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Wisconsin Defeats Rutgers 72-52, But Steve Pikiell Sends Strong Message In Loss

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

I am going to start by stating how important it is to look through the final score and focus on several positive takeaways from a big picture perspective. The talent gap between Rutgers and Wisconsin was very apparent on the floor tonight. However, Steve Pikiell demonstrated he is a big time coach in what resulted in a 72-52 loss in one of the toughest venues in the conference against the Big Ten favorite. His ability to control the game at times by regrouping his team after timeouts and frustrating Wisconsin on the defensive end in spurts was impressive. He also showed a no nonsense approach in how he handled his team after a poor start. A loss is never positive, but after last season, the effort this team is giving is truly “knight and day.”

Biggest Moments of the 1st Half

After Wisconsin started the game with a quick 6-0 lead, Pikiell called timeout and benched his entire starting unit composed of CJ Gettys, Deshawn Freeman, Eugene Omoruyi, Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson. Corey Sanders didn’t start the game because he missed his flight back to Rutgers, which resulted in him missing practice yesterday. Pikiell inserted walk-on Jake Dadika at the point, along with with Shaq Doorson, Ibrahima Diallo, Jonathan Laurent and Issa Thiam. This was real life Norman Dale stuff, my friends. Despite a spirited effort by Dadika, who drew a charge on the defensive end, Rutgers fell behind 13-2. Even so, I loved this move by Pikiell. Rutgers came out flat and their defense had more holes in it than a slice of Wisconsin Swiss cheese. He sent a message early on and the team’s effort improved for the rest of the game.

Down 19-6 and in grave danger of getting embarrassed, Rutgers tightened up on defense and they went on a 10-3 run, sparked by back to back three-pointers by Mike Williams. It cut the Wisconsin lead to 22-16 with about five minutes left in the first half and showed Rutgers was going to go down fighting, something that rarely, if ever, happened last season.

Rutgers held Wisconsin to just two field goals over an 8-plus minute stretch, before the Badgers wore them down and finished the half on a 11-2 run. The Scarlet Knights entered halftime trailing 33-18, but without their strong defensive effort, they would have been down by 30 points.

Biggest Moments of the 2nd Half

Rutgers struggled for the second game in a row on the defensive end right after the break, as they gave up 10 points in the three plus minutes into the second half, eventually falling behind 47-26 with 14 minutes left in the game. It looked like the rout was on.

However, Rutgers never quit and responded with an impressive 18-6 run to force a Wisconsin timeout with 8 minutes to play, trailing 53-44. Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson both hit two three-pointer’s during the run. Rutgers regained their defensive effort that kept them in the game, while finding a rhythm for the first time all night on offense.

The Game Was Over When...

After the timeout and their lead down to single digits, Wisconsin responded like all great teams do, putting together a 12-2 run that rebuilt their lead to 65-46 with 3:33 left in the game. Corey Sanders went down in the middle of the run after landing awkwardly while taking a shot near the rim in traffic. He stayed on the ground and was helped off the floor and led into the locker room with what looked like a bad ankle sprain. No word on his status as of now.

What We Learned

Rutgers struggles mightily with their interior offense against good teams. Freeman led the frontcourt with 9 points on 3 of 8 shooting, but had just 3 rebounds and committed 4 turnovers before fouling out in the game. Gettys added 4 points and Diallo had 2 points, with no other production from the Rutgers big men. Overall, Rutgers was outscored 28-16 in the paint and this will be a major issue throughout conference play.

The heart and fight this team displayed was noble and a major improvement from last season. While this team is offensively challenged and they lack the depth of talent that most Big Ten teams have, they never gave up. They embody the spirit of their head coach and if they can continue to work hard and improve, this team will find a way to win a few conference games.

Players Of The Game

Wisconsin - Nigel Hayes

The front runner for conference player of the year led all scorers with 20 points, including an impressive 10-10 from the free throw line. He added 5 rebounds and looked like the best player on the court by a wide margin, with the exception of his teammate Ethan Happ, who had a 10 & 10 double-double.

Rutgers - Mike Williams

The junior guard just continues to get better and is proving to be the backbone of this team on a nightly basis. He made several big shots in this game and was 4 of 5 from behind the arc. He also led the team with 7 rebounds in this game, playing a smart and scrappy 28 minutes.

Key Stats

While Rutgers had a -11 rebounding margin in this game, they actually held a 16-15 edge on the offensive boards against Wisconsin. They need to rebound better against stronger competition, but it was positive to see them hold their own on the offensive glass.

It was a tale of two halves with turnovers, as Rutgers committed an egregious 12 in the first half. Several of them were unforced errors as they looked out of sync without Sanders on the floor in the early going. However, they refocused and played smarter in the second half, committing just 3 turnovers. Progress.

While it wasn’t a factor in the game, this program needs to take baby steps forward. Holding Wisconsin 6 points under their season scoring average and 4% below their shooting average is no small feat and speaks to the progress they’ve made on the defensive end.

Rutgers actually shot better from three-point range than the Badgers, finishing at 39%, making 7 of 18 attempts. Nigel Johnson struggled from the field overall, finishing 4 of 16 on the night. However, he backed Williams up behind the arc, making 3 of 6.

As a team, Rutgers did struggle in shooting just 31% overall from the floor.

What’s Next

This team has four days to regroup before hosting Penn State at the RAC for a matinee on New Year’s Day. The Nittany Lions lost 87-77 at home in their Big Ten home opener against Northwestern. The game was actually not nearly as close, as Penn State trailed by almost 20 points for a large portion of the second half. If Rutgers can continue to bring it on the defensive end and work on their interior offense, they have a chance to win on Sunday. Hopefully Corey Sanders will be able to play, but if not, the rest of the team will need to step up in his absence. There may not be a more winnable home game the rest of the season, with the exception of Nebraska. It is a huge game for this team and will be a telling sign for their trajectory the rest of the season. We will have more on this matchup later this week.

For now, despite the 20 point loss, there were some positives in this game. The fight this team displayed in never giving up and their ability to frustrate Wisconsin on the defensive end at times was encouraging. However, this team could have easily lost by 40 points in this game and would have done so last season. If this game doesn’t sell you on why the future is bright with Steve Pikiell as head coach of Rutgers basketball, I don’t know what to tell you.

His ability to get the most out of this team and their attitude change on the court is significant. LaPhonso Ellis, the former Notre Dame great, was the color analyst for this game and was raving about the difference in this team compared to recent years past. The rebuild of Rutgers basketball is a process, but Pikiell continues to get max effort out of this team. Wisconsin is a Big Ten title and Final Four contender. They are virtually unbeatable at home and Rutgers never fell apart. That’s progress. Their effort and fight throughout this game proved that you shouldn't give up on this team. Better days are ahead.