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
The Scarlet Knights (5-0) stayed perfect on Wednesday night, defeating North Texas (1-3) by a score of 66-53.
The first half was slow and plodding, with both teams getting off to an ice cold start. But as has been the case often this year, Rutgers surged in the second half and pulled away for a comfortable win.
Here are the most important takeaways:
- Master of Adjustments – I don’t know what Pike is telling his guys in the locker room, but whatever it is, it’s working. This was the third game in a row that’s been tight going to the break, and each time we’ve taken over the game and extended the lead in the second half. This time, it was a 18-2 Rutgers run midway through the second half that did the damage.
- Overcoming a poor shooting night – You want a positive sign from a fairly sloppy game? How about Rutgers shooting 37% from the field and 15% from 3-point range and still winning by double-digits? Luckily, the best ways to overcome poor shooting are the two biggest strengths of this team – defense and rebounding. Rutgers was excellent in both areas again tonight, holding North Texas to 33% from the field and winning the rebounding battle 53-28. Even more impressive, the Knights were able to defend without fouling, giving North Texas only 6 free throw attempts overall.
- The Captain breaks out – Deshawn Freeman was one of the few bright spots on last year’s team, but struggled to establish himself in the game against Niagara. Not tonight. He posted 13 points and 15 rebounds in 28 minutes and was the best player on the floor for extended stretches. This was his third double-double on the season.
Next Up – Hartford on Friday afternoon at the RAC
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.
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.