Rutgers Earns AP Top 25 Vote

College basketball’s Associated Press Top 25 poll was released today, and with it came some surprising news…

Apparently, Rutgers fans aren’t the only ones who have been impressed with Steve Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights this season.

The lone vote came from Scott Wolf, who covers the USC Trojans for the Los Angeles Daily News. Wolf had Rutgers ranked at #25 in his poll.

Recap: Rutgers vs. Niagara

Rutgers (4-0) used a dominating bench performance to take down Niagara (0-4) this afternoon by a score of 78-65. The win helped them reach 4-0 for the first time since 2000.

The game had its share of chippiness, and Corey Sanders was ejected after receiving his second technical midway through the second half. But the Knights persevered and picked up their fourth consecutive win to open the season. Steve Pikiell also became the first coach in school history to begin his tenure 4-0.

Here are the most important takeaways:

  • Interchangeable parts – This is easily the deepest team we’ve had in a long time, and that depth had a major impact on this game. Our bench outscored Niagara’s bench 42-3, with Nigel Johnson’s 20 points leading the way. Candido Sa, Mike Williams, and Eugene Omoruyi also played well on both ends of the floor. Most importantly, when Corey Sanders was ejected, we didn’t skip a beat. Huge plus.
  • Block party at the RAC – Steve Pikiell hangs his hat on defense, and the team defense was suffocating today. In total, Rutgers accounted for 11 blocks. Candido Sa led the way with 4, while CJ Gettys added 3, but that doesn’t even begin to describe all the shots altered on the way to the rim. Niagara shot just 31% on the day, but only 23% from 2-point territory. Had it not been for their hot 3-point shooting (50%), this game would have been a blowout.
  • Another big run to take control – At the 14:53 mark of the second half, Marvin Prochet hit a 3 to give Niagara a 42-41 lead. Over the next 5 minutes of game action, Rutgers went on a 16-0 run which effectively put the game on ice. This has been another common theme of the young season, and it’s nice to see the team fighting through adversity and imposing their will.
  • Weird day for the officials – Usually, I don’t harp on the officiating, but this was a weird one. In the first half, only 11 total fouls were called (6 on Niagara, 5 on Rutgers). The refs seemed to want to let the players play. Perfect officiating, in my opinion. But at the start of the second half, they began calling a MUCH tighter game, including touch fouls on the perimeter. And I’m really not sure what happened on the second Corey Sanders technical. It looked like he mumbled to himself (probably disputing the call) and the ref gave him the quick hook. It didn’t impact the game, but again, just a strange performance from the officiating crew.

Preview: Rutgers vs. Niagara

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.

Recap: Rutgers at DePaul

On Thursday night, Rutgers (3-0) picked up their first road win since December 2014, beating DePaul (1-1) by a score of 66-59.

Say what you will about DePaul, but road trips have not been kind to the Scarlet Knights in recent years, which means any kind of road win is a good one. And the way we won, by overwhelming the Blue Demons for the majority of the game (particularly in the second half, when the lead ballooned to 22 points), shows great strides are being made in the fundamental aspects of the game.

Here are the most important takeaways:

  • Second Half Adjustments – For the third game in a row, Rutgers came out flying in the second half. This was a 7-point game at the break, and by the 11:13 mark the lead was up to 22. I love the way Pike rotates his players. They go hard for a few minutes, then get a breather, then go hard again. The short spurts are paying dividends over the course of a long game, as Rutgers consistently seems like the fresher team in the second half. Let’s face it…if Eli Cain doesn’t get hot for DePaul with about 5 minutes left, this is another 20-point win for RU.
  • Huge rebounding margin…again – This is becoming a theme. Rutgers was completely dominant on the glass again in this one, to the tune of a 46-27 rebounding advantage (including 18-10 on the offensive glass). In the first half, it was even more lopsided, with RU holding a 28-8 advantage at the break. Before this season, when was the last time you saw Rutgers at +20 on the boards in one half? Mike Williams and Deshawn Freeman led the way with 9 rebounds apiece, and Jonathan Laurent chipped in 6 more.
  • Free Throw shooting – I’ll be honest…this has probably been my biggest complaint about Rutgers basketball over the years. Too many times, I’ve watched winnable games be thrown away because we couldn’t make uncontested shots from the foul line. That appears to be a thing of the past. Against DePaul, we hit 23-29 FTs (79%), including 13-14 in the first half. Pleasant surprise.
  • Mike Williams continues to impress – When we needed a spark off the bench, Mike Williams came through. I thought he was the player of the game, once again providing energy and intensity when he entered. He finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds, and at times carried us on both ends of the floor. He also seems to be developing as a leader right in front of our eyes. Really impressive performance overall.

Preview: Rutgers at DePaul

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.

Recap: Rutgers vs. Drexel

With Nigel Johnson and CJ Gettys leading the way, Rutgers defeated Drexel 87-66 on Sunday to move to 2-0 (after a season-opening win against Division II Molloy on Friday night).

The game was never close in the second half, as the Scarlet Knights showed the ability to build a big lead and deter any Drexel run.

Here are the most important takeaways:

  • Dominating the Boards  – You’ll have to think long and hard for the last time you saw such an impressive rebounding display from a Rutgers team. The final margin was 56-29, with the Knights grabbing 23 offensive rebounds. Deshawn Freeman led the way with 10 and Gettys added 9, but it seems like every RU player was crashing the glass.
  • Defensive Prowess – I know Drexel is picked to finish towards the bottom of the CAA, but the Rutgers defense was solid throughout. Besides the rebounding difference, Rutgers also held the Dragons to 38% shooting, and 29% from 3-point range. More importantly, they were able to play tight defense without fouling, committing only 15 fouls in the game.
  • Never-Ending Rotation – When Steve Pikiell talked about depth, he wasn’t kidding. Nine guys played 13 minutes or more, and six of those guys played 21 minutes or more. Good sign for Rutgers. Another good sign – on a night when Corey Sanders and Issa Thiam struggled to get going, guys like Nigel Johnson and Candido Sa came off the bench to pick up the slack.
  • Effort and Intensity – This is the area that I was most impressed with. After years of watching low-energy, lifeless performances, I watched a team against Drexel that was intense and played together. Talking on defense, bench players actively cheering for their teammates…the little things that show that this team is building chemistry. Although he didn’t fill up the stat sheet, I thought Mike Williams played like a leader, and his defensive pressure and hustle set the tone for the team.

Media Day Recap

Media Day for the Rutgers men’s basketball team went on as scheduled today, although it was slightly overshadowed by the earlier groundbreaking ceremony for the new RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center.

However, when Steve Pikiell finally made it to the podium, he spoke in depth about the upcoming season, including the work ethic of his team, the style they want to play, and even how the starting lineup is shaping up. He was poised and confident as he stood in front of the media members, and seemed very upbeat about the current state of the program.

Here is the full video from the press conference:

One of the things impresses me most about Steve Pikiell is his candor. He’s not afraid to tell the players (or the media) that they were in terrible shape for college athletes. He knows that we need to shoot the ball better. It’s a work in progress, but we’re making strides.

From a player’s perspective, you know what you’re going to get. Best defender on the team? You’re starting. Best rebounder? You’re starting. Work hard and learn in practice? You’ll earn your playing time. Simply put, he’s building an identity for Rutgers basketball and creating a competitive culture that hasn’t existed around here for a long time.

With just 10 days to the start of the regular season, we’ll soon be able to get a real sense for this version of the Scarlet Knights. And after hearing the coach today, I’m excited to see how far we’ve come.