The first game of the Steve Pikiell era was a success, as Rutgers defeated Molloy 86-57 at the RAC in the season opener. After being tied at the half and only winning by 13 points in last season’s opener against Division III Rutgers-Newark, that’s a clear sign of progress. Now we enter game two looking for more against Drexel, who is a team also in rebuild mode under a new head coach. Let’s take a look at today’s opponent and things to watch for with Rutgers.
How To Watch, Stream & Listen
Drexel (0-1) at Rutgers (1-0)
Tip-off: Sunday 4:00 p.m.
Radio: WCTC 1450 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM
KenPom Rankings: Drexel #282; Rutgers #184
KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 75 Drexel 66 ; Rutgers 79% chance to win
Drexel went 6-25 last season and fired former head coach Bruiser Flint, who was also the former head coach at UMASS. Their last winning season came in 2013-2014, when they went 16-14, which included a 70-59 win over Rutgers in Eddie Jordan’s first season as coach.
The program hired Zach Spiker from Army to turn things around. He was the head man at Army for 7 seasons and joined a prestigious group as one of only three head coaches to win at least 65 games in their first five seasons at West Point. The other two to do it were coaching legends Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. His best season was his last, as Army went 19-14 and made an appearance in the CBI postseason tournament a year ago.
The Dragons opened their season on Friday at Monmouth and lost 78-65. They shot a putrid 31.7% from the field and a big reason was half their shots came from behind the arc. They were 9-30 for 30% from three-point range and play a four guard set at times. Even so, they did hold a slight rebounding edge over Monmouth at 44-43. They did commit 16 turnovers in the contest as well, compared to only 9 assists.
Drexel played nine players over 11 minutes in the loss to Monmouth. Freshman guard Kurk Lee is tiny at 5’10”, but he played big in his collegiate debut, leading the team with 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists, while shooting 50% from the field. Junior guard Sammy Mojica was 3 for 6 from three-point range, finishing with 13 points and 7 rebounds. The other shooter to look out for is the freshman guard from Iceland, Kari Jonsson, who was 3 for 8 from three-point range in his first college game.
6’7” Senior forward Rodney Williams is their best big man in what is an undersized frontcourt, as their tallest player is just 6’9”. Williams scored 9 points, grabbed 10 boards, and had 3 blocks in the season opener. This is a young team looking to rebuild and they have some intriguing newcomers, similar to Rutgers. However, the Scarlet Knights will have a major size and depth advantage in this matchup.
On a side note, Rutgers center C.J. Gettys played Drexel twice last season while playing at UNC Wilmington. He averaged 4.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocks, playing 15 minutes per game in two victories over the Dragons.
What To Watch For
As expected, we saw a nine man rotation in the opener get the bulk of the action, as each player logged at least 14 minutes. Sanders and Freeman were the only players who saw 30+ minutes, while everyone else played between 14 and 22 minutes. It should be more of the same today against Drexel. I was a little surprised that Shaq Doorson only saw 1 minute of play in the opener, but he picked up two quick fouls and Pikiell must have felt he wasn’t ready yet. Doorson has been working his way back from last season’s injury and will need time. Adding Candido Sa and C.J. Gettys to the frontcourt were big pickups for this staff, both figuratively and literally.
For Rutgers to be able to compete against better teams this season, especially in Big Ten play, they will need scoring balance. Friday was a good start, as four players finished in double digits and nine players had 6+ points in the win over Molloy. I certainly didn’t expect Mike Williams to lead the team with 17 points off the bench, but it’s a major positive that he did. This team has several players who could be the leading scorer on any given night. Deshawn Freeman, Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson will probably do so most often, but the days of only Sanders and maybe someone else reaching double figures is hopefully gone forever.
Corey Sanders 2.0
Sanders really focused on getting his teammates involved in the opener and was a distributor of the basketball, first and foremost. His assist to turnover ratio was not good last season, but starting out with 8 assists and just 2 turnovers is a big improvement. The fact that he only took 5 shots indicates a shift in his focus and that’s a positive thing. As Dave White said, he will need to take over on the offensive end against better competition. However, Corey’s challenge will be to pick his spots, while continuing to run the offense in the way Pikiell wants him to. It’s all part of him becoming a more complete player this season. It was also very positive that he swiped 3 steals while playing with a new defensive mindset instilled in him by Pikiell and the staff. Last season, he finished tied for the most steals in the Big Ten, but took far too many risks and lost the man he was guarding because of it. Friday reinforced he can be even more effective on defense if he stays disciplined.
After practicing for over a month and then finally playing in a game Friday night, it’s possible certain players may have to contend with tired legs this afternoon. I’ll be watching to see if Rutgers can match or even improve on their defensive focus from the first game. Pikiell is preaching defense, defense, defense this season and the team will need to keep getting better in this area. They struggled in defending pick n rolls, so that’s something that must improve as the competition does also. If tired legs become an issue, the defense will suffer as a result. Conditioning has been a big focus as well, so today will be a good test to see how far this team has come in that area. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little zone mixed in as well.
Free Throw Shooting
It’s somewhat expected for a team to struggle from the free throw line in the first game of the season, as the players adjust to having tired legs in live action. However, it’s still fair to be unhappy with that Rutgers made just 21 of 36 attempts from the charity stripe in the season opener. Shooting 58% from the line against teams that have more talent, especially in conference play, will be a recipe for disaster. Let’s hope for some improvement in this area today. Although if you’ve followed Rutgers basketball for a long time, you know poor free throw shooting has plagued this program for decades.
In The Bonus
It’s a Sunday, so let’s hope for a better turnout today. Attendance for the opener was just 3,755, however, the student turnout was solid. Pikiell thanked them in the postgame presser and signaled out the Riot Squad specifically. The student support should continue to grow with each win and the rest of the crowd should be more full this afternoon with most people being off from work.
And in case you missed this from Friday’s opener, here is Nigel Johnson’s athleticism on full display and the jovial reaction of backcourt mate Corey Sanders. You could probably say Sanders is happy to finally have Nigel on the court in a Rutgers uniform. The Rutgers Basketball twitter account also added the reaction of big man C.J. Gettys as well. Let’s hope for many more of these types of celebrations from the bench this season.