How has the ride been so far for you this season? Make no doubt, the Rutgers men’s basketball team has produced some exhilarating but also extremely frustrating moments so far this season. However, there has been more good than bad and Thursday’s win over Michigan State was a dominant effort over an opponent the program had never defeated previously. Yes, the Spartans played its first game in 20 days, but that doesn’t diminish the complete performance the Scarlet Knights delivered.
Strong starts to games have been the catalyst for Rutgers in breaking out of a five game losing streak that bottomed out last week in a seven point loss at Penn State. They’ve responded with back to back wins and jumped out to a 15-8 lead against Indiana on Sunday and a 15-0 lead over Michigan State on Thursday.
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said after Thursday’s victory, “When you play the Indiana’s and the Michigan State’s of the world, it says a lot about our guys. Our guys did a really good job, and we were getting off to some tough starts. Last time we played Michigan State, it was 11-2. So important to start these games, it’s a league that has obstacles every team you play and if you start spotting teams eight, nine, ten points, it’s really hard to catch up. So our guys kept plugging, they believe in each other.”
The changes that Pikiell made the past two games by inserting Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy into the starting lineup has helped Rutgers to get off to fast starts. However, it’s also been key that Jacob Young and Montez Mathis have produced when coming off the bench for the first time this season. They combined for 18 points in the win over Michigan State and shot a combined 4 of 5 from three-point range on a night the rest of the team was just 1 of 14 from deep.
“I loved our bench today. Those guys came off, I thought Montez (Mathis) was fantastic, Jacob Young does the things he does, Cliff (Omoruyi) gave us some good physicality. We didn’t have him last time we played them, and the starters really were connected. Great team win and great to get off to a good start. It really helps you as you roll into these tough games.”
It was especially good to see Mathis play well after logging just 3 minutes against Indiana that capped a slump that started when the losing streak began.
“Tez who obviously didn’t play a lot against Indiana, he was the happiest guy on the team that he won that game,” Baker said. “Then he comes back in practice and is playing the hardest of anyone so he can get back on the floor. That’s the type of team that we are.”
Putting the ball back into Baker’s hands has been another major factor in the turnaround, as has the dominant play inside of Myles Johnson. However, something less obvious has been the leadership that two players who have been in the program the longest are providing.
“Those two guys have been through a lot here,” said Pikiell. “They came in together, they are roommates, they’ve been a big part of us changing the narrative. We got a long way to go in this league always. You can go on winning and losing streaks, but very difficult. Those two guys they’ve been through the most and they’ve seen the growth of the program. When those two are locked in the way that they were today, then it makes us a much harder team to play against.”
As for Baker, he made it clear that Rutgers was looking to redeem themselves after such a poor showing against Michigan State earlier this month. “We definitely wanted to come out and make a statement, and you know we didn’t forget how we lost to them earlier this year,” said Baker.
Legendary coach Tom Izzo made it