PISCATAWAY — That certainly was not the way Rutgers hoped to close out the season.
The Scarlet Knights suffered a 75-62 loss to Illinois Sunday in a game featuring sloppy play and plenty of fouls. But rather than dissect the game, I’m going to dedicate today’s four thoughts to each senior who saw the floor of the RAC for the final time today.
Before I do, two quick things that were really negative from Rutgers today — turnovers (16) and Geo Baker.
The freshman guard seemed to still be struggling from the illness that kept him out of the Scarlet Knights game against Ohio State last Tuesday. He did not score after going 0-for-5 from the floor and struggled mightily with his ball security, coughing up five turnovers in 21 minutes.
With three days until Rutgers starts its Big Ten Tournament campaign, the goal for Pikiell is clear.
“We’ve got to get healthy,” he said. “Corey has been having a little foot problem too, so we’ve got to give him a tip of the hat today for playing the minutes he did. He missed practice the other day. So we’ve got to get healthy, and these guys are good. We’ve got 40 minutes to get you 40, and we’re going to be there ready to play. These guys always play with energy, and the seniors are going to lead us. We’re going to Madison Square Garden, and 40 minutes gets us 40. That’s going to be our slogan, and we’re going to play. I’m very confident in that.”
Now, onto the seniors.
Four Thoughts On Four Seniors
1) Mike Williams Left It All Out There
A month ago, no one thought Mike Williams was even going to make it onto the floor for his Senior Day. But like he’s done throughout his four years in Piscataway, Williams fought as hard as he could to come back and his reward was a crowd of 7,000 giving him a standing ovation as he was introduced for the final time at the RAC.
“Everything,” Williams said when asked what Rutgers and its fan base means to him. “They stuck with me. First of all, I got to give credit to Coach (Eddie) Jordan and coach (Van) Macon. They saw something in me before when no one believed in me. I also give credit to the new coaching staff because ... even though I decided to come back, they gave me a chance to come back. They were excited for my return here. As far as the fans and the student section go, surreal moment. They welcomed me with open arms when I first came here and I’m just going to miss playing here.”
Williams scored 10 points, corralled five rebounds and dished two assists in his final outing on his home court. It marked the 49th time he reached double-digits in his career and pushed him past JR Inman for 34th all-time in the program’s scoring list.
All the while, he kept his emotions in check.
“I was trying not to get emotional because I don’t play good when I’m sad,” Williams said. “I just let it hit me later on when my last, last game hits. Right now, I have the opportunity to do something special here. Right now, in the tournament, everyone is 0-0 and ... this time in college basketball is the most exciting because anything can happen.”
The fourth and final Big Ten Tournament of Williams’ college career begins on Wednesday and takes place in a familiar place for the Brooklyn native. Depending on the result of Sunday night’s Northwestern - Iowa matchup, the Scarlet Knights take on either of Minnesota or Illinois at Madison Square Garden in Williams’ hometown of New York City.
The venue for the tournament served as a backdrop for his final season on the Banks, and the moment is finally here and it comes against an opponent Williams is itching for a chance of revenge against.
“It’s a homecoming for me,” he said. “Like I said before the season started, it’s ironic that my last year is going to be in my state. I think it’s all God’s plan because God knows I play good at the Garden so hopefully I’m able to play great on Wednesday and keep advancing … We can play two teams I want another crack at … pick your poison, but I want another crack at either of those teams.”
2) Deshawn Freeman Shines Before His Flame Burns Out
The senior forward was on a mission to thrive on his Senior Day. He started off a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the free throw line within the first 15 minutes of action.
Getting big on Senior Day. @Cant_Guard33 wasn't gonna let his last @RutgersMBB game at the RAC go by without at least one of these: pic.twitter.com/rNxKFx8R3v— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) February 25, 2018
But soon enough, the ticky-tack calls from the officiating crew caught up with him. Freeman picked up his third foul just over two minutes into the second half, forcing Pikiell to sit him for nearly four minutes. He lasted two minutes before picking up his fourth foul, prompting another four minutes on the bench. Three minutes after he checked back in, he picked up his fifth and final foul, ending his home career at the RAC by fouling out with 4:17 to play.
“Yeah, it hurt,” Freeman said. “Just got to move on from it … the worst way to go out.”
