PISCATAWAY — Corey Sanders caught the outlet pass from Issa Thiam and the break was on. He picked his head up as he approached the three-point line and saw his backcourt mate Geo Baker streaking to the basket without a defender on him. Sanders threw up the alley-oop to Baker without hesitation and turned around to get back on defense — he already knew Baker would slam it.
“I see him in the corner of my eye and he pointed up,” Sanders said. “Originally, I was just going to attack the basket but you kind of forget he’s athletic, so that was a sign for me to throw one to him because he threw one to me the other day. It just felt really good.”
It was that kind of night for the Rutgers men’s basketball team.
The Scarlet Knight obliterated in-state foe Fairleigh-Dickinson 92-54 in a game that was over before halftime. The aforementioned combination between Sanders and Baker fell squarely in the middle of a 16-0 run that put the game out of question as Rutgers entered halftime up 50-22.
The stress-free win was welcome for Rutgers after a slow start last time out against NJIT. The Scarlet Knights barely led the Highlanders at the break then, 33-32, leading to a “shy, quiet” halftime talk from Pikiell. Two days later, a 28-point halftime cushion saw an even more low-key halftime speech.
Even still, despite the game practically being in hand, the head coach was teaching.
“We were probably a little more calm than Coach was,” Baker said of halftime. “Coach is always going to be on us, making sure we’re still doing the right things. I think that towards the end of the game, we got a little sloppy out there and that’s something we got to make sure, we can’t let that happen because the league we play in is so good that we can’t really get in those habits.”
In terms of balance, Baker had his finest game of the season. Coming off a 6-turnover performance, he bounced back with a team-high 19 points and 11 assists to earn his first career double-double.
“Just preparation, honestly,” Baker said on how he achieved it. “The last game we played, we didn’t come in very focused. We were lackadaisical and that’s not Rutgers basketball and Coach really stressed that to us that we got to come in and be prepared and I just tried to bring that today and I think everyone brought it today, to be honest.”
The win improves the Scarlet Knights to 8-3 on the season. They return to action Tuesday night against Fordham before hosting in-state rivals Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic next Saturday.
Fonseca Four Observations:
1) Rutgers needs this level of guard play against top competition
The Ringer dot com’s Mark Titus mentions this constantly on One Shining Podcast, but it’s a cliche I subscribe to — defense and guard play win championships in college basketball. I’d add rebounding to that list, personally.
The Scarlet Knights are not in the hunt for a title (at least not anytime soon), but the same can be applied when competing against high-level competition. They smash the test when it comes to defense and rebounding, but the guard play has lacked in their biggest tests. Corey Sanders, Mike Williams and Geo Baker combined for 25, 25 and 30 points in losses to then-No. 3 Michigan State, then-No. 12 Minnesota and soon-to-be-ranked Florida State, respectively. In those three games, Rutgers guards had a total of 23 assists.
The trio smashed those numbers Saturday night. They combined for 55 points and 14 assists against Fairleigh-Dickinson.
“It’s crucial. It makes coaches happy … we’ve been waiting for a game like this. Corey’s had great nights, Mike (Williams) had great nights, Geo’s had great nights, Issa (Thiam) had a couple of them too and tonight we had a couple of guys playing well at the same time and that bodes well. Anytime the ball is going in like that and you’re sharing the game, it’s a good thing.”
The Scarlet Knights next big challenge comes a week from Saturday against a likely ranked Seton Hall team in the Garden State Hardwood Classic. For Rutgers to steal a win against its in-state rivals and earn its first victory over a high-major program this season, the guards need a similar performance to the one they put up tonight.
And of course, rebounding. It wouldn’t be a Steve Pikiell team if the guards didn’t rebound well, and they did against FDU — 11 between Baker, Williams and Sanders, and 20 if you count Thiam as a guard.
“They rebounded, too,” Pikiell said. “Our guards rebound if you look at their numbers. That’s something we didn’t do the other night (against NJIT).”
2) Rutgers finally gets a break
Saturday’s showdown with FDU marked the fourth game in seven days for the Scarlet Knights, a brutal stretch of competition made worse by half of it coming against top-15 competition.
A dominant win over FDU earned Rutgers a day off on Sunday, per Pikiell, before they begin preparations for Fordham on Tuesday.
“You’re always worried about (players minutes) because we’ve jammed a lot of games here,” Pikiell said. “You’re always concerned and, like I said, we kind of got through a tough period here. Plus, we’ve got finals, it’s the last week of school too. So, we’ve got some academic hurdles too that we have to go through. So, you’re always kind of eyeing it but they’ve got to get through some tough times now. This is the grind of the season.”
It’s the hardest stretch the freshmen faced in their short college careers. It certainly didn’t seem to affect Baker, however, who finished with his first career double-double.
“It’s tough but when you love basketball like we do, you find a way to get through it,” Baker said. “I think we’re all finding a way to fight through this right now.”
3) Issa Thiam had a sneaky good game
The sophomore guard nearly put up a double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds, including a 3-for-4 clip from three. It was just his second double-digit scoring night against Division I opposition of the season.
In order for Rutgers to go over the hump and upset a team like it’s come so close to doing over the past two seasons, the Scarlet Knights need someone to get hot from three. Thiam showed he can be that guy tonight — he just needs more confidence to let it fly when he gets open looks.
4) Mamadou Doucoure’s foul troubles persist
Despite Rutgers leading by at least 20 points for the final 25 minutes of play, center Mamadou Doucoure once again found himself in foul trouble with four in just 14 minutes of action. The freshman fouled out in two straight games against Michigan State and Minnesota, and committed four against East Carolina and Florida State.
The Scarlet Knights do not have much frontcourt depth behind him, so it’s an area the young center needs to improve in — and fast. If not, we can see Shaquille Doorson defending Angel Delgado for long stretches on Saturday. While Doorson is a great kid who fought hard to return to the court from a foot injury, that matchup may cause Pikiell to lose sleep if he thinks about it too much.
“It caught me off guard, a little stinger. I didn’t even know what happened but I know I got hit. I didn’t know if he did it on purpose or not, but I got hit … my grandma was the first (to check in). I checked my phone after the game and she was like ‘oh, did he hit you in the face?’ She’s very protective. But you know, just a little error and continue to fight through it.” — Corey Sanders on getting punched in the face by an FDU player, leading to a flagrant two and ejection.
Corey Sanders getting punched in the face. That's... not a basketball play pic.twitter.com/DGzojZ9uO9— Griffin Whitmer (@GriffinWhitmer) December 10, 2017
“Both of them have really figured it out. They’re keeping their game simple. I think they’re playing to their strengths. They’re doing a real good job. I can move them both around and I think we’re getting more comfortable with both of them playing on the ball and off the ball. They do a good job together and I look forward to that continuing. I thought all our guards tonight, I thought Issa was terrific too, I thought Mike was locked in. He was getting to the free throw line too. I think all of them are starting to gel a bit together which is a good sign for us moving forward.” -- Steve Pikiell on starting guards Corey Sanders and Geo Baker’s chemistry
"For a young kid, he has great floor vision and poise. He has a great feel for the game, and the ability to score. Some players have one or the other, he's got a really good feel for the game and can score. The players around him know where he is and he knows where they are. It is a great combination. As a freshman, he's playing with a nice cast and extreme confidence. He's a good player with a really bright future." — FDU head coach Greg Herenda on Geo Baker.