It’s a new beginning for the Rutgers men’s basketball team and it showed on the court Friday night at the RAC. Third year head coach Steve Pikiell finally has a roster comprised of his own recruits except for one player and the difference was on display in the season opener. After struggling the first ten minutes or so of the first half, Rutgers exploded with a flurry of three-pointers and a much improved offense overall. It turned a one point deficit with seven minutes left in the opening frame into a 10 point lead at the half. Rutgers made 7 of 13 shots from behind the arc in the first half and finished an incredible 12 of 20 from three-point range in the game, as six different players connected from behind the arc. The Scarlet Knights never let the game get close the rest of the night and cruised for a resounding 90-55 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson.
It took Rutgers some time to find their way on offense. They fell behind 7-2, before going on a 9-0 run. However, FDU responded with their very own 9-0 run to lead 16-11 with 12+ Minutes left in the first half. At this point, RU was just 4 of 15 from the field and it seemed eerily familiar to last year. On the flip side, FDU started 7 of 13 from the floor for 54%.
Rutgers then woke up and finished the first half shooting 13 of 21 from the floor. Geo Baker was quiet for a large portion of the opening frame, focused on getting his teammates involved. However, he picked his spot late in the first half, hitting back to back three-pointers, including the second one from almost 30 feet out at the top of the key. He then found Peter Kiss open on the wing, who knocked down his own three and Rutgers had its largest lead of the game at the point, up 34-27. The Scarlet Knights finished the half on a 9-6 run as Ron Harper Jr. scored 5 points and the home team led 43-33 at the break.
FDU was hanging around for the first 8 or so minutes in the second half, trailing 53-42 when Rutgers exploded from deep again. It spurred a massive 25-2 run to put the visiting Knights away for good, as they led 78-44 with just under six minutes to play in the game. Rutgers simply had too many weapons on offense to contain. Let me repeat, Rutgers was too much to handle on the offensive end and had an extremely balanced attack in game one of the new season. They outscored FDU 47-22 in the second half.
Six players scored in double figures, led by guard Peter Kiss, who was an efficient 7 of 9 from the field for a team high 17 points. He showcased his versatility with his athleticism in getting to the rim, while also showing his ability to knock down shots from deep, making 3 of 4 attempts from three-point range.
Forward Eugene Omoruyi, who Pikiell called the most improved player on the team for a second consecutive year, put forth a complete effort, producing a double-double to start his season. The junior finished with 14 points on 6 of 12 shooting, as well as 10 rebounds and 4 assists.
Two freshman making their debuts made an impact as well, as Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis showed their ability on the offensive end. Harper Jr. finished with 15 points on 7 of 8 shooting and grabbed 5 rebounds off the bench. It was a sparkling debut for the former Don Bosco Prep star.
Mathis looked nervous at the start of the game and struggled from the free throw line, but settled in as the night wore on. He finished with 10 points, 5 boards, and 2 assists but struggled shooting overall, making just 3 of 11 shots from the field and 3 of 7 from the line. However, his potential is enormous and I expect he will keep getting better with more game experience at this level.
Rounding out the top scorers, Issa Thiam had 11 points and was 3 of 4 from three-point range, while Geo Baker scored 10 points and dished out 7 assists. It’s clear that Baker isn’t a true point guard, but he is taking his role seriously and it was encouraging that he made an effort to get his teammates involved. Baker also only committed 2 turnovers in 32 minutes of action.
Overall, Rutgers made 35 of 65 shots from the floor for 54%, including an incredible 12 of 20 from three-point range. I will look it up later, but I’m confident in saying Rutgers didn’t have as strong a night from deep all season as they did in tonight’s season opener. It was so encouraging to see this team play with an offensive flow and share the basketball. It was beautiful, really. As a team they fished out 22 assists on 35 made field goals. Granted, they were playing an overmatched opponent that they should have dominated, but too many times in recent seasons we have seen Rutgers struggle in these types of games. Despite having so many new players see action, this team really played well together.
Rutgers held a 43-36 edge on the glass, 15-9 advantage on second chance points, a 10 point edge in points in the paint and an 18-11 advantage in fast break points. Defensively, they swatted 12 blocked shots, including three each from Shaq Doorson (4 points, 6 rebounds) and Myles Johnson (4 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists). Baker, Harper Jr. and Mamadou Doucoure also blocked two each, as FDU shot just 37% from the field in the game.
It was an impressive debut for the third edition of the Steve Pikiell era. Rutgers looked much improved on the offensive end and was truly fun to watch play together. They will need to put this game behind them and get ready for a Sunday matinee against Drexel in less than 48 hours. This victory is a great start to the season but there is plenty of work to be done. However, it’s an exciting thought pondering the potential that this core group of players that Pikiell has brought to Rutgers has, both this season and beyond.
To read Dave White’s four thoughts on the game, click here.