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.
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.
Rutgers took to the court again for a closed door scrimmage with Yale, and it was clear that they are still working out the kinks with less than two weeks to go before the start of the new season. In the end, Yale came out victorious 77-64.
Unlike the previous scrimmage against Monmouth, this one was more of a game-like atmosphere, with full statistic tracking from both sides. Adam Zagoria tweeted out the final box score…
If we dive a little deeper into the numbers, there are a few items that stand out. Some good, some bad…
- Rutgers was terrible from 3-point range – This is likely to be a problem all year. During the preseason, Issa Thiam has been touted as one of (if not the best) long-range shooter on the team, and he finished 0-4 today. The team as a whole finished 1-16 (6%). While I don’t expect it to be this bad every night, we’re just not built to score a lot of points from behind the arc.
- Deshawn Freeman had a solid day at the office – Not to make too much of a preseason scrimmage, but you can’t argue with 22 and 7. Freeman is clearly our most skilled frontcourt player, and if he can build chemistry with Corey Sanders, they have the chance to be a special duo.
- Believe it or not…rebounding might be one of our strengths – When was the last time you could say that about a Rutgers team? We finished with a 44-37 advantage on the glass overall, and a 23-7 advantage on the offensive glass. That’s a lot of extra offensive possessions, and it led to a 28-9 advantage in second-chance points.
- We’re still working on the defense – First off, Yale made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season (although they did lose 4 of their 5 starters). So they’re certainly not a bad team. That being said, we can’t allow a team to shoot 48% from the field. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the point that Steve Pikiell harps on the most at the next practice. It all has to start on defense.
Rutgers traveled to Monmouth today for a closed scrimmage to help prepare both teams for the start of the season. While there’s no official report from the game, there were some promising tweets afterwards from Rutgers players.
The first one was from Corey Sanders…
Corey followed that up with a comment about being the 253rd ranked team in college basketball, according to a list released by CBS Sports earlier this week, implying that the doubters are providing extra motivation. That tweet has since been deleted, but not before C.J. Gettys added his input…
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.