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The Rutgers men’s basketball team dropped the first four contests of its Big Ten schedule, a contrast from a non-conference slate that brought hope back to the program’s fans as stark as the difference in talent level between the two parts of the season.
The Scarlet Knights jumped from cruising the second-weakest schedule in non-conference play according to analytical website KenPom.com for the most part to diving into an onslaught of obstacles and picking up results they’ve become all too familiar with over the past two years.
But while they’ve gone 0-4 through their first four Big Ten games and failed to win their first ever Big Ten road game in three opportunities, the Knights have shown the ability to bounce back and remain resilient in the first true wave of adversity they’ve faced under head coach Steve Pikiell.
“We’re playing an awfully tough schedule,” the first-year head coach said before practice on Tuesday. “We’ve had our challenges. You have to play 40 minutes, especially on the road. I told them the other day, you have to play 42 minutes on the road … because you’re fighting the fans and everybody else in the gym. So you gotta have a 10 point lead to win by one.”
A team which suffered blowout after blowout last season — at one point losing five consecutive games by at least 20 points, a streak capped by a program-worst 50 point loss to Purdue — refused to hang its head following a 31-point shellacking to Michigan State in East Lansing and responded with its best performance of the season in Iowa City.
And while they came up just short, surrendering a 9-point lead it held for most of the second half in a 68-62 loss to Iowa Sunday, the Knights dominated it for stretches and there were plenty of positives to pull.
Junior forward Deshawn Freeman, who had been held to single-digit scoring outputs in the first three Big Ten games after leading the Knights in scoring for most of non-conference play and providing six double-doubles, looked like his old self as he exploded for 19 points and 13 rebounds.
The latter was a big part of the reason Rutgers really dominated the glass for the first time in conference play, holding a plus-8 rebounding advantage including 19-9 on the offensive boards.
On the defensive end, the Knights became the first team to hold Iowa, the second-highest scoring team in the conference heading into the conference, to below 70 points at home this season. They held Peter Jok, the Big Ten's leading scorer who averaged 23 points a night heading into the contest, to 18 points on 7-for-19 shooting and forced him to commit 3 of the Hawkeye's 18 turnovers.
“I will tell you, our guys, we’ve gotten better,” Pikiell said. “People don’t want to hear that because we’re 0-4, but watch the film, look at the stats. … I think we’re getting better offensively too. We just gotta keep fighting.”
The next opportunity for Rutgers (11-6, 0-4) to breakthrough and earn Pikiell his first Big Ten win comes Thursday night as it returns home to host Northwestern (13-4, 2-2) in a late 9 p.m. tip at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
It’ll take another strong effort from sophomore guard Corey Sanders on both ends of the floor, a role he’s slowly grown into over the course of the season.
It was him who followed Jok around most of the game last Sunday, showing signs of the lockdown defense Pikiell believes the Lakeland, Florida, native could play on a nightly basis in addition to his responsibilities of running the offense on the other end of the floor.
Pikiell admitted Sanders has been exhausted of late due to the demands of his position, but he sees it as part of another challenge he’s eager to take.
“I was perfectly fine with it,” Sanders said of Pikiell asking him to guard Iowa’s best player. “I gotta play defense, I feel like I could be a great defender so guarding the best player on their team, that’s what I want to do. I want to guard the best player on their team and run the offense like i’ve been running the offense. It’s just what a point guard does. So I’m taking the role on and taking any challenge coach throws at me.”
Defeating the Wildcats, who look as close as they’ve ever been to finally making their first ever NCAA tournament appearance, will also take a similar effort to the one in Iowa City from Freeman. The captain had some of the load of being the official leader of the team taken off his back this week when Pikiell named junior guard Mike Williams a co-captain of the team Tuesday.
The decision comes in a moment in which a group that’s suffered losing streaks of 15 and 17 games in each of the last two seasons needs someone to step up and keep the focus on the next game before the feeling of “here-we-go-again” sets into the group.
“Just try to tell the guys to keep pushing,” said Freeman, who didn’t play during last season’s 17-game losing streak due to a knee injury he sustained earlier in the year. “Our first year, got a new coaching staff and we just gotta earn everything and we just out here trying. Guys are still buying in and we’re just trying to be like that.”
Northwestern, as gracious as it hopes to be as a guest, won’t gift Rutgers the win to snap its current 4-game skid if the first half of the season is anything to go by. The Wildcats rank top in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio, second in free-throw percentage and third in field-goal defense, categories in which star point guard Bryant McIntosh shines the brightest in.
The Knights will have to tighten up on the offensive end, control possession and limit turnovers, an area of concern Pikiell has brought up following each of Rutgers losses. And of course, just as most of the Knights wins this season, it’ll have to come on the glass, where they rank top in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding and eighth nationally in rebounding margin (+8.8).
Whether the Knights snap their losing streak at four and put a big dent in Northwestern snapping one that’s plagued the program forever will be seen late Thursday night by the fans who stay up past their early bedtimes. And while they certainly aim to achieve it, the most important thing for Rutgers is to see progress.
From there, it becomes easier to trust the process.
“We’re on a losing streak right now, but I feel like we’re getting better,” Sanders said. “As long as we’re getting better, the wins are gonna come.”