When your best scorer goes 1-12, it's very hard to win.
And that's exactly what happened to Rutgers. Early foul trouble kept Eli Carter from getting into a groove, and he had to use the foul line to get to 10 points. Myles Mack however continued to show he's made the leap to becoming a very good college guard, scoring 15 points and helping Rutgers build an early lead. Dane Miller also made an appearance, scoring 14 points on 7 for 7 shooting.
That's the math right there.
However, the game was basically same old Rutgers on the road story. The team was into foul trouble very early, and Ole Miss was in the double bonus before ten minutes had elapsed in the first half. Only Ole Miss's horrific foul shooting kept Rutgers ahead. Rutgers lead for a full 25 minutes of the game, and were tied at 55 with eight minutes left. However, by that time, Kadeem Jack had fouled out and Austin Johnson (who again played solidly) and Wally Judge were in foul trouble. That opened up the inside for the Rebels. Add Marshall Henderson nailing 3 tough 3 pointers right when it was needed and Rutgers wasn't able to respond.
And so, after six games, Rutgers sits at 4-2 and questions are starting to arise. Is this Scarlet Knights squad better than last year? The loss to St. Peters, and two close games against lowly opponents suggest maybe not. As usual, the Rivals board is in its apocalyptic day-after-a-loss fire everybody mode and one tends to wonder if the weight of 22 NCAA-less seasons has crushed any sense of patience the fan base has left. And, after the gut punch that was Rutgers football, frustration is bubbling up in the stands.
As I posted in my season preview, this is a very big year for Mike Rice. In order to keep the train rolling forward, he has to put a winning season together with this squad. He lost Gilvydas Biruta to transfer and is currently o-fer on the recruiting board. It's clear everyone is in a holding pattern, waiting to see if the promise of a great recruiting class and optimistically well-coached first season pans out. It's time for Rutgers to take the next step and start winning.
That said, college basketball is a funny game. It is much more important to be playing well in January, February and March than it is in November. Sometimes early losses are good for teams; it teaches them lessons that they will take advantage of in conference games. Experience always pays off. Losing in college basketball is not like losing in college football. One very bad loss does not end a season. There is time to rebound.
But early season data is currently a mixed bag. The pieces are there, but they're not quite fitting perfectly together yet. A win yesterday would have sped up the process. But, in six days, Rutgers faces a very talented Iona squad on a neutral court. A win would ease some of the concerns.
A loss would turn the grumbling up to a low roar.
Ole Miss is a good team, and will likely be an NCAA team. Can Rutgers make that next step? There's still a lot of time left to find out.