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Rutgers men’s basketball game preview no. 8 vs. Pittsburgh

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Two former Big East foes battle in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 20 Stephen F Austin at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rutgers (6-1) at Pittsburgh (6-2)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: Peterson Events Center (12,508) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Tip-off: Tuesday, December 3rd at 9:00 p.m. ET

Promotion: Big Ten/ACC Challenge

TV: ESPNU - Chris Cotter and Dan Bonner

Stream: ESPNWatch

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network (WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/SiriusXM 988; Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan); WRSU 88.7 FM (Troy DeSavino & Chris Tsakonas)

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers 70th; Pitt 74th; Rutgers moved up 8 spots since the win over UMass.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 103.5 (95th) Defense 92.8 (57th); PITT - 103.6 (92nd) Defense 93.2 (63rd)

KenPom Prediction: PITT 64 Rutgers 61; Rutgers has a 39% chance to win

Vegas Line: Pitt -3.5

Series History: Rutgers leads the series all-time 25-23, including a 67-62 victory in the last meeting on January 5th, 2013.

Pitt Scouting Report

Head coach Jeff Capel is in his second season for the Panthers, who have started the season with a 6-2 record. They’ve played a difficult non-conference schedule so far, having played four high major opponents already. Pitt has beaten Florida State, Kansas State, and Northwestern, while having lost to West Virginia. Their lone bad defeat was to Nicholls State (KenPom rank 228th), but also a team that took Illinois to overtime before losing.

They are a young team with their four best players being a freshman, two sophomores, and a junior, all of whom are based along the perimeter. 6’6” freshman guard Justin Champagnie leads the Panthers in points with 12.2 per game and rebounds with 5.8 per game. 6’4” sophomore Trey McGowens averages 11.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per contest. 6’2” junior Ryan Murphy is posting 11.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game, while 6’3” sophomore point guard Xavier Johnson averages 10.6 points, 4.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and is the most accurate three-point shooter so far this season at 39.1%.

Other contributors include 6’9” senior Eric Hamilton (6.0 points, 4.9 rebounds), 6’10” junior Terrell Brown (6.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) and 6’6” sophomore Au’Diese Toney (4.9 points, 4.5 rebounds).

As a team, Pitt is not shooting well this season, as they average just 41.1% from the floor, 25.3% from three-point range, and 70.3% from the free throw line. They are scoring just 65.1 points per game, but are allowing only 58.8 points per game. They are a young, scrappy team that plays hard but struggles offensively at times, especially with perimeter shooting. Sound familiar?

Injury Report

None reported.

Notes: As a team, Rutgers is shooting 48.2% from the floor, 29.1% from three-point range, and 65.9% from the free throw line......The Scarlet Knights are second in the Big Ten in blocks and 15th in Division I with 6.0 per game, second in the Big Ten in steals with 7.6 per game, third in forced turnovers at 15.7 per game and and is third in scoring defense with 59.9 per game.....They are also 25th nationally in rebounding margin at +8.9.....Fourth year Rutgers assistant Brandin Knight was an All-American guard at Pitt, following by a 10 year run as an assistant coach there......While Rutgers only has two players with a scoring average in double digits per game (Geo Baker 13.3 points; Ron Harper Jr. 13.1 points), there are seven players total averaging more than 7 points per contest (Akwasi Yeboah 9.3 points; Caleb McConnell 8.9 points; Myles Johnson 8.3 points; Jacob Young 7.7 points; Montez Mathis 7.3 points).

Keys To Victory

Fast Start

Rutgers needs to set the tone from the opening tip and take the game to Pitt. They’ve had slow starts a few times this season already and need to avoid falling behind by any significant margin. Playing from behind on the road is far different than doing it at home. They need to avoid settling for long, contested jumpers on offense and need to bring the intensity on the defensive end. Winning that first 4-5 minute segment of action leading up to the first TV timeout will be important for starting things off right. Repeat at the start of the second half as well.

Attack The Rim & Defend The Perimeter

The game plan should be similar to the past two contests, which Rutgers has been very efficient on both ends of the floor. On defense, utilize ball pressure on the guards and close out on shots from the perimeter, as well as using their length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes. Offensively, Rutgers has been most effective when using ball movement to attack the rim and work to find quality shots. Rutgers has more size and depth in the backcourt, which they need to use to their advantage to wear Pitt down throughout the game.

Opponents are shooting just 39.4% from two-point range against Pitt, which is 11th best in Division I. On the flip side, Rutgers is shooting an impressive 56.9% from two-point range, which is 20th best nationally. Whichever side has the upper hand in that area will help decide the outcome. Rutgers has been tough defending inside the arc as well, holding opponents to just 40.6%, which is 17th nationally. Pitt shoots 49.1% from two-point range, which is about average (165th). The Scarlet Knights need to be tough in the interior defensively and make Pitt work for every basket.

Crash the Boards

Pitt has the 28th best offensive rebounding rate in Division I so far this season at 35.9%, while Rutgers is 33rd at 35.3%. The difference is that opponents are grabbing offensive boards at a rate of 31.8% against Pitt, which ranks just 282nd nationally. On the other hand, RU is holding opponents to only 25.7% on the offensive glass, which ranks 72nd. If Rutgers can assert control on the boards, it will lead to second chance points offensively and limit the home side to one shot possessions.

Turnover Battle

Both teams are pretty good at forcing turnovers, as Rutgers is forcing opponents into a rate of 22.5% which is ranked 64th nationally, while Pitt is doing so at a rate of 22.7%, which is 57th. Offensively, Pitt has a turnover rate of 20.6% which is just 226th, while Rutgers is 145th at 19.0%. RU needs to take advantage of every possession and needs to be smart with the basketball. Any sustained period of sloppy play could lead to a game changing run by Pitt. Likewise, forcing the Panthers into mistakes and generating transition baskets is key to winning on the road. This has been an Achilles heel for Pitt this season and Rutgers needs to take advantage.

All Hands on Deck

Rutgers needs contributions from every player on the floor tonight. That doesn’t necessarily mean points from everyone, but scoring balance is a key. As important as a fast start is, the bench needs to provide energy and stick to the game plan as well once on the floor. Keep the ball moving and force Pitt to work hard on both ends of the floor. Playing together and keeping their composure in the first true road game of the season is so important as well. The frontcourt needs to hold steady and avoid foul trouble, while everyone who steps to the line needs to have enough poise to convert. Rutgers doesn’t need to play its best game to win, but they need to play well as a team to earn the victory. This is the biggest game of the season so far and they need to play like it is.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the eighth game of the season, I’m featuring Broken Bells (Danger Mouse & James Mercer) with their song The High Road. It’s about how wrong turns in life can lead to a higher road. Rutgers fell flat in its only game away from the RAC this season in Toronto against St. Bonaventure. The hope was that it served as a wake up call and the Scarlet Knights have played much better in the three games since. Now the competition ramps up, but Tuesday night’s game against Pitt is certainly a winnable one. I believe they are the better team and here is their chance to prove it.