It’s a brand new day for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, as the Steve Pikiell era officially began tonight at the RAC. It was far from a perfect performance, but Rutgers flashed their potential and commitment to team basketball in their 86-57 victory over Molloy.
They jumped out to a 9-0 lead at the start, before Molloy got their bearings and cut the lead to 18-14 with 8:38 left in the first half. There was some sloppy play by the home team, which is to be expected in the season opener. A lot of players made their debuts and looked tight at times, as Rutgers went into the half with 8 turnovers.
Even so, there were certainly some encouraging signs from how they played. Pikiell’s emphasis on defense and team basketball was evident throughout the season opener. He also substituted frequently, as 8 players played 8 minutes or more in the first half. A similar rotation continued through most of the second half, as a core of nine players got the bulk of the minutes and each one scored 6 points or more in the game. The balance was a result of the team first focus that was a prevailing theme in the opener.
Molloy cut the lead to 45-40 with 15:04 to play in the second half and Rutgers was struggling after the break. Pikiell called a good set piece out of the timeout, as Candido Sa hit a jumper from the foul line. Still, Molloy hung around and the score was 52-46 with 12:48 to play.
At that point, the surprise player of the game hit another huge shot, as Mike Williams hit his 5th three-pointer of the night and Rutgers never looked back. Rutgers finished the game on a 34-11 run, completely overwhelming Molloy. Rutgers played man to man most of the night and showed a lot of improvement from last season with their halfcourt defense. Pikiell did test out the 2-3 zone late in the game with most of the regulars on the bench.
After struggling most of the preseason in practice, which the radio team of Jerry Recco and Joe Boylan commented on during the telecast, Williams played loose and free in the first game of the season. He led the team with 17 points, off the bench nonetheless, on 5-8 shooting from three-point range. If he can be a consistent threat from behind the arc this season after struggling from long range the first two years of his career, it would be a huge lift for this team.
Team captain Deshawn Freeman, the player Pikiell praised the most throughout the preseason, set the tone early. He finished with with a double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Freeman also had 3 blocks, 2 steals, and shot 50% from the field.
Last season, it was rare to get a few paragraphs into a recap without mentioning Corey Sanders. However, don’t let that fool you, as the dynamic floor leader led throughout this game. Sanders played like a true point guard tonight and with real purpose. He was a major reason why Rutgers played solid team basketball and moved the ball well on offense. I said before the season how important it was for Sanders to embrace being a complete player and so far, so good after the season opener. He dished out 8 assists and committed just 2 turnovers, while adding 3 steals. Sanders scored only 6 points but only took 5 shots from the field. As much as the defensive effort of this team showed a big change under Pikiell, Sanders playing unselfish and disciplined basketball was extremely encouraging.
As for the newcomers, there was a lot to like from big men C.J. Gettys and Candido Sa. Gettys showed off his smooth scoring touch, notching 11 points on 5-7 shooting and adding 6 rebounds. Sa had more modest production, but had 6 points on 3-4 shooting off the bench, along with 3 rebounds. Both players are intriguing additions to the team.
The long awaited debut of Nigel Johnson started with a thud after a quiet first half. However, after he got a steal and thunderous dunk midway through the second frame, he relaxed and showed what a dynamic player he can be for this team. Johnson finished with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals coming off the bench. He also shot 7-9 from the free throw line and showcased his quick first step when slashing to the rim.
Issa Thiam played like it was his first college game, as the freshman struggled to really get going. He didn’t make many mistakes, but he never got into a flow on offense. He did flash his long range shooting ability, connecting on 2 of 6 attempts behind the arc, finishing with 6 points on the night.
Eugene Omoruyi highlighted his versatility, as he put up 6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and was a perfect 4-4 from the charity stripe. I have high hopes for him becoming a key contributor off the bench this season and tonight only reinforced that thought.
Shaq Doorson didn’t make his season debut until the second half and didn’t make much of an impact. Freshman Matt Bullock and redshirt sophomore center Ibrahima Diallo were the last two scholarship players to get into the game, checking in with just 3 minutes left and the contest well out of reach.
The bottom line is Rutgers accomplished exactly what they needed to in winning in convincing fashion over Division II Molloy. They were tested at times, struggled against the pick and roll and allowed 7 three-pointers. However, things started to click midway through the second half and Rutgers dominated the rest of the way. They shot 48.3% from the field as a team, had 17 assists versus 11 turnovers, and had 13 steals in the game.
One major concern was their performance from the free throw line, as Rutgers struggled badly, making just 21-36 attempts for a disappointing 58.3%. With that being said, overall it was a solid effort and a lot of positives resulted in coach Pikiell’s first win of his career on the banks. Next up is a home game Sunday at 4 p.m. at the RAC versus Drexel, who lost to Monmouth tonight 78-65. If Rutgers can build off tonight’s performance and continue to play hard on both ends of the floor, more progress in game two should be expected.