PISCATAWAY — On Wednesday night, the dominatee became the dominator.
Three days after getting run out of its own building by Ohio State, Rutgers took its frustrations out on Iowa in a beat down in the battle of the Big Ten basement.
The Scarlet Knights crushed the Hawkeyes 80-64, a result which was never in doubt. Everything went the right way for the home side, who trailed for just a minute and a half through the entire contest.
Rutgers shot a scorching 53.7 percent from the floor, easily their best performance against conference opposition. Rutgers made as many field goals in the first six minutes of play (5) as it did in the entire first half against Ohio State.
The Scarlet Knights led by 14 at the half, a lead they expanded to as high as 23 points and that never dipped below double-digits throughout the final 20 minutes of play.
As far as bouncing back from a 22-point home loss, that’s as good as it gets.
“We’ve played a really tough schedule, so I told these guys to keep fighting,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “This was a tough stretch for us, and we were ready to play today. When we’re locked in like that, and we were locked in offensively and defensively, we showed that we have a chance to be a good team.”
Fonseca’s Four Observations
1) Issa Preview
Issa Thiam has long been the Scarlet Knight with the most potential.
The positive signs are there for the 6-foot-10 beanstalk, who shoots the lights out in shootaround and practice but often shies away from throwing up attempts during game action. He displayed glimpses throughout his freshman year and even more so through the first half of his sophomore campaign. But Wednesday night was the greatest display of the Senegal native’s skills in his college career.
Thiam lit up the Hawkeyes to the tune of 16 points on 55 percent shooting. The wing led all scorers at the half with 14 points on unconscious 4-for-6 shooting from deep. He even hit a pair of clutch free throws when the Hawkeyes turned the game into a hack-a-thon.
It was the kind of night Rutgers fans have been waiting for from Thiam, one he felt was coming when he walked into the RAC today.
“All day, I was feeling good,” Thiam said. “Today I came in and said ‘the team needs me. I have to come to win the game and wait to shoot the ball.’ I’m more confident now. I can’t wait to do it all again.
“Every day, (Coach Pikiell) is telling me ‘you have to wait to shoot. If you don’t wait to shoot, you’re not going to make it. Keep waiting, bend your knee down and wait to shoot the ball. And I do that all day in practice and in the game too. When I was open, I said ‘it was my day. I’m going to bang this ball.’”
The next step for him is developing consistency in being able to put up similar displays on a regular basis. If Thiam develops into a threat from deep night in and night out, he unlocks a whole other gear for the Scarlet Knights offense, one which would go a long way for the program as it continues the build.
Staying on the theme of young players displaying their potential, Geo Baker had a similarly phenomenal display against Iowa.
The freshman guard put up a comparable statline to Thiam — 17 points on 60 percent shooting with five assists and five rebounds — only he achieved his numbers in style. His statline a quarter of the way through the second half was especially nice.
It started with an alley-oop pass to Deshawn Freeman in the early going, a pass he followed up directly with a steal and score on the next possession.
Baker linked up with Freeman again a bit later in the first half, throwing a touchdown pass off a rebound that led to a stylish dunk from the senior forward.
His big first half earned him love from the past and future of the Rutgers backcourt.
Geo Baker is A problem!— Myles Mack (@Kingm4ck) January 18, 2018
Neither player had a career-high but it was arguably the best night of both of their careers. It was glimpse of what the near future of Rutgers basketball can hold. If the pair can build consistency and provide similar performances on a regular basis, it would go a long way in eliminating the Scarlet Knights offensive woes.
“He’s good, man. Geo’s my man,” Thiam said. “He came to me and said ‘today is my day.’ He told me ‘when you catch the ball, shoot.’ And I told him the same. Open, shoot. We will kill these guys because I’m a shooter, you’re a shooter.”
2) Spreading The Wealth
When it comes to winning against quality opposition this season, Rutgers needed big scoring nights from Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman. The duo combined for 34 and 38 points in wins over Seton Hall and Wisconsin, respectively, earlier in the year. Conversely, the pair had just 17 and 15 points in blowout losses to Purdue and Ohio State, respectively.
That’s what makes the Scarlet Knights dominant win over Iowa that much more impressive. Sanders and Freeman didn’t have bad nights by any stretch — each nearly had a double-double on the night — but Rutgers didn’t depend on them to create offense.
Issa Thiam and Geo Baker took the majority of the scoring burden with a combined 33 points on the night, leaving Sanders and Freeman to contribute in other areas. Sanders put on his facilitator cap on the night, dishing eight assists on the night while turning the ball over just once. Freeman got back to the boards, corralling eight rebounds against Iowa after collecting the same amount over his past four outings.
