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Rutgers basketball brings confidence and experience into Big Ten play

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The Scarlet Knights are undefeated and nationally ranked, but still have a lot to prove.

Syracuse v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

After a 4-0 start to the season, No. 21 Rutgers turns its attention to the start of Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights will open at Maryland on Monday, December 14 at 6 p.m., which comes six days after they defeated Syracuse in what was the biggest win of the season so far.

Head coach Steve Pikiell spoke on Friday about the current state of the team, saying “We had a little bit of a crazy week here academically, but now we will really put a good focus into our practices here and be prepared for Maryland. They won our league last year, you guys know that and you also know that we’ve never won at Maryland. So it’s a huge test here coming up in our first league game and I feel like we will be well prepared.”

Rutgers was picked to finish 5th in the Big Ten in the preseason media poll, but have a challenging start to conference play. In its first seven games, the Scarlet Knights face three teams picked ahead of them that are currently ranked in the top ten in the polls (Illinois, Iowa, at Michigan State), as well as Ohio State twice, who were picked seventh.

Monday’s opener comes a few days after Maryland, who were picked 10th, lost at Clemson by 16 points. It’s the first road game of the season for Rutgers, so they’ll need to adapt to all of the new travel protocols in place due to the global pandemic.

“I’ve never had more meetings over traveling,” said Pikiell. “We have to talk roommates, the bus driver getting tested for COVID, how we are going to eat since we can’t have a buffet. Spending a lot of time over just a regular road trip, but that is the world we live in, now just trying to keep everyone safe.”

As for the challenge with Big Ten play, Pikiell said “We are a work in progress and getting better. We are playing without two very experienced guys in Caleb (McConnell) and Geo (Baker). Those young guys are figuring it out. As we keep stepping up the competition, we have to do a better job on all ends of the floor.”

As for whether Baker will return for Monday’s game against Maryland, no determination has been made as of Friday’s call.

“Geo hasn’t practiced, but I’m hoping today he can do some things in practice,” said Pikiell. “We are hoping to find that out today, so we would like him to try it out a little bit and see where he is. He continued, “I mean he did a good job on this sprain, it was a high ankle sprain, not good. We will see how he is today. It’s real hard to get yourself ready in two days for Maryland, but I’m hoping he can get through some part of practice today. That would be a big step for us.”

Without Baker against Syracuse, the Scarlet Knights got contributions from all of its veterans in closing out the win on a 17-4 run. “Everyone chipped in”, Pikiell said after the victory. “Montez made a huge shot for us. Myles got an and one. Jacob made the free throws. We made some big defensive stops. Ron did what Ron does. It was a great team win.” Pikiell continued, “When you lose someone like Geo, who gets the ball at the end of games, we really believe we have lots of guys who want the ball. We had a lot of guys step up and make shots.”

Winning its one high profile non-conference game was important for postseason purposes as well as building confidence now that Big Ten play is set to begin.

Ron Harper Jr., who is off to a blistering start by averaging 22.3 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 60.3% from the field and 45.8% from three-point range, sounded very much like Pikiell on the challenge ahead after Tuesday’s win. He stated, “(The) Big Ten is the best the conference. It’s always a tough road. 20 hard fought games. Even if opponents aren’t ranked, they always have a chip on their shoulder. Rankings don’t mean anything in this conference. Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. We just have to attack each game with the same approach. We have to do a great job preparing and I think we’ll be ready for what comes down the road.”

Myles Johnson, who delivered his first double-double of the season against Syracuse (11 points, 12 rebounds) and is averaging 8.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks despite not having started a game, added “This is what we prepare for. This is why I’m here. Been waiting for it. Ready or not, its going to be here.”

Jacob Young was key in the win over Syracuse and has been terrific in the early going, averaging 16.0 points, 6.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.3 steals through four games. He made it clear that the team’s confidence is high heading into Big Ten play, simply saying “We’re ready.”

As far as handling expectations and entering the conference slate nationally ranked, Pikiell pointed to last season as a key learning experience.

“We were ranked last year and I think we learned a lot from that. We don’t bring it up much now. Rankings don’t help you win games”, Pikiell said. “I told our guys if you want to keep that ranking, you have to win. That’s what it’s about. Last year we had it and didn’t have it for very long. I don’t think the rankings ever define you.”

As for what is important now that the season ramps up with Big Ten play, Pikiell explained, “I think our guys have pretty good focus. I think they like each other and have good chemistry. We just have to get Geo back, get more healthy, keep killing the film, get better with the offensive and defensive things that we need to do. I think that’s more important than the rankings.”

As for the challenges that Big Ten play presents, Pikiell feels the team is ready.

“They have a good mindset and they’re excited about playing games. I think the experienced guys have helped the four younger guys in our rotation. They’re getting a feel for them”, he said. “Confidence has never been an issue. They know who they are. Those other guys really have to come along and figure out our defensive assignments and continue to work on areas they didn’t have to do as high school players. We are in good physical shape, Dave (Van Dyke) has done a good job with them.”

