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.
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.