You could argue that the Rutgers men’s basketball team hasn’t played as important a regular season game as they will in Wednesday’s road contest at Miami (FL) in at least three years. Starting the Steve Pikiell era with a 6-0 record has given Rutgers fans something they haven’t truly had in a long time. Hope. So what if their rank in KenPom may only be #164th, the teams they have beaten haven’t added a lot of credibility, and they were universally picked to finish last in the Big Ten conference. None of that matters, because the previous few seasons have set the bar so low and coach Pikiell has elevated the program several rungs above in a very short period of time.
Rutgers understands they need to earn respect from the college basketball world, specifically within their conference, to change perception based on recent history. The players seem to be all pulling in the same direction just six games into the season. Team chemistry is strong and their focus is on winning as a team, with “One Agenda” being their mantra.
At practice yesterday, everyone was locked in and preparing for their most difficult opponent to date. Miami is coming off a holiday tournament in which they beat Stanford, but then lost to ranked opponents Iowa State and Florida. There is no doubt the Hurricanes will be on edge against Rutgers, looking to end the losing streak in a big way. Simply put, Rutgers is preparing for Miami’s best. Here is what coach Pikiell and several key players had to say about Wednesday’s game against their former Big East foe.
It should be noted that Pikiell is the epitome of class, always shaking every reporter’s hand and thanking everyone for coming. This has happened multiple times in every dealing I’ve had with coach. He also comes across as someone always looking for ways to improve the team and to get better. His relentless effort and drive has helped this team tremendously in terms of their competitiveness and will to win. Here is what he had to say before practice yesterday:
Thoughts On Miami:
Road game, it's always harder to win on the road. Two, their length and athleticism is outstanding. They have a hall of fame coach and play in a great league, a team that went to the Sweet 16 last year. Obviously real talented and a terrific program. But like with every team we play, we need to play well. We have to be honed in on the game plan, our preparation is always important to us. Hopefully, we started that yesterday and that it will continue today.
On What Rutgers Needs To Do To Win:
We have to do a great job of rebounding the ball, I mean they’re very, very athletic. We have to take care of the ball too, can’t turn it over, they are a terrific transition team. They pose a lot of problems. They have terrific attackers of the rim. They’re length is a problem. They have veteran guys. There’s a lot of problems they pose to us, but we have to go on the road and be tough. Our defense needs to be a staple for us, and we have to do a great job of rebounding, which we haven't been great at lately.
On Why Miami’s Record Isn’t Important:
I’m big on film, I hope our players aren't big on records. I’m not big on records, I don’t think it means anything. If you watch basketball on a nightly basis, you see some real good teams with not so great records, and then you see the teams that aren't as good as their record indicates they may be this time of year. This is a real good basketball team. I don’t know how you shake it. They have veteran guys that can play, they have NBA potential, and they’ve played a tough schedule too. We’re trying to get our guys to be focused and to go on the road, you have to play well on both ends of the floor against a team like this.
I specifically asked coach Pikiell about if he has any concerns with the three-point defense of Rutgers, as their last three opponents have shot 44% from behind the arc. He dissected the root of the issue here:
I’m concerned with every aspect of our defense, so that’s just one of the small aspects. A lot of that is controlling the ball. The ball is getting into the paint, the ball gets into the paint and we rotate. Rotations mean open three’s. Some people will look at it, they’re giving up a lot of points from three. No we’re giving up dribble penetration. Dribble penetration is causing the three’s. It’s not just guarding the three’s, it's guarding the ball and also rebounding, we gave up way too many second shots. Second shots usually lead to three’s, so there is a lot of different areas of our defense that I’m not pleased with at this time. But, let’s give these guys (some credit), they’ve figured out a way to win and we haven’t won a lot. Every game has posed a different problem, we were down a lot in the last game, we made some huge plays offensively, but we made some huge plays defensively too. We figured out ways to win games and that’s a good thing for us moving forward.
Overall, coach Pikiell was upbeat, but determined. I think he and the players are anxious to get on the court Wednesday and have an opportunity to take that next step against a quality opponent.
