC never used to be packed. I love his perspective.”
In December, Downes erupted the RAC by drilling two 3-pointers against Caldwell. It was a memorable day, but he takes a longer view.
“I’ve done a lot of reading, and one quote that stayed with me was, ‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,’” he said, quoting Helen Keller. “And this has been a daring adventure. It’s been a risk the entire time. I came to a place where I didn’t know a single person; I didn’t even know if I would make the basketball team.”
He was invited to try out by former Pikiell assistant Jay Young. Leading up to the tryout, he worked as a manager for two weeks alongside fellow freshmen Scherer, who hails from Manalapan, and Sasso, a Randolph native. Downes calls them the two most important people in the program.
“This is going on four years now, being here every single day besides the two-, three-week buffer at the end of the season,” Sasso said. “We’re here early, we stay late, just trying to make ourselves available to do whatever the coaches and players need.”
Sacrifice is the managers’ currency. Even when the team visited Spain in August, Sasso and Scherer wound up splitting a jet ski when the team hit the Mediterranean Sea for some recreation.
“If there’s a managers’ Hall of Fame, they’re in it,” Pikiell said of the duo. “I can’t tell you the amount of times I’m yelling ‘Sass, Scott, what are we doing here, who’s going to do this?’ Those guys are always there. They will be missed. I’ll be crying when those two hit the road.”
On Tuesday afternoon, sometime between shootaround and game time, Downes, Sasso and Scherer are going to do something unusual----they’re going to do something for themselves.
“We’re going up in the stands to tell stories about things that happened over the past four years,” Downes said.
They came in as boys. They are leaving as men.
“Four years later, to be in this position, to have all these friends for life, to have traveled all over the world,” Downes said, “it’s been a daring adventure and it’s all been worth it.”
Keys to beating Maryland
Once the emotion of Senior Night subsides, there is a crucial game to be played. Rutgers (18-11 overall, 9-9 Big Ten) needs to win at least one more, quite possibly two, to end a 29-year NCAA Tournament drought. Maryland (23-6, 13-5) seems primed to be picked off after two subpar efforts last week.
Three keys as the Scarlet Knights attempt to post a program-record 18th win at the RAC, where they are 17-1 this season:
1. Get out of the starting blocks. Rutgers has fallen behind early in five of its past six games. There is zero reason for that here, coming off a bye weekend, with a madhouse crowd expected.
2. Put a body (or two) on Jalen Smith. The All-Big Ten forward posted 14 points, 15 boards and six blocks when the Terps prevailed 56-51 in College Park last month. Nobody matches up well with him, but can a group effort limit his touches?
3. Get to the line. Rutgers has taken just 30 trips to the free-throw line during its three-game losing streak. Opponents have made 66 trips during that span, outscoring the Scarlet Knights 46-18 on freebies.