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.
If you read the game preview post for this one, you’ll remember I highlighted three areas that we needed to focus on – field goal defense, reducing turnovers, and rebounding. Let’s just say Rutgers went 0 for 3 in those areas. Fortunately though, we were still able to get a win, thanks to a late run and some tremendous defense down the stretch.
Here are the key takeaways from a hard-fought game:
- Deshawn Freeman is a star – Simply put, the Knights don’t come close to winning this game without Freeman. After posting 13 points and 15 rebounds against North Texas on Wednesday, Freeman was even better in this one, finishing with 26 points and 10 rebounds. I thought he brought great energy and it was obvious that his play was igniting his teammates and the crowd. Just an all-around excellent performance from our captain.
- The atmosphere at the RAC – Without question, the loudest I’ve heard the RAC in a long time. And not just during the late run. The crowd was into the game throughout, praising the defensive effort, applauding hustle plays, and doing everything they could to make Hartford uncomfortable towards the end. The student section was, not surprisingly, a little light (afternoon game right after a holiday), but the fans who were there definitely made an impact. If we can rock the RAC like that consistently, it will be a huge advantage moving forward.
- Resiliency – This is the first time this season that Rutgers faced a deficit in the last 5 minutes, and they rose to the challenge. Down 70-57 with 5:02 left, the Knights responded with a 20-5 run to grab the win, capped off by a CJ Gettys put-back with 6 seconds remaining. With only one day to prepare, Rutgers struggled defensively to keep up with hot-shooting Hartford. But they never gave up, and managed to regain their footing just in time. If there were any doubts about this team buying in, they were put to rest today.
As an added bonus, here is that closing sequence one more time. Enjoy.
Next Up – at Miami on Wednesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge
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.
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.
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.
After only one conference win in 2015-16, it was obvious that Rutgers needed an influx of new talent to compete in the Big Ten. To add to that, when the smoke cleared after Eddie Jordan was let go, we were left with only seven scholarship players. That’s why it was so important that Steve Pikiell wasted no time hitting the recruiting trail when he took the job.
In just a few short months, Pikiell changed the entire makeup of the roster by adding much-needed height and versatile defenders. In doing so, he made a statement about how this team will play and what aspects of the game will be emphasized by the new regime.
Let’s take a look at what each of the 6 newcomers bring to the table.
Last night marked the triumphant return of MidKnight Madness at the RAC. So with the unofficial start to the season underway (practice actually began last week), it’s time to look at the top storylines for Rutgers entering the 2016-17 season.
Finally Some Height
The RU team that steps on the floor this season will look shockingly different from the last few years in terms of physical stature. For the first time in a long time, we have solid size and depth up front. In fact, we’re the biggest team in the conference. CJ Gettys and Shaquille Doorson are both 7-footers, and having that extra bulk certainly can’t hurt during conference play.
The Corey Sanders Show
By all accounts, Corey Sanders had a very solid freshman season for a team that struggled. In fact, he led all Big Ten freshmen in points (15.9), assists (4.3), and steals (1.8). And his near triple-double performance in a 3OT loss to Illinois — 39 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds — was one of the highlights of the season.
However, he was also suspended for two weeks due to a violation of team rules.
So what can we expect this year under a new coaching staff? First off, I’d like to see his assists come up a bit (5+), especially now that he has more help around him. It’s his time to run the show and get his teammates going.
Also, while the steal numbers were impressive, there’s a sense that as a team, we were too focused on jumping passing lanes last season (and often getting burned) rather than staying home and playing sound defense. I think Corey takes a big leap forward defensively with the new staff emphasizing that part of the game.
New Sheriff in Town
Back in March, Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell as Head Coach. And in only a short amount of time, he’s already starting to put his stamp on this team. His tireless recruiting efforts have resulted in some big offseason additions, including Candido Sa and Issa Thiam. Coach Pikiell has also made it a point to focus on conditioning, and even dropped the classic (but somewhat frightening) quote, “They couldn’t even do a one-hour workout the first time,” when responding to a question about player conditioning when he took the job.
It seems like we’re headed in the right direction. The players are buying in, working hard, and getting their bodies ready for a rigorous Big Ten schedule. Coach Pikiell is a man with a plan. Even the Athletic Department is finally investing in the program.
Behind the scenes, we’re making all the right moves. The next step is to show progress on the court.