Pikiell continued, “We are entering a league that has challenges all over the place. Every team plays differently. We’ll go from Maryland’s style to Illinois’ style in a couple days to Ohio State’s. Three completely different styles and all very good teams. Our veterans are very important in navigating those challenges.”

“As much as you want to talk about the newcomers, our veteran guys have been around. It’s a different Rutgers (team),” said Pikiell.

As for the four freshman, Cliff Omoruyi, Oskar Palmquist, Mawot Mag, and Dean Reiber played over 30 minutes combined against Syracuse but none of them scored. While the talent and experience of the veteran core is strong, depth could be an issue once the grind of Big Ten play takes hold.

Pikiell discussed the challenge that this season has brought, stating “This isn’t a normal year for freshmen. The two exhibition games would have been huge for them but they didn’t get that luxury. We are figuring them out,” Pikiell said.

He continued, “I love our freshmen class, they are going to be really good. We have been challenging them. The last 80 minutes of basketball we’ve played against zone defenses. It’s usually one of the hardest things for young guys to figure out. (It’s) more about timing and knowing were to go. College zones are way more difficult (than high school). Cliff is going to be good. I loved Oskar’s minutes the other day. Everyone said he was 0 for 4 from three, but he played really good minutes. His assists, he rebounded the ball, his defense was 1000% better than it had been. He’ll be fine.”

Pikiell added, “They have a ways to go. They didn’t have an offseason. They’ll continue to get better.”

As for how to determine how much playing time they will get during conference play, Pikiell said, “We are ramping things right up. We used to have ten games to figure it out. The freshmen need to have success but also need to make mistakes and play through them. It’s a hard thing to navigate. It’s challenging for them and you have to keep working with them. When their minutes are called, they need to come in and do a good job.”

Pikiell explained it will depend on each opponent as to how much the freshmen will play in a particular game. He explained, “The number one thing for our team is we are trying to win games. It’s not always about how many minutes this guy plays or that guy plays. Sometimes its about matchups.” Pikiell continued, “Sometimes its about the strength a player brings to us like Mawot (Mag) can really guard the ball. If I’m having issues guarding the ball, Mawot can go in and play. Oskar can really shoot the ball. I know what his percentages are but I’ve seen him a year and a half. He can make shots. I feel confident using them in areas that they can help us with their strengths while we are working on developing things they don’t do as well.”

Getting the freshmen more minutes could also come if Rutgers adds more non-conference games to the schedule. They are able to add up to three more non-conference opponents during the regular season, but Pikiell explained the challenges with that. “If an opportunity arises and it’s a good thing for both of us and (we can) get them through all of our testing protocols, then we can do that.”

As for Pikiell’s focus regarding the schedule, it’s clear it’s on the Big Ten. “We are just hoping the games that are on the schedule right now can be played. I’m not so worried about (adding games). If there is a cancellation, (if we) can pickup another team on those dates, we’ll try and figure that out. We are 1000% challenged here in the next 20 games. If we can pick up a game or two here that makes sense and keep our guys safe, we’ll definitely consider it. Some teams have played zero games to date. We’ve played four and headed to five so that’s a blessing.”

While the possibility of playing Seton Hall this season is an intriguing potential matchup, it doesn’t seem likely. Although Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said again this week that he hopes to play Rutgers in January or February, it’s important to note that the Big East has yet to announce its conference schedule in those months. The only extended break during Big Ten play that Rutgers will have is between games vs. Wisconsin on January 15 at home and a road trip to Indiana on January 24. Whether Seton Hall has a similar break remains to be seen and even if they do, it’s unclear whether their earlier preference to play at a neutral site to preserve their home game originally scheduled for this season will remain an obstacle. Nothing is certain either way though, especially during a global pandemic when games can be scheduled or cancelled in a days notice this season.

As for now, Pikiell’s team is focused on the Big Ten road ahead. After the win over Syracuse, Pikiell said, “We’re going to play the fourth toughest schedule (as of now) in the country. We play in the best league. We are going to have multiple opportunities to play all kinds of good teams.”

As for the approach Rutgers will take into the Big ten schedule, Pikiell kept things simple. “We want to play hard, we want to win and we want to share the game,” he said. “We are doing those things and need to keep that mantra. We have to be humble and hungry. Those are the things we’ve talked a lot about and have done a good job with so far. We have to keep it that way.”

This team has high expectations for this season and fans should to. They haven’t played close to their full potential yet and have done so without their unquestioned leader in Geo Baker. There is enough talent on this team for Rutgers to finish in the top four of the Big Ten. Whether they do or not, as well as how far they can go in the postseason, will be determined by how they handle the many challenges that will come in the next few months. As conference play begins, fans should be as excited as ever about the road ahead.