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Coming off a big win on the road, short rest and a travel day in between — not to mention schoolwork and everything else it takes to be a student athlete — the Rutgers men’s basketball team is set for a matchup against Michigan State in front of a sellout crowd at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) tonight at 6 p.m.
The Scarlet Knights (5-1) will face their toughest test to date and possibly of the entire season when they welcome the No. 9 Spartans (5-2) as they try and keep their three-game winning streak alive.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is coming off a surprising 82-78 loss at the hands of Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and should be hungry to get its season back on track. The Challenge ended in a tie as both conferences ended up with six wins apiece.
“I think they’ll be very excited,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “I mean, we have a lot of guys who are excited about playing ... in front of a great crowd, playing against a ranked team so I’m hoping we really come out ready and show some toughness like we did (on Wednesday).”
On Wednesday, Rutgers outlasted Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., 57-54, and proved itself as a defense-oriented team, something Pikiell is known for and has preached since he came to the Banks. The road win also served as the third of the Pikiell era.
The Knights will look to take their momentum to the RAC and keep the good times rolling.
“When the RAC is jumping it’s a tough environment ... and a big part of that is the enthusiasm that the students bring,” Pikiell said. “We need everyone to come and be loud and proud, and that makes our place a tough place to play."
But Rutgers and Pikiell won’t have to worry about corralling people to this one.
The highly-anticipated game sold out to the general public on Tuesday, even before the big win against the Hurricanes, and marks the first November sellout crowd since the Knights hosted Princeton back in Nov. 22, 1997.
Last season, the RAC was sold out multiple times — the first time that happened since 2011 — with the biggest crowd coming against a ranked Purdue team that saw 8,325 spectators, the largest crowd on hand in 15 years.
Rutgers will need every bit of that and possibly more to have a shot against a top-10 team, even if it is on its home court.
“Our guys really, truly appreciate the students when they come — they appreciate everyone when they come,” Pikiell said.
In two games against the Spartans last season, once as the No. 3 team in the nation and the other as the No. 4, the Knights held their own, losing by a combined 14 points and even taking Michigan State to overtime in East Lansing, Mich.
In both of those games, Rutgers relied heavily on former guard Corey Sanders. This time around, the Knights will look to sophomore guard Geo Baker, who has steadily taken over the leadership role on the team.
It won’t be easy, though, especially coming off a travel day.
“(Baker's) got the hardest test, I think, (with the Spartans') Cassius Winston (who) is the best point guard in our league, and so he’s going to have to come and bounce back,” Pikiell said.
Regardless of what happens in the game, the tide is starting to turn for Rutgers with a strong group of veterans and a plethora of younger players coming up the wing.
“I just think we got a good blend. (Baker's) a leader in that sophomore class, (Eugene Omoruyi's) a leader in the junior class, and (Shaquille Doorson) has become a voice in the senior class,” Pikiell said.
But the Knights will need all of their players to step up tonight to have a shot, something Pikiell isn’t too worried about.
“I know our guys play better in front of those kinds of crowds so it’ll be another step for us, an exciting step,” Pikiell said.
For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.