It proves there is life in this team with no Sanders or Freeman, something which seemed unlikely in the past when the pair struggled.
The tandem contributed 10 points in the final 1:24 of play, which pushed Sanders to a team-high 18 points on the night, but the game was already long decided before then. Sanders dunk did provide the perfect exclamation mark for the best offensive performance of the season for the Scarlet Knights.
“They kept opening up the lane at the end of the game,” Sanders said. “I don’t know why, but I just saw it part open like the Red Sea and I took off. I wanted (the defender) to jump, but he didn’t jump, but it’s fine. Easy two points for me and a great win.”
3) Matt Bullock Sighting
The first commit of the Steve Pikiell era returned to the court for the first time in more than a year on Wednesday night, and it wasn’t in garbage time. Bullock checked in for Issa Thiam with 8:25 remaining in the first half with the Scarlet Knights up 19-13 on the Hawkeyes.
It was the first time the Roselle Catholic product played in an official game since November 13th, 2016, against Drexel and the eight minutes he got were (mostly) meaningful.
His contributions didn’t make a difference on the statsheet as he finished with just 2 points and an assist — he hit nothing but net on a pull-up jumper, which got the loudest pop from the crowd all night — but the fact he was trusted to be on the court in meaningful minutes is achievement enough for the sophomore guard.
“It felt good when it came off my hand,” Bullock said of his bucket. “I had a feeling it was going to go in but it was last second (on the shot clock) so it was either I shoot it or get a turnover.”
It was a reward for the 4,002 fans who made the trek to the RAC on a cold midweek night, but also shows the lack of depth the Scarlet Knights have without the services of senior guard Mike Williams.
Rutgers managed well with Bullock on the court because Iowa is not a good team by any stretch of the imagination, but his usage could spell disaster if it comes against quality opposition — like their next opponent No. 23 Michigan, for example.
But before putting the cart before the horse when it comes to Bullock against the Wolverines, fans can appreciate the fact Rutgers crushed a conference opponent by 16 points in a game in which Bullock featured.
“All hands on deck,” Pikiell said. “I thought everyone that came into the game, Jake [Dadika] did a good job. Matt [Bullock] and everyone who had a chance to get into the basketball game really responded. I told them that they always need to be ready and you never know what the situation will be. I thought Matt was ready, but these guys really responded.”
4) This One Is For Mike
Mike Williams teammates knew his injury was bad as soon as it happened by the way he reacted.
“I saw it happen,” Sanders said. “The way he screamed, you know when something’s an “ahh” and when it’s an “AAAAHHHH.” It was one of those “AAAHHHH’s” and we really wrapped up practice, tried to stay safe. All our practices now, we’re all going hard but we’re trying to stay safe, stay away from the injuries. But that’s a hard loss for us. It’s hard to replace that type of emotion that he brings and the hustle and the passion. Everyone has to do a little bit more and step up for our brother.”
The injury came 10 minutes before the Scarlet Knights final practice ahead of hosting Ohio State, so there wasn’t much time for Pikiell and his staff to scheme without their captain.
Two days after the loss to the Buckeyes to adjust to his loss was all Pikiell needed to make it work.
“We had two days to prepare,” Pikiell said. “We just tried some different things with some different lineups. I told these guys that you have to step up. [Mike] averaged 10 points per game just about, and he rebounds, has assists and he defended like crazy. Geo and Corey were both locked in on the defensive end today and got great efforts. Issa [Thiam] got us off to a good start hitting some 3’s, so everybody really stepped in and obviously the couple of days really helped us prepare for a loss like that.”
The head coach is helped by the buy-in from his players, who each provided the little extra Pikiell asked of each of them.
“It’s a team effort,” Baker said. “When Mike’s out, other guys have to step up and the guys that were already playing have to do different things and we all tried to really step up, get rebounds, make hustle plays, play better defense … we did a really good job of helping Mike out.”
Above all, Williams’ absence is felt more in the intangible areas — hustle, energy, leadership. Sanders took it upon himself to attempt to pick up those pieces.
“I just try to bring everything I can to the team,” he said. “Playing defense, playing offense, giving somebody water, a rag, anything. And that’s something Mike would do, he would sacrifice his last for this team, I would too, so we’re just going to keep fighting.”
Quote Of The Day:
“Everybody played good because we came here today and say ‘We have to focus. We’re going to go, focus and do what we need to do.’ In the locker room, we do the same thing. Focus, everybody together, play with toughness and we come in the game and do we we have to do and get the win.” — Issa Thiam on the key to success over Iowa.