On Wednesday night, Rutgers (6-0) travels to Miami (4-2) as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This is only the second game away from the RAC for the Knights, and will also provide their stiffest test so far.
The Hurricanes started the season with 4 straight wins, but stumbled a bit at the AdvoCare Invitational Tournament, losing their last two games to Iowa State and Florida. In both of those losses, Miami scored only 56 points, well below their 2015-16 scoring average of 75.2 points.
For Rutgers, this is an opportunity to prove themselves on a big stage. They already picked up their first road win since 2014 earlier this month (beating DePaul 66-59), but this is clearly a step up in competition.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for on Wednesday:
- Defense, defense, defense – Both of these teams have been terrific on the defensive end of the floor. Miami is currently 12th in the nation in scoring defense (58.7 ppg), while Rutgers is ranked 37th (62.5 ppg). In addition, Miami is holding opponents to only 37.4% from the field (28th in the nation). Rutgers is not far behind, holding opponents to 37.7% (36th best). Who blinks first?
- Matchup in the paint – Miami will be able to throw more size at us than any team we’ve seen so far. Deshawn Freeman has been excellent recently, and was just named NJ Hoops Player of the Week. CJ Gettys is averaging 9 points and 6 rebounds this season. Candido Sa is averaging 5 rebounds and 2+ blocks per contest. That’s all great, but we’ve had a significant size advantage in every game. So how will our bigs respond to the challenge that the Canes provide?
- Handling the environment – On paper, this is probably the toughest game on our non-conference schedule. This is the type of game that we lose by 25+ last year. But that’s last year. This version of the Scarlet Knights seems much more prepared to handle a difficult environment. Win or lose, I’m expecting us to compete, hustle and defend for 40 minutes. Considering where we were last season, that would be a huge step forward and a great sign for the future.
Quick turnaround for Rutgers (5-0) as they get back in action against Hartford (1-4) on Friday afternoon. This is shaping up to be a classic trap game for the Knights, who face Miami on Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
So the question is, will Rutgers be able to stay focused on the task at hand and improve to 6-0?
Here’s what I’ll be looking for:
- Field goal defense – Rutgers ranks 23rd in the nation in Field Goal Defense, allowing opponents to only shoot 35.8% so far. Hartford ranks 282nd in the nation in Field Goal Percentage (40.9%). On paper, Rutgers should be able to handle this team defensively. But stranger things have happened.
- Reducing the turnovers – One of the areas that has been problematic for us this season has been turnovers, with an average of 13 per game. At times in the first half against North Texas, the offense looked confused and out of sync. We’ve been lucky to overcome such issues so far, but this needs to be cleaned up before we get into the heart of the schedule.
- Increasing our rebounding margin – Another major statistical advantage for Rutgers. Currently, the Knights are 3rd in the nation with a 19.8 rebound margin over their opponents. Hartford is at the opposite end of the spectrum: 334th in the nation with a -9.8 rebound margin. Like several of our opponents so far, they also don’t have a rotation player taller than 6’8″. We need to use our size to our advantage and take care of business on the boards.
As I said in the preview for North Texas, the team’s job this week is to avoid any letdowns. We already put one game in the win column. We need to do the same on Friday afternoon against Hartford.
The Scarlet Knights (4-0) are off to their best start since 2000 and return to the RAC to take on North Texas (1-2) on Wednesday night. There seems to be a genuine buzz building around RU early on in the season, and on Sunday, Steve Pikiell became the first coach to begin his tenure with 4 consecutive wins.
Rutgers will face a quick turnaround after this game, as they face Hartford on Friday afternoon at the RAC. But for now, the only focus is North Texas.
Here’s what I’m looking for:
- Corey Sanders return – In case you’ve forgotten, Corey was ejected after a second technical foul against Niagara. In the postgame press conference, it was obvious that Pike was not happy with the way Corey handled himself on the court. Personally, I didn’t see much in either technical, but I agree that Corey has to use a little more restraint. Especially considering that he was suspended last year for multiple games. I think he understands that now and is ready to move forward, and I expect a big game from him on Wednesday.
- More exceptional bench play – The reserves were incredible against Niagara, running up a 42-3 advantage in bench points. I would think that Nigel Johnson eventually breaks into the starting lineup, and maybe that even happens for this game. Even if he does though, there is still plenty of talent available to spell the starters. Candido Sa and Mike Williams, in particular, have both been excellent so far.
