PISCATAWAY — For the second time in a week, the Rutgers men’s basketball team suffered an upset at home to a team from the conference head coach Steve Pikiell arrived from.
If the loss to the Seawolves sucked out the energy from a monumental win over No. 15 Seton Hall from the program, a defeat to the Hawks pegged Rutgers a step behind square one.
“It’s a humbling experience,” said senior guard Mike Williams. “You can be on the top of the world one day, and the next you can be at the bottom of the pedestal. This was an eye opener for us, especially the younger guys. But this is college basketball. Anything can happen on any given day. We’ll get back to the drawing board tomorrow and get ready for Purdue.”
The Scarlet Knights complete non-conference play with a 10-5 record, the highest peak and lowest valley all coming within the last 12 days.
Before that, the signs were mostly positive. Rutgers held its own against ranked opposition in Florida State and Big Ten favorites Michigan State. It took care of every other opponent by double-digits. The only blemish on the early record was a 22-point loss at Minnesota, a ranked team projected to finish on the podium of the Big Ten when all is said and done.
Less than two weeks after the highest high the program has seen in years, Rutgers has the same record against the America East (0-2) as it does the Big Ten.
“We’re in a tough spot right now with the last two games, we haven’t been playing Rutgers basketball,” Pikiell said. “We have to get back on track. This is part of the process. I’ve been through this many times. You get some ups and some downs. We played hard but we have to make some timely baskets, we have to make some free throws. The rebounding is a little frustrating to me because I think we’re a great rebounding team, but we’ve been out rebounded in the last two games … “We know we have to get better. I know our flaws (and) we got to make sure to do a good job of making those strengths.”
From the outside looking in, the sky appears to be falling on the Scarlet Knights, a program on the rise that looks to be sliding down the mountain of college basketball once again.
But for Pikiell, it’s business as usual when it comes to rebuilding a program.
“Tonight doesn’t define us,” Pikiell said. “I think we’re going to be very good. There’s a lot of basketball left. We have to make sure we do a good job of turning our flaws into strengths. Better days are ahead.”
FONSECA’S FOUR OBSERVATIONS
1) Corey Sanders Disciplined
For the second year in a row, Corey Sanders missed his flight home from Florida following a short break for Christmas. As a result, head coach Steve Pikiell benched his point guard for the first 9 minutes of action at the RAC, with junior college transfer Souf Mensah starting in his place.
“He missed his flight (back to Rutgers after the team’s break). So he missed practice the other day,” Pikiell said. “He came back, he responded. It happens, travelling the day after Christmas is tough, just like last year.”
The result was a slow start for the Scarlet Knights, who saw Hartford shoot out to a 16-8 lead at the under-12 timeout. It was then that Sanders checked in and immediately shifted the slant of the game.
It started with a steal on the defensive end, followed up by a jumper on offense. The next possession, Sanders hit a wild circus shot which somehow went in after kissing off the glass. He continued to hustle on the defensive end, including rushing to a loose ball which turned a potential Hartford backcourt violation to a steal and fast-break.
Sanders finished with a game-high 17 points, three assists, two rebounds and zero turnovers in 29 minutes. He hit three crucial free throws down the stretch to close the gap to a single point in the final minute. But when given the chance to win the game on the final possession, he made a bad pass to Geo Baker, setting off the chaos that ultimately cost Rutgers the game.
It’s the second time Sanders was disciplined this season. He sat the first 10 minutes of Rutgers win over Coppin State, after which Pikiell issued a challenge for Sanders to have better practices.
Pikiell didn’t raise concern.
“He didn’t start as a result. He likes to start,” Pikiell said. “I don’t think Corey wanted to miss it, but it happens, that’s a busy travel day. That wasn’t the reason why we lost the game today. Sometimes, as the head coach, you have to make decisions like that. He apologized to the team and we move forward. Guys miss flights, guys get injured, guys get sick. We move forward.”
2) Hartford Gets Revenge
A year later, Rutgers found itself in another unfavorable situation against the Hawks — only this time, it could not pull a rabbit out of a hat.
The Scarlet Knights found themselves down seven points with 10 minutes to play after the visitors shot out of halftime on a 19-8 run. Hartford held the same lead with seven minutes to play. After 12-2 run spearheaded by Mike Williams eliminated that lead, the Hawks retook a four point cushion with 1:11 to play. It would be enough to seal the win.
“Last year against them it came down to that last possession too,” Pikiell said. “They have good players and they are well coached. They were here for three days working out in our gym, so they were ready for the game. I thought we were ready too. We had our two best practices of the season, so I thought we were in a good place heading into the game. But you have to score, when you can’t score, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense. It’s tough when you are building, but this is part of the process. We have to get plugging and keep getting better. I loved their effort. We have to stay the course.”
There is no excuse for the Scarlet Knights to need a late comeback to defeat a low-major opponent at home, especially not two seasons in a row and especially not after suffering an upset to another low-major side a week prior. Getting upset twice in a week is beyond words.
The signs of optimism created by an upset win over No. 15 Seton Hall are gone after the events of the last week. With Big Ten play beginning in six days, the Scarlet Knights (re)-enter their conference slate with extremely lowered expectations.
3) Free Throws Cost Rutgers
The downward spiral that is the Scarlet Knights streak from the stripe continued against Hartford Thursday night.
After shooting less than 70 percent from the free throw line in its last five outings, including a putrid 42 percent clip in a loss to Stony Brook, Rutgers got off to another slow start at the charity strip. The Scarlet Knights went 4-for-10 from the line in the first half and it didn’t get much better at the start of the second. They’d miss 3 of their first 4 free throws in the second half, too.
Rutgers closed out well, hitting 7 of its last 8 attempts from the line, but it wouldn’t be enough to escape with the win.
“Free throws, all year long, have been a problem,” Pikiell said. “It’s something that we’ve really tried to work on and spend a ton of time, have free throws separately. We got to make some. We’re all capable … some of it experience, some is mental toughness, that kind of thing. It was a problem for us last year. When you’re in close games, it’s really a weapon.”
It seemed the days of the Scarlet Knights dropping games at the line were finished when they shot at 80, 78 and 78 percent clips against Florida State, Minnesota and Michigan State, respectively. Recent results, however, show there’s still a lot of after practice free throw shooting to be done. Maybe even on the Knight Shift, too.
4) No-Score Zone
Hartford fouled a lot in the second half — nine times, to be precise. But when the Hawks weren’t hacking — which, considering the above observation, wasn’t a bad strategy — they held Rutgers to 21 points on 9-for-23 shooting thanks to a 2-3 zone defense the Scarlet Knights couldn’t figure out.
Rutgers guards struggled to get any dribble penetration, and when they did, they were met with Hartford’s bigs who were not afraid to foul. When the ball was swung to Eugene Omoruyi or Deshawn Freeman, neither of the Scarlet Knights bigs managed to finish around the basket. When the ball went inside and the bigs dished it out to open shooters on the perimeter, Rutgers couldn’t nail the shots as it went 3-for-9 from deep in the second half.
The Scarlet Knights simply had no solution for the zone and it cost them.
To read Dave White's four thoughts, click here.