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After starting off the season with an appetizer last weekend, the Rutgers men’s basketball team is ready for its first meal of the year which will come in form of St. John’s tonight at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
Even after last weekend’s showing, the Scarlet Knights (2-0) are still hungry and ready to feast. Meanwhile, the Red Storm (2-0) come into the RAC equally eager as both teams are still undefeated — surviving college basketball’s opening week.
Something’s got to give.
“It’s a great test for us early with our young team,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Hopefully it will be a great environment here at the RAC. Hopefully our fans come out (for) an old rivalry that we’ve had.”
Even though St. John’s leads the all-time series 27-14, Rutgers will head into the matchup brimming with confidence, annihilating both of its opening weekend opponents, Fairleigh Dickinson and Drexel, 90-55 and 95-66, respectively.
The Red Storm have also defeated both of their opponents thus far, Loyola and Bowling Green, but less convincingly, winning 76-55 and 84-80, respectively.
“They’re good. Everybody knows they’re good,” said sophomore guard Peter Kiss, according to app.com. “We’re good. So I’m looking forward to playing that basketball game.”
Both teams can score, finding the bucket at a combined 49.3 percent clip. The Knights, though, hold the clear advantage from behind the line, hitting almost 57 percent of their 3-pointers, so far.
St. John’s, on the other hand, has made just less than 37 percent of its 3-balls. But what the Red Storm lack in shooting, they make up for in size and athleticism.
“This is the most athletic team we’ll face and could face all year,” Pikiell said.
Nevertheless, the Johnnies will be without 6-foot-9-inch forward Sedee Keita who underwent knee surgery and will be out for 4-6 weeks.
Still, Rutgers needs to be wary of protecting the rim, even with all of its scoring potential. Despite two blowouts to start the season, Pikiell wasn’t happy with how his team defended in both games, especially in the first half.
“We gotta play really good defense, we gotta emphasize real good defense from all five spots,” he said. “We gotta play great defense, be active and rebound better and do some things that we haven’t been doing as well.”
Despite some of their defensive miscues early so far this season, it’s hard not be enamored with the scorers the Knights now have.
After former guard and biggest shooter on the team Corey Sanders declared for the NBA Draft last year and left the program, a plethora of young new guys have stepped up in his absence.
Players like Kiss, freshmen guards Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. and, of course, sophomore guard Geo Baker have all moved and shot the ball well in this early season.
But their biggest test comes tonight against its Big East rival.
“They gotta figure it out, that’s part of the early part of the season and it’s part of being young,” Pikiell said. “They gotta figure it out.”
Fortunately for the Knights they have some veteran presence in their locker room as well to balance out all of their young talent.
Junior forwards Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi have come up big when the team has needed them and will look to keep this young team grounded throughout the night.
Regardless, the biggest factor of the night will be the fans and the home crowd inside the RAC.
“It’s exciting. This is what we came here for,” Baker said, according to app.com. “There’s been a lot of buzz about this season and this game. I think the crowd will be amazing — I have no doubt.”
Rutgers will need its home court to be at its best as it takes on its toughest matchup yet — a matchup Pikiell says can be used as a measuring stick for his young team.
But with the hype surrounding this team, it shouldn’t be too hard getting fans out to the game.
“I hear all the stories how tough this place is when it’s rocking. We need it rocking on Friday,” Pikiell said.
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