On Sunday, Rutgers went into their matchup against Indiana looking to break a five-game losing streak. Steve Pikiell decided to shake things up by using a new starting lineup.
Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell got the nod in place of Jacob Young and Montez Mathis. This lineup performed well as they led the Scarlet Knights to a 74-70 victory that gave them their fourth Big Ten win this season.
“I don’t put a whole lot of stock into starting and stuff,” Pikiell said on Tuesday during his news conference. “I think I have a lot of starters. I don’t really spend a lot of time [on it] and I don’t think it’s as important as everyone else thinks it is. It is just a matter of guys playing and getting us off to good starts and we hadn’t been getting off to good starts.”
Through the first 14 games of the season, Pikiell has experimented with many starting lineups — and it was not by choice. The Scarlet Knights have dealt with injuries all throughout the beginning of the schedule. Now that the team is healthy, Pikiell can mix and match any starting combination he likes.
Against Indiana, it was Mulcahy and McConnell. This was nothing new for Mulcahy. This was his eighth start of the season with many coming early on as he filled in for an injured Geo Baker. McConnell has played in six games since returning from a back injury. He has played an average of 19.5 minutes per game and is shooting 38.5% from three-point territory. Both players performed well combining for 16 points and five assists.
Young scored eight points off the bench while Mathis finds himself in a bit of a slump. Mathis scored double-digits in eight of the first nine games of the season. He has totaled just 20 points over the last five games, including a scoreless outing against the Hoosiers in just three minutes. As the season progresses, Mathis will be an important player for the Scarlet Knights.
“Everyone goes through these times of the year. Montez was great the other day too,” Pikiell said. “The game just didn’t play out that way. Other guys were playing really well so it had nothing to do with him. I trust him a ton. He’s a good player, played a lot of minutes, started a lot of games. He was the happiest guy in the locker room that we won. So he will be back today, he will have a great practice and we need a good Montez too moving forward.”
Myles Johnson took over as the starting center when Cliff Omoruyi went out with an injury. He has continued in that role with Omoruyi back in action. Both big men for Rutgers have performed well in each of the last two games. The Scarlet Knights have been more aggressive with Omoruyi back. This has provided a spark for the entire team but especially for Johnson.
Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker can be penciled in to the starting lineup moving forward. It would not be surprising to see Pikiell stick with the lineup we saw against Indiana — especially McConnell.
“Caleb can play a lot of positions, he is a really good defender,” Pikiell said. “He really moves without the ball and you saw his versatility in the [Indiana] game too. And he is starting to round into himself too. It takes a while when you almost had a year off from playing these kind of games. He is starting to round into better shape and more consistent.”
The Scarlet Knights will play two games in four days beginning on Thursday. Michigan State will travel to Piscataway before Rutgers travels to Evanston to take on Northwestern on Sunday afternoon.
There are 10 games left on their schedule before the Big Ten Tournament. The Scarlet Knights will have to take advantage of their remaining games to sweeten their NCAA Tournament resume. The starting lineup against the Spartans will not be announced until right before tip-off. No matter who is out there, they will have to step up.
“We changed it up a little bit and I thought everyone played better,” Pikiell said today. “Everybody chipped in. Everyone who checked into the game did something positive for us. That is what we need to do to continue moving forward.”