PISCATAWAY —— Rutgers faced its first real test of the season in the form of Florida State. The Scarlet Knights failed as far as the score went — 78-73 in the Seminoles’ favor — but there were encouraging signs as they head into the start of Big Ten play.
The contest began as a back-and-forth affair for the first 25 minutes of play before Florida State pulled off a 12-1 run and took an eight-point lead, the largest of the game, with 11:06 to play.
Despite its two freshman starters Geo Baker and Mamadou Doucoure being in foul trouble and their best player on the night Deshawn Freeman picking up an injury which held him out for a three-minute stretch late in the half, Rutgers kept tight on its visitors. Though the Scarlet Knights never got closer than three points for the final quarter of the game, the signs of a good team were present.
“We fought through every obstacle today,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Everybody is in foul trouble. Guys cramping up. Couple calls. We fought through a lot of different things. They just got us by a few … I thought we made free throws. Turned the ball over at a couple of crucial times. We played really hard against a good team.”
A sign of offensive progress from the Scarlet Knights came late in the second half, when the Seminoles switched to a 2-3 zone defense, something Pikiell said they didn’t play a single possession of this season.
Rutgers responded dominantly, with its “most improved player” Eugene Omoruyi taking advantage. He managed to find space inside the zone and force his way to the basket on multiple occasions, helping the Scarlet Knights chip away at the deficit.
“Eugene took it right to the rim in that zone,” Pikiell said. “I like when he plays aggressive like that. He’s a matchup problem and will be a matchup problem the rest of the year too as we keep moving forward. I’m going to keep moving him around the board a little bit.”
Those aggressive moves led to a career-high 22 point performance from the sophomore, who finished an efficient 9-for-11 from the field.
“We do this in practice all the time so Coach knows how I can attack zones,” Omoruyi said. “I’m normally patient with it, I try to find open guys, but I felt like when I ball-faked Florida State’s zone, they were all separating and it was just me and the big, so I felt like I just used my quickness against them.”
With the way Rutgers continues to struggle to shoot the ball — it ranks 346th nationally in three-point shooting (25.7 percent) and 323rd in effective field goal percentage (43.7 percent), according to KenPom — teams will continue to play zone and try to force the Scarlet Knights to shoot the ball.
As he showed tonight, Omoruyi’s aggressiveness and efficiency against that defense can be a solution to that problem.
WATCH: Eugene Omoruyi's best moments from a career-high 22 point night against Florida State. His aggressiveness in attacking the basket was impressive. pic.twitter.com/V3ET8Mn8yp— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) November 29, 2017
“We work on zone every day in practice. That’s something we throw at each other because we know that’s something teams are going to play us zone because of our shooting woes that we’ve been having,” said Corey Sanders. “So when they were in zone, we were able to get Eugene inside and attack it, try to break it off. They had to keep switching defenses because thye didn’t know which way to guard us. I feel like that shows a sign of a good team when teams keep switching defenses.”
Fonseca Four Observations:
- The RAC wasn’t full to capacity, but the 4,853 who were in attendance made their presence felt. A seemingly sold-out student section in particular was very impressive. For perspective, veteran scribe and expert crowd critique Jerry Carino had high praise for those in attendance.
I can't remember the last time it was this loud here in November...2006? Give Florida State credit for counter-punching, up by 8 with 12:19 left. https://t.co/0DDF51SVKD— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) November 29, 2017
As for the players on the floor, they felt the same way.
“I could barely hear when everyone chipped in,” Sanders said. “It was great seeing that student section packed ... “I’m telling you, it’s crazy. It almost hurts your eardrums. You can’t call a play. It helps when you’re on defense because you can feed off that and want to get into your man, but it’s really hard to hear and so you got to be loud. You got to use your outside voice.”
- There were a lot of fouls in this game, especially considering how little Rutgers fouled entering the contest. The Scarlet Knights ranked third in the nation in fouls per game, averaging just 12.2 through five games, while Florida State ranked 173rd with 18.8 fouls per game. The teams finished with a combined 48 fouls — 24 a piece.
The good bit of news from the tick-tack officiating was the Scarlet Knights showed they are capable of a good night at the stripe. They went 16-for-20 from the line against the Seminoles, good for 80 percent — by far the best outing after they averaged a 57.7 percent clip.
- What Deshawn Freeman lacked in finishing around the rim today (5-for-18 clip), he made up for with his career rebounding night. The captain picked up 16 boards, the most he’s had in a single game with a Rutgers uniform. He was the most fired up of his teammates, continuously waving his arms at the crowd to get them pumped and cheering. He showed the same leadership with his teammates, often talking to Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi between plays and advising the younger Scarlet Knights. Those are contributions you don’t see on the stat sheet, but make a difference with a young team.
He limped off the court without putting weight on his left leg with a little under eight minutes to go. He appeared on the bench shortly after and returned to the game three minutes later.
“Cramps, he had a little bit of everything,” Pikiell said of Freeman. “He was a warrior tonight.”
- Florida State plays aggressive defense and looks to create turnovers. That doesn’t excuse an uncharictaristically sloppy night from the Scarlet Knights.
Long stretches in the first half featured sloppy play from the guard — from Souf Mensah getting pickpocketed from behind, to Corey Sanders forcing the issue and turning the ball over trying to do too much. Rutgers finished with 14 turnovers, 12 of which were credited as Seminole steals that they converted to 16 points. When playing quality opposition moving forward, ball security will be crucial to the Scarlet Knights success.
Three Killer Quotes:
Steve Pikiell On His Team Beginning Big Ten Play — “We play hard and we’re going to be ready for the Big Ten schedule. I think we obviously have as tough a schedule as any team in the league right out the gate. We have to battle. We have to really get after Minnesota then we have Michigan State after that. Some tough games but we’ll continue to get better. We’re still finding ourselves. We have two freshmen in the starting lineup. We got to keep tweaking this thing and get better at areas we haven’t been great in. I liked our free throw shooting today. We got to the line and made free throws. That was a big help for us. We’ll keep practicing and we’ll keep getting better.”
Corey Sanders On Facing Florida State Without His Best Friend Dwayne Bacon — “We were talking about it before the game. He texted me this morning like ‘yeah, them boys on the way.’ It was kind of funny and kind of energizing because I know he’d be watching but it was kind of weird to be playing Florida State and him not being there. After the game, I read a text and he was like ‘man, we were supposed to play last year.’ But it was a great experience playing against that team, they’re a great team. We didn’t get the W tonight but I learned a lot.”
Eugene Omoruyi On How Florida State Affects Team Ahead Of Big Ten Opener @ Minnesota — “It gives us confidence because first of all, this game is going to prepare us for Big Ten play because this is just like Big Ten competition, so I feel like this game is just a stepping stone to getting better … We want to get on the road and prove to people we can do some damage.”