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Worst Performance Of Season Leaves Rutgers At Crossroads

Who are these Scarlet Knights? They’re trying to figure that out themselves.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

PISCATAWAY — The state of Indiana went undefeated at the Rutgers Athletic Center this weekend.

Two days after coming up just short of the greatest upset in program history against No. 3 Purdue on Saturday, Rutgers fell 65-43 to Indiana on Monday night.

The games were very different in the way they worked out. While the Purdue contest was a back-and-forth offensive affair, the Scarlet Knights found themselves in their element against the Hoosiers — a traditional Big Ten rockfight.

But despite playing their preferred style of game on their own home floor, Rutgers was completely dominated. The Scarlet Knights finished at 24 percent shooting from the floor, their worst mark of the season and just marginally better than their horrendous 21 percent clip in the first half.

The loss is Rutgers’ fifth straight, leaving it needing four wins in its final five regular season games to guarantee a .500 record. The task is tall, but Pikiell’s message to the team at this point in the season is clear.

“There’s a ton of season left,” said senior captain Jake Dadika. “It’s not over, we have to keep fighting.”

Fonseca’s Four:

1) Worst Night At The RAC All Season

No matter how you slice it, Monday night was Rutgers worst home performance of the season — worse than Stony Brook, worse than Hartford, worse than Nebraska. Those losses, while devastating, came down to the wire.

On Monday night, Indiana flat-out dominated the Scarlet Knights on both sides of the floor. The game was over midway through the second half, the final 10 minutes played more out of obligation than anything else. They were outrebounded, outhustled and outplayed.

“Not proud of the way we played today,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Didn’t come out with the energy that we had the other night. ... Got off to that bad start, never really could recover ... it’s on me as a coach ... just not a great game for Rutgers. We have to get better.”

Rutgers looked slow, sluggish and completely out-of-it for almost the entire game, but they weren’t alone. The crowd was absolutely dead for most of the night, aside from a minute or so in the early going of the first half. Much of the 4,360 in attendance were wearing Indiana crimson rather than Rutgers scarlet, and those that were didn’t make their voices heard.

Of course, the team on the floor didn’t give them much to cheer about, but the juxtaposition between the sold-out crowd of 8,325 who nearly blew the roof off the RAC Saturday night and what happened on Monday had to be noted.

The Scarlet Knights had a single day to prepare, but so did the Hoosiers, who had to travel as well. If there is no excuse for them, it’s not an excuse for Rutgers.

“The one thing is, you can’t make excuses, you know what I mean?,” said Indiana head coach Archie Miller. “You can’t use turnarounds and things like that as excuses. You have to be ready. When the ball is tipped, the most ready team usually has a good chance to get off to a good start and tonight, I thought we were ready.”

There are always going to be backwards steps taken in the process of a rebuild. Steve Pikiell will hope it doesn’t get any worse than this.

2) What is This Team?

There seems to be two different Rutgers men’s basketball teams roaming around this season. There are the Scarlet Knights who upset in-state rival Seton Hall at home and came very, very close to doing the same to Big Ten title favorites Purdue and Michigan State (twice). There is also the group who got dominated by Indiana, Illinois and two middle-of-the-pack American East teams in Hartford and Stony Brook.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle — Rutgers is not as bad as its worst and not as good as its best — but the nights where it hits either extreme are becoming too commonplace for comfort.

The Scarlet Knights have a mandated day off tomorrow, and Pikiell wants his team to use it to reflect on who they want to be.

“We’ve had a heck of a stretch here,” Pikiell said. “They need some time to be away from the gym and figure this out a little bit. Do we want to be the team that played Purdue the other night or do we want to be this team? Our seniors got to decide and we can be a really good team. I think we can beat anybody in this league but when we play the way we did today, that’s not who I want to be.”

Often times, the two are connected. Rutgers will usually follow up a great game like Purdue with a stinker like Indiana. It happened following Seton Hall (two straight losses to Hartford and Stony Brook), it happened after Michigan State (22-point home loss to Ohio State) and it even happened last year after nearly upsetting Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden (20-point home loss).

“We really have to get beyond that, too,” Pikiell said. “We’ve had some tough games and we haven’t followed those up with the right approach. I think some of it is youth and part of it is we have some guys out that are fighters. We really got to figure that out. We did that last year, too ... that’s on me as a coach. I got to get them ready to play every game.”

3) The Weirdest Line-Up Returns

The strangest line-up in recent Rutgers history made its debut against Nebraska and it returned for a sequel Wednesday night.

With the Scarlet Knights down 16-3 after seven minutes of play, Pikiell subbed out his entire starting line-up and put in Souf Mensah, Jake Dadika, Matt Bullock, Candido Sa and Shaquille Doorson in their place.

“I think we just came in, we wanted a different look, maybe bring some energy,” Dadika said. “That’s what we tried to do. Go out there, play hard on defense, bring some energy, try to put the ball in the basket, get the RAC going a little bit, more lively so the starters can come back in and feel that energy and get rolling off of it.”

The results were mixed. Most of the group was subbed out after three minutes, with each team scoring three points in the stretch. The basket scored by the Scarlet Knights was easily their highlight of the night.

Dadika had the ball on the perimeter with the shot clock winding down. He took a look up at the basket and let it fly — and it hit nothing but net.

“I was kind of stuck in a tough position. I saw one on the shot clock and just threw it up. It actually felt good (coming off my hand), which is weird. I was like ‘that might go in’ and it went in and I was a little shocked but I was ready to get back on defense. No time to celebrate.”

The group combined for five points in 60 total minutes on the floor between them.

4) Bad Shooting Teams Are Lighting Up The Scarlet Knights

Rutgers is letting some of the worst shooting teams in the conference have a field day from the perimeter against it.

Illinois, the worst outside shooting team in the Big Ten with a 31 percent average from three, lit up the Scarlet Knight in Champaign. The Illini hit 11 three-pointers on 27 attempts, good for 40 percent from beyond the arc.

It happened again on Monday with Indiana which entered the RAC averaging 31.4 percent from three, the fourth worst clip in the conference, just .4 worse than their hosts.

They finished 9-for-20 on the night, good for 45 percent.

“We’ve had a couple teams now that don’t really do that and have had great nights like that and that’s not who they are,” Pikiell said. “In all fairness to them they had some good looks. Once you make the first few, and the two guys we were most concerned with were the guys that got us, but once you get off to a good start like that the baskets a lot bigger.”