- Fast start – I know, I know. This was one of my keys for last game too. But I think it’s even more important here with the quick turnaround afterwards. North Texas is currently ranked at #287 by KenPom, while Rutgers has moved up to #151. North Texas also lost to Drexel by 21, just one week after Rutgers beat Drexel by 21. These are positive signs for RU. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but I’d love to see us come out of the gates fast and put this one away early.
As great as it is to be 4-0, I’m sure Steve Pikiell is doing everything he can to keep the players grounded and playing as a team. The focus for this week has to be avoiding any letdowns and adding two more W’s.
That starts tomorrow night at the RAC.
The Scarlet Knights (3-0) return home on Sunday for an early afternoon matchup against Niagara (0-3).
The Knights are off to their best start since 2008, and have been overwhelming opponents with their size. That does not bode well for Niagara, who don’t have a rotation player taller than 6’8″ on their roster.
Here’s what I’m looking for:
- Control the glass – This may end up being a common theme throughout most of the out-of-conference schedule. But in this one especially, with RU’s huge size advantage, we should dominate on the boards. Keep in mind, in the last two games, Rutgers is a combined +48 in that department. We are also currently the #1 team in the nation in Offensive Rebounding Efficiency, according to KenPom.
- Come out fast – In all three games this season, Rutgers has taken some time to get going. Division II Molloy was within 10 at the break. Drexel was down 2 before a 13-0 Rutgers run to close the first half. And DePaul kept things tight throughout the first half. I’d love to see a suffocating performance from start to finish in this one.
- Avoid the letdown – It seems like every season, Rutgers picks up an inexcusable loss to a bad out-of-conference opponent. This year, we’ve started 3-0 and some people are already looking ahead in the schedule and talking about 6-0. On paper, everything points to a win against Niagara. They’ve already lost to Buffalo, Brown, and Hartford. We can’t get complacent and let this one slip away.
I called DePaul a true barometer game before last Thursday’s clash, and overall I think we performed well, although it looked a little shaky in the last 5 minutes. We have to build on that momentum in this game.
Defend, rebound, play with energy, and we should be able to take care of business on our home floor. We’ll find out more on Sunday.
Rutgers (2-0) travels to DePaul (1-0) Thursday night for a Gavitt Games matchup with the Blue Demons. This will be the first road game for the Scarlet Knights and should provide some insight about how the season will unfold.
DePaul finished last season at 9-22 and is projected to be in the Big East cellar again this year. However, Rutgers has traditionally struggled away from home, and in years past, has been known to stumble in the out-of-conference part of the schedule.
Here’s what I’m looking for on Thursday night:
- Control the painted area – This is the exact opposite of the situation Rutgers usually finds itself in. We actually have a significant size advantage for once. DePaul’s biggest rotation player is 6’7″, Rutgers boasts two 7-footers. I would expect us to attack that mismatch with the offense consistently running through the low post, primarily CJ Gettys, Candido Sa, and Deshawn Freeman. And we have to win the rebounding battle on both ends of the floor.
- Bounce back game from Corey Sanders – After struggling on Sunday against Drexel, I’m expecting Corey to try to get his shot going early on in this one. An inside-out offensive attack should put him in good positions, so it’s up to him to make them count, whether it’s by hitting open jumpers or driving to the rim. His defensive performance may be even more important, though, as DePaul’s offense will run through its two big guards, Billy Garrett, Jr. and Eli Cain. Steve Pikiell talked a lot in the offseason about Corey’s defensive potential. Now he gets his first true test.
- Under 40, Under 30 – Steve Pikiell’s defensive mantra. The goal is to hold the opponent to under 40% shooting from the field, and under 30% from 3-point range. They were able to pull it off against Drexel, as the Dragons shot 38% and 29%, respectively. If Rutgers can do it again, this should be a double-digit win.
Coming into the season, this game appeared to be a toss-up. However, after seeing our progress in the first two games (albeit against light competition), this has moved firmly into the “Should Win” category for me, even on the road.
DePaul is a small team, which means they shouldn’t get many second chances offensively. If we can close out on their guards and force them into tough looks, we’ll be in great shape.
This is a true barometer game to see how far the team has come in just a short time under Steve Pikiell. Win it, and we go to 3-0 for the first time since 2008.