PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer has made a habit of getting her teams to play their best when the New Year rolls around.
So it shouldn't come as much of a shock that Rutgers is once again in the midst of a midseason run after a sluggish start.
The Scarlet Knights (12-6) have won five straight and are 5-0 in the Big East — their best start in the conference since 2007-08. Next up is No. 2 UConn on Wednesday night.
"In the beginning of the season we were shaky, but I think after New Year's we've just focused as a team and tried to execute as a team," said sophomore center Monique Oliver, averaging 18 points and shooting 64 percent during the team's five-game winning streak. "We've just taken it a game at a time, because we know every team in the Big East comes to play."
This might be one of Stringer's best coaching jobs in her 40 years on the bench — the most of any active men's or women's coach in Division I.
She went into the season without a full complement of players. The Hall of Fame coach took a former manager as a walk-on to begin the season and when guard Nikki Speed went down with a foot injury, Stringer added a practice player to the roster.
"I knew we were going into the season with eight players basically. I just took a deep breath and said whatever happens does," Stringer said. "I'll just do my best with this team, but of course we've shown more promise."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Stringer had one of the top recruiting classes in the country two years ago with five stellar freshmen. That group didn't stick together long as two transferred out, with Jasmine Dixon going home to UCLA and Brooklyn Pope heading to Baylor.
Dixon is the 11th-ranked Bruins' second-leading scorer while Pope has been a key part of the Lady Bears rise to No. 1 in the country.
While those two have had a lot of success since leaving Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights have languished.
"I still talk to them and am happy for them," junior April Sykes said. "We were supposed to carry Rutgers now and their departure definitely put us in a little bit of a difficult situation."
Speed, Sykes and Chelsey Lee remained to try and keep Rutgers afloat. After a disappointing first two seasons, Sykes finally has started to live up to her billing as one of the top players in her class.
She leads the team in scoring at 13.9 points a game. Lee is the team's top rebounder while Speed was doing a good job running the team before getting hurt.
After being ranked 25th in the preseason poll last season, Rutgers hasn't been in the Top 25 since. This is the longest drought from the poll for Stringer since she returned the Scarlet Knights to respectability in 1998.
They got one vote in the poll that was released Monday. Rutgers was picked to finish seventh in the conference.
"It is unexpected what we're doing right now," Sykes said. "I think we've shocked a lot of people, and I just want it to keep going and going, and now stay consistent with what we're doing."
Connecticut will provide a huge test for the Scarlet Knights. The Huskies haven't lost a conference game since falling to Rutgers in 2008 — a span of 57 straight games.
"Rutgers always seems to get better as the season goes on," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "Their schedule early on was very difficult, and once the league games came on they've played really, really well."
There was a time a few years ago when this matchup was the showcase game in the conference. The teams would meet twice a season, and Rutgers was a thorn in UConn's side. But the Huskies have dominated lately, winning the last five matchups by nearly 20 points a game.
"I don't think it's the same as it was a few years ago. Things change. When we were playing them twice every year that kind makes it even more of a competitive thing," Auriemma said. "All it's going to take is one really good game by them, one bad game by us down there, and they win and then all of a sudden it's all back to the craziness that it used to be. It'll be back."
Even if none of the current players were really around when this was the premier conference matchup, Sykes has already gotten a taste of it.
"People are coming out of the woodwork tweeting me all the time saying how big this game is," she said. "It's just one game to us."