The star point guard has adjusted his game this season and hasn’t had to burden all of the scoring himself during the team’s 6-0 start. He heads into the Miami game coming off a 7 point, 10 assist, 4 rebound, and 6 steal performance in the comeback win over Hartford. He came across confident yesterday, but fully aware that there is a lot this team needs to work on. Here is what Sanders had to say about the game and his return to his native Florida:
On The Trip To Miami & What’s At Stake:
I get to go home, so that’s a good thing, I get to enjoy some good weather. But it’s just a business trip, I watched them play last night and saw they’ve lost two games back to back, so they’ll be at our heads. We have to come in here today and practice hard and make sure we pay attention to details.
They’re very athletic, they’re long and fast, have good guards, it’s going to be a big challenge for us. We really have to pay attention to what coach has in the game plan in today and tomorrow, focus on their personnel and get ready.
It’s one of those wins we are trying to get on our resume. To be a team that plays in the Big Ten, a win like this would show people that we have what it takes to participate in the Big Ten.
On Going Home To Florida:
I definitely have some people down there, some people haven’t gotten to see me play in college yet. It will be a good thing for those people, I got some tickets for them, so it will be a good homecoming game.
Sanders was asked how many friends and family he expects at the game and he answered “about 25.”
On Team’s Mindset Heading Into This Game:
We have a lot of things we needed to work on from the Hartford game. I was glad we were able to fight back and rally back they way we did, that showed a lot to me about our team. Coach (Pikiell) said the other day, don’t play with your record. Last game we were playing with that 6-0 record. I’m glad that we toughed it out and we are 6-0.
On How The Hartford Game Helped Prepare Them For Miami:
It showed we’ve got what it takes to fight. We knew we would hit adversity at some point. They were hitting shots something like 75% at one point. We were just able to lock down that last five minutes and went on that 20-5 run. It shows when we want to play defense, we can do it. We just have to do it the whole forty minutes, not just the last five minutes.
Corey went on to talk about how poised coach Pikiell is during tight games and how well he keeps the team focused. He definitely seems comfortable with the new staff in place.
The junior guard has been through more during his Rutgers career than anyone on the current roster, having started in almost every game the previous two seasons in which the program compiled a combined 17-47 record. He is currently playing the best basketball of his college career, becoming a more complete player, as well as a leader coming off the bench and providing a consistent spark so far this season. He is currently averaging 10.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, as well as shooting 38% from three-point range. Here is what Williams had to say about Wednesday’s matchup:
On The Test Miami Presents:
We are 6-0, but we have a mission to go down to Miami and handle our business. Go down there 1-0 and continue our winning streak. It’s good that we’ve come this far to be 6-0 right now, no one has done that here since Eddie Jordan (as a player). We can’t let that get to our heads. We just need to focus on the objective and that’s to have a great season.
It’s another obstacle in our road. They’re going to be a tough team, very athletic. They’re seasoned, they’re a veteran team that’s been to the tournament a lot of times. I think we are ready for the challenge.
On The Rutgers Coaching Staff:
All of the coaching staff is energetic. We feed off their energy. When they talk, I want to learn. I want to be perfect. In his eyes (Assistant coach Jay Young), defense is an art. People don’t like playing defense, so we have take our pride in that.
On Looking After Freshman Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi On The Road:
They’ve already experienced it with DePaul, they were feeling pre-game jitters. Looking at them, I felt the same thing as a freshman. Playing Virginia at the Barclay’s Center, playing against teams like Michigan at Michigan, Michigan State at Michigan State. So I know how they’re feeling but I just tell the guys, you know how to play, don’t let the crowd, you know the crowd is going to be loud, but we have your backs, so don’t worry about it.
At 6-0, Rutgers still has a lot to prove. Looking at the stats, I covered the good and the bad from the season so far here. Although the matchup with Miami is just one of thirty-one regular season games, this contest certainly carries a bit more juice. A victory Wednesday would bring this season’s win total equal with the program’s win total from last season. That would surely get the attention of the college basketball world. No matter what the team’s final record will be this season, the search for respect and the goal of making progress on the court is very much the focus for this team. Tomorrow’s game against Miami is a chance to move both areas forward.