It put a dark mark on what was shaping up to be one of Freeman’s best performances and left the Scarlet Knights without a significant portion of their offense.
3) Jake Dadika Saves Best For Last
The senior walk-on knew he was starting in his final home game — he just didn’t know how much time he’d spend on the court.
The answer was surprising even to him. Dadika played a career-high 25 minutes against Illinois, becoming a trusted member of the rotation as Baker struggled to find a rhythm on either end.
“Honestly, no, I did not,” Dadika said when asked if he expected to play that much. “I knew I was starting, I expected to go out there and see how it goes. I went out there, tried to take care of the ball and play within myself and try to get the team going, get some stops on defense and see where they took me.”
Caught off guard, Dadika played well enough to earn praise from his head coach.
“Jake had no turnovers, and last time we turned the ball over alarming,” Pikiell said. “We needed more ball handlers, and Geo was not quite back yet. We needed more ball handling and Jake’s been really good and trustworthy, and did a really nice job for us today.”
The result was far from what he hoped out of his last game at the RAC, but the day was a memorable one nonetheless.
“It was exciting,” Dadika said. “You got the nerves a little bit, of course, since I never started a college game in my career but I was definitely ready to go. Everyone was so excited for me, the whole team. It was an exciting day to come out and do that. The crowd was there, everyone showed out, which was awesome. Thanks to the fans. It was an exciting, awesome feeling to get out there, get things started off right.”
Normally used as a ball mover on offense, Dadika found space within Illinois’ pack-line defense to attack the rim and put up a career-high four shots on the day. He made one of them and finished with two points on the day.
“I definitely passed up a couple (shots) in the first half, I was told, and I did feel a little more comfortable (as the game went on),” Dadika said. “With the (pack-line) defense they play, sometimes you get the lane so I got in the lane and decided to put some up and get it up on the rim as Coach always says. Even if you miss, you got to rebound but with that defense, it’s tough to pass in the interior. You just got to get in there and put it on the rim and let the beasts Deshawn and Duke and them get the rebounds.”
His career as a Scarlet Knight is reaching its end, a sentiment Dadika didn’t quite grasp until the final horn blew.
“I think it hit me during the alma mater,” Dadika said. “You don’t realize until you’re sitting there and it’s like ‘wow, I’m never going to be standing on this floor hearing this song again. It’s definitely something.”
4) Candido Sa Got Unlucky
It’d be difficult to find a more unlucky person than Candido Sa.
The forward, who never missed a game during his two year stretch on the Banks, was unable to participate on Senior Day due to a shoulder injury he sustained on the final play of practice the day before.
“Candido, this game on senior night was the first game he’s missed with a shoulder injury,” Pikiell said. “The last play of practice yesterday he hurt his shoulder. We missed him tonight, and he would have given us a bit of a lift, especially after the foul trouble we were in.”
Being down a big man, especially one who can guard the perimeter when facing stretch-fours like Illinois’ Michael Finke, in a game that was filled with 47 fouls proved a difficult task for the Scarlet Knights to overcome.
“Candido is our other four-man, and we wanted to play their small team so we really needed him to give Deshawn a blow and at times Eugene needed a blow,” Pikiell said. “It was just a difficult game in that they play a different style so it was very taxing. Having Deshawn and other guys in foul trouble like Issa hurt our rotation. Candido has been a real rock coming off the bench for us. He can play the four and the five so he’s a bit of a different defender, so that hurt us too… they got into lane too and they had some pick-and-pop fours and fives that step out, so sometimes that’s harder for our true fives to guard. That’s where Deshawn and Eugene and Candido are kind of hybrids, they can guard those guys on the perimeter. That hurt us and they took advantage of it.”
In The Bonus:
Kudos to the fans, who showed up in a strong way for the final home game of the season. The seniors honored on Sunday fought through really tough times as members of this program and earned the strong cheers they received throughout the afternoon.
“I’m thankful that (the fans) came out, and these guys deserve that,” Pikiell said. “They’ve worked hard. I took over the job two years ago and they didn’t know me from anyone. There are guys that have chosen to leave and go different routes, but these guys have stuck with us and the rise of this program is because of the work that they’ve done. We took over a team that won seven games, and now we’re in every game just about. These guys have done immense work over the years and I’m proud of them.”