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.
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.