Rutgers opened the 2020-2021 season with a commanding 86-63 victory over Sacred Heart on Wednesday night in front of no fans at the RAC due to COVID-19. The most important thing is basketball is back, no matter how strange conditions.
Head coach Steve Pikiell’s opening comments in the postgame press conference brought that reality to the forefront. He said, “I’m real thankful for Sacred Heart, Coach (Anthony) Latina for going through all the protocols to play this game today, they were awesome. I wanna really thank our medical team, Doctor Bershad, Doctor Womack, Rich Campbell, Pat Hobbs for all that went into playing a basketball game today. They did an awesome job and I’m very thankful for our guys, all the sacrifices that they made so that we could tip the ball off today.”
As for how Rutgers played, Pikiell explained “I think you saw a team that hasn’t played a lot with referees, you saw a team that hasn’t played against other opponents today, but we do some good things. We really shared the ball, we rebounded, our defense not good, but at times stifling. We need to get better in so many ways, but it was nice to just get up and down the court and play some basketball against some other people. I know our kids were really excited and we got two more games in the next few days, so we gotta rest and obviously hope Geo is okay. We will keep getting through these obstacles.”
Ron Harper Jr., who led Rutgers with a game high 18 points and 10 rebounds, discussed the mindset of the team at the start of the season. “I think we’re just happy to compete again. Playing in the games is a lot like scrimmaging each other in practice,” Harper said. “We have to bring our own energy and I think our bench and our coaches did a great job of that and especially the players on the floor. You are hearing dudes talking out there and going up and down the floor competing. We had something taken away from us last March and we are going to take that out on every opponent we face between those lines.”
While there are two more games scheduled before this week end’s, there were plenty of storylines that emerged from the season opener.
Geo Baker Injury
The All-Big Ten guard and unquestioned leader of the team played less than 10 minutes before leaving the game with an injury to his ankle. He finished with just 1 point, 1 assist, 1 rebound and 1 blocked shot.
As for how severe the injury that Baker suffered was, Pikiell said “I really can’t tell much; he’s got a bad ankle sprain, that is all I know right now. Rich (Campbell) is the best, we will see what Rich can do and Geo will get a ton of treatment tomorrow and we will have to figure it out then.”
In regard to how the team will step up with Baker potentially out for an extended period, Pikiell said, “You need to be deep. Ankle sprains happen, guys get injured, guys get sick. We hate to have any player out, especially Geo. Guys have an opportunity now, and hopefully they’ll continue to take advantage and when he comes back we’ll even be better.”
Harper Jr echoed that sentiment, stating “He is a big part of the team. But we always just have to pick up where our brother left off. It’s next man up now we just got to do it for him until he is healthy.”
It seems unlikely that Baker will be available for Friday’s game against FDU or Sunday’s contest against Hofstra. As of now, Rutgers doesn’t have any games scheduled next week and won’t play again until hosting Syracuse on December 8 (ESPN2 at 9:30 p.m.) as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That is likely going to be the most important non-conference game that Rutgers plays, so hopefully Baker will be healthy enough to return for it.
Paul Mulcahy’s Development
The sophomore opened his entire tool box in the season opener, finishing with 15 points without missing a shot (7-7), while doling out 7 assists. Both were career highs and Mulcahy only turned it over once while added 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 32 minutes of action.
Pikiell said of Mulcahy: “Paul has been tremendous, he’s a worker, he devours film, he has a really good feel as you can see 7 assists, 1 turnover today too. He has worked on his jump shot all summer long, he had a really good offseason. I thought he, Montez, and Jacob Young had really good off seasons and you can see it, the results show the work that you did and he is really important because he is a guy that can play multiple positions and he has good toughness. Excited about him, he’s gotta get better too on the defensive end along with all the other guys and brings so much to our team.”
On his comfort level in the season opener, Mulcahy explained, “My teammates have been giving me a lot of confidence. They stay on me when I make mistakes. Especially Ron, he has been a real positive voice for me. I just watch a lot of film, all the time. That’s helped a lot. Working with the coaches too. I still have a long way to go, but it feels a lot different this year.”
Mulcahy’s development was critical for Rutgers to take a step forward this season regardless, but with the possibility this team could be without Baker for multiple games make him even more important. The good news is on Wednesday, Mulcahy looked eager and ready to step up to play a major role this season.
Cliff Omoruyi Debut
The former top 50 recruit shined in becoming the first Rutgers freshman to produce a double-double in their collegiate debut since Gregory Echenique did it against Marist in 2008. He was a surprise starter over redshirt junior Myles Johnson, who also played well (10 points, 4 rebounds). Omoruyi finished with 14 points on a perfect 6 of 6 from the floor, as well as 11 rebounds and 1 steal in 22 minutes of action. He established himself on the boards early and played within himself on offense, not forcing things and letting his explosiveness take over when those opportunities were presented.
“I just leave everything to my teammates because they make me feel comfortable to play,” Omoruyi said of his debut. “They push me in practice and everything shows in the game. They were passing the ball and I was rebounding. We all play as a team and we came together for the win.”
Pikiell was pleased with his heralded big man’s debut, stating “Obviously first game 14 and 11 that is awesome. I thought he was dominant rebounding the ball in the first half. Cliff is a worker; he is a great kid.” He continued, “I really like our five spot obviously, I like it a lot. He and Myles did not miss a field goal today so 11-11 from that position and obviously their presence blocking spots. I am not a big who starts, who doesn’t start fan, I think we have 7-8 guys that can easily start, and you already can see the obstacles we are dealing with Geo being down, so it is nice to have a bench. Really excited about how Cliff has been practicing, excited how he has been playing and along with Myles. Myles has been awesome, coming off the bench gives us another dimension too, so those two are going to play a lot of minutes.”
Omoruyi will face much more difficult frontcourt challenges in Big Ten play than he did in the season opener, but seeing him produce a dominant effort in his debut was a very encouraging sign for the future.
Statements regarding Social Justice Issues
Pikiell emphasized the importance of encouraging his players to be leaders off the court this offseason. Before the game, most of the players on the roster chose to kneel for the national anthem. In addition, Rutgers had a new black patch displayed on their uniforms for the season opener.
In regard to kneeling, Harper Jr. said, “The decision to kneel is a personal one. I know all of my teammates, coaches and the staff all respect our decision and all respect us in kneeling. We won’t look at anyone different if they don’t kneel. We are all a brotherhood here. It’s not an uncomfortable conversation for us to have. I said to everyone in a group chat that if you don’t feel comfortable kneeling, I respect that and am ok with that. We are a team at the end of the day. We respect each other’s decisions.”
Pikiell has spoken this offseason about his support for his players outspokenness on racial justice and other social issues. On the decision to kneel, Pikiell said, “Our kids make personal choices and decisions. We are really good with those things. We support our players, and we are trying to bring people together here. That was a personal choice by each guy on the team how they felt. I respect the personal choices that they make and I wanna stand by my guys. I think that was important.”
Harper Jr. explained regarding the patch, “That’s something we put together. The coaches asked me about ideas and we all came together as a group. We decided to put this patch ‘Better Together” on our jerseys.”
Team chemistry has been a strength for this group the past couple of seasons. It appears this team is stronger than ever in their unity and they support each other with issues off the court, as well as teammates on the court.
Despite Rutgers shooting 60.6% from the floor in the victory, its best performance as a program since they shot 64.8% in a win over Central Connecticut State in 2016, it was an overwhelming amount of made baskets near the rim. The Scarlet Knights were just 1 of 8 from three-point range and were an awful 5 of 15 from the free throw line.
After the game, Pikiell address those issues by saying “We have struggled in that area, but we have good foul shooters. I think first time lights are on, we didn’t shoot it particularly well from three-point land and we have been shooting great in practice. I feel a lot better about our ability to shoot the ball.” He continued, “Obviously today there were a few areas that we did not do a great job in, but we rebounded and defended and that always gives you a chance to win a basketball game. We will continue to work on those things and some good foul shooters that normally make free throws and will be a work in progress.”
The only player to make a shot from behind the arc was Montez Mathis (1 of 4), while Omoruyi was the only player to make more than one free throw attempt (2 of 4). That has to get better for Rutgers to have long term success and it certainly can, but the first game was not a good shooting start to say the least.
The reality of playing during a global pandemic
It was a weird environment at the RAC without fans and the tension that now hangs over game days due to all the personnel that has to get tested for COVID-19 is a daunting feat just to even get to tip-off.
Pikiell touched on the situation, stating “Today was new, the whole thing was new, waiting for the other team to get tested, waiting for those results, playing in front of nobody, our guys are kinda figuring it out. They have to generate their own excitement, their own energy.”
He continued to elaborate, saying “I think some of our guys really like to play so it doesn’t matter if you are in an empty gym or in a full gym. You hope to get guys who just want to play basketball and I think our guys were ready to play someone else today. We will keep figuring out this environment and try to take advantage for what we can take advantage of, but I thought they were kind of locked in and pretty focused. I know they can hear me now when I am coaching them so I kinda like that part of it, but certainty very different and nothing I have ever experienced.”
In regard to not having fans, there were roughly 700 cutouts in the student section that supporters purchased and there was pumped-in artificial noise that gave off a strange Twin speaks vibe. Harper Jr. cut to the chase, explaining “The cutouts are weird. A bunch of cardboard cutouts staring at you, it’s different.”
Other safety precautions included portable bleachers that the players used while the actual bench was only used by coaches. The scorers table had plexiglass as well.
Harper Jr. admitted it took the players a few minutes into the game to adjust to the changes, but had a funny comment about reactions later in the game. “Luke Nathan was jumping off the bench at every TV timeout, waving his hands like we had a crowd.” Harper said of the walk-on center.
To their credit, the players seem mentally strong in handling the challenges and changes they are facing due to COVID-19. It’s important that they are able to do so throughout this season.