Last season, if Corey Sanders shot 1-7 from the floor and had just 2 points, along with 2 fouls, 2 turnovers and only 1 assist at halftime, Rutgers would be undoubtedly trailing whichever opponent they were playing. That was the stat line for Sanders at the break in the second game of the new season this afternoon, but there was a major difference in how Rutgers was playing as a team. It was a result of a key new player and a major shift in the mindset of this team.
After freshman guard Kari Jonsson hit a three-pointer, cutting the Rutgers lead to 28-26 with 4:24 remaining in the first half, the emphasis on defense by the coaching staff started to pay dividends. They closed the half on a 13-0 run, holding Drexel scoreless on 0-5 shooting and forcing 3 turnovers. Nigel Johnson, in just his second game in Scarlet, did a good job running the offense down the stretch of the first half and looked comfortable in his new uniform. He was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line after forcing contact when driving to the rim during that stretch. He found Issa Thiam open for a big three-pointer during the run as well. Rutgers went into the half leading Drexel 41-26 and never looked back.
Rutgers continued to play team basketball and great man to man defense in the second half, cruising to a 87-66 win. It was encouraging to see so many players contributing to this win and the strong overall play on the defensive end of the floor. Head coach Steve Pikiell ran a 10 man rotation and used multiple lineup combinations throughout the game. I counted at least seven different combinations and there were times Rutgers flexed its size on the undermanned Dragons. During the strong play to close out the first half, Pikiell had Nigel Johnson at the point surrounded by 6’6” Jonathan Laurent, 6’9” Issa Thiam, 6’9” Candido Sa, and 7’0 Shaq Doorson. There was a time earlier in the game when Rutgers went small with three guards 6’2” or less with Johnson, Sanders and Mike Williams, along with Sa and Doorson in the frontcourt.
Another sign of good coaching was the multiple open looks and good shots Rutgers got out of set pieces in out-of-bounds plays. Corey capitalized in one instance, hitting a wide open three-pointer that helped get him going in the second half.
Rutgers did a good job settling down through their defensive play, after being a bit out of control and playing too fast a good part of the first half. Johnson ran the offense better than Sanders, who never looked completely comfortable. It certainly has to be a transition for him to have so many more weapons on the floor with him this season. Give him time to find his way and rhythm, as he was pressing much of this game. If he can focus on defense early and getting his teammates involved in the offense, the game should come to him more naturally.
The versatility of the roster was showcased in this win, as six players scored in double figures. Jonathan Laurent had a great bounce back game at the wing. He was 3 for 3 from behind the arc, a career high, and tied for the team lead with 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting overall.
Nigel Johnson picked up where he left off in Friday’s opener, finishing with 15 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. He looked smooth and in control the entire game. He is a major addition to this team.
C.J. Gettys dominated the paint at times and gave Rutgers a quality performance, scoring 13 points, grabbing 9 rebounds and blocking 2 shots, along with a couple of assists. He is a beast down low and has done a great job in staying out of foul trouble through two games so far.
Candido Sa looked more polished on offense than expected to be this early in the season, scoring 11 points, including one three-pointer. He is also a strong presence on the defensive end, grabbing 6 rebounds and blocking 3 shots.
Deshawn Freeman had a quiet first half, but finished with his second consecutive 13 point, 10 rebound game of the season. He is a steady force in the paint for Rutgers and has two straight double-doubles.
Sanders scored in double figures for the first time this season, finishing with 11 points after connecting on 6 of 8 free throws, after struggling from the field, hitting just 2 of 11 shots. He added 3 assists and 3 rebounds in the win.
As a team, Rutgers held Drexel to 38.2% shooting from the field and just 29.2% from three-point range. Rutgers dominated the glass, winning the rebounding edge 56-29 over the undermanned Dragons. They also held a 23-10 edge on the offensive glass. One area Rutgers must improve is with turnovers, as they committed 17 and had some sloppy moments, especially in the first half.
Bottom line this was a great team win and another step where progress was made. Drexel is not a good team, but Rutgers took over at the end of the first half and kept building the lead from there. They did it with disciplined man to man defense and sharing the ball on offense. The slogan “One Agenda” has emerged with this team and it was on full display on the court tonight. There is strong evidence the players are buying into what coach Pikiell and the staff are preaching. The positive results, along with the unselfish play, have made this team fun to watch early on.
Rutgers will now prepare for a huge test this Thursday, traveling to Chicago to take on Big East opponent DePaul. Both squads were picked to finish last in their respective conferences, so it’s a key game for Rutgers to prove they are truly on the rise. For now, let’s be happy this team is playing basketball we can be proud of and there is real hope they will continue to improve this season. After winning just 7 games last season, starting 2-0 is something we can all savor!