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Rutgers Men's Basketball Game #5 Preview vs. Bryant

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Plus a legitimate reason to be optimistic about free throw shooting

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

Bryant (0-3) At Rutgers (4-0)

Where: The RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey

Tip-off: Tuesday, November 21st at 7:00 p.m. ET

TV: None

Stream: BTN Plus (subscription required) - Lou Brogno and Dom Savino

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #120; Bryant #320

(Note: Rutgers rose 3 spots from their last game)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 79 Bryant 63; Rutgers 93% chance to win

Series History: Rutgers won the lone previous meeting 67-37 on December 20, 2008.

About Bryant

The Bulldogs are members of the Northeast Conference and have already played two other high major teams this season, losing by 23 points to N.C. State and 25 points to Georgia. In its last game, Bryant lost 79-71 to Navy. They average 18 turnovers per game and have a poor turnover rate of 24.2%. They also struggle with offensive rebounding, both for themselves and in defending its opponents. Bryant is only shooting just over 40% from two-point range, making them near the bottom in all of Division I in that category.

They are led by 6’1” guard Adam Grant, who is averaging 20.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game. The leading scorer for Bryant is shooting lights out from three-point range early on this season, making 11 of 24 attempts for 45.8%. Australian senior wing Bosko Kostur is a deep threat as well, making 6 of 11 for 54.5% from behind the arc, and is shooting 48% from the floor overall. He is averaging 12.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest.

Undersized forward Sabastian Townes (6’5”) is averaging almost a double-double per game, producing 12.0 points and 8.0 rebounds, which makes him the top glass eater on the team. 6’7” freshman forward, Ryan Layman, paces the frontcourt with 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Other than 6’10” forward Aram Martin, who has only played 12 minutes all season, Bryant doesn’t play anyone taller than 6’8”.

What To Watch For

Speed Walk Out Of The Gates

In its last three games, Rutgers has held no better than a 9 point lead at halftime against CCSU, Cleveland State, and Coppin State. Two of them are sub-300 teams per KenPom and Cleveland State is 270th. To cut to the chase, Rutgers is struggling to establish a commanding lead against inferior competition. Now it’s still very early in the season, but Tuesday’s game against Bryant provides an opportunity for Rutgers to breakthrough and dominate the game from the opening tip.

Poor shooting and turnovers have resulted in sloppy starts that have hindered this team in the early going on games. With a three game stretch against Florida State, Minnesota, and Michigan State beginning a week from Tuesday, it’s time for this team to play better in the opening frame of games or it will spell big trouble against much stiffer competition.

Shooting From The Field

A big reason this team has struggled so much in the first halves of games is they’ve come out ice cold shooting the basketball. Some of that is shot selection, in terms of settling for jump shots, and some of it is just missing open shots, whether they’re near the rim or not. Shooting 44% as a team is not terrible, but its worrisome considering the lack of competition they've faced. However, the true red flag is Rutgers is making just 20.5% of its 73 three-point field goal attempts. It's still a small sample size this season, but after last year's 30.2% mark (336 out of 351 teams) from behind the arc, an even worse start makes it's fair to be worried.

Pikiell's Challenge To Corey Sanders

Dave touched on this in his four thoughts in the win over Coppin State and the video of head coach Steve Pikiell’s presser explaining his decision to have Corey come off the bench on Sunday can be viewed here. It was clear he is sending a message not only to Corey, but to the entire team. Pikiell has looked for Sanders to assert a leadership role within the program since his arrival and this move was made in hopes that Corey finally accepts the challenge. It is disappointing that after what I called his most complete performance in a Rutgers uniform the previous game, Pikiell was unhappy with Corey's practice habits proceeding it. However, I love this move by Pikiell and his unwillingness to sacrifice the culture he wants to establish by benching the most talented player on the team is a major statement that should resonate through the program for some time. For Rutgers to truly be successful this season, they need the Corey Sanders that Pikiell envisions on the court and hopefully his star player sees eye to eye with that vision soon.

Free Throw Shooting

As a team, Rutgers is shooting a disappointing 57% from the free throw line on 98 attempts. That’s a healthy number of shots from the charity stripe through four games, so credit this team for getting to the free throw line. The reality is they should be winning games by a wider margin if they could just make their free throws at a higher rate. Margin of victory in the early part of the non-conference schedule is not an issue, but once Rutgers begins playing more difficult opponents, their inability to convert consistently at the line will be a major disadvantage, just as it was last season.

The good news is that Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams are all shooting 70% or better on a minimum of nine attempts per player. Issa Thiam is 6 of 7 for 85.7% and while Geo Baker is just 4 of 6 so far, I’m confident he will hover around 75% or better this season. Even freshman center Mamadou Doucoure has made 6 of 8 from the line. The fact that six of the top seven players in minutes played have all started reasonably well from the line is an encouraging sign that shouldn't be lost in reviewing the overall team percentage so far.

The most improved player on the team, Eugene Omoruyi, leads the team with 19 attempts through four games, but has struggled quite a bit, making just 7 free throws for an ugly 36.8%. If he can turn it around, Rutgers has a chance to be a much improved team from the free throw line. The end of the bench has shot poorly too, as Shaq Doorson, Candido Sa, and Souf Mensah have combined to shoot just 5 of 17 from the line for just 29.4%. Combined with Omoruyi, the bench is significantly weighing down the team’s percentage as a whole. Let's hope the entire team comes out and shoots at a higher percentage against Bryant. One step at a time, one free throw at a time.

Defensive Pressure

Rutgers has held three of its four opponents this season to under 40 points scoring, which is the first time the program has achieved that feat in decades. Even so, I’m not going to get that excited, considering the talent level and size of the oppositions they’ve defended against. With that being said, Bryant scored 72 points against N.C. State, so Rutgers could be challenged more so defensively, if the Bulldogs have a good shooting night. It’s up to the defense to prevent that from happening and they’ve been successful so far, holding opponents under 26% shooting from three-point range and under 43% from two-point range this season. After a short turnaround from Sunday’s game, it would be encouraging to see Rutgers continue to clamp down on its opponents on the defensive end, even with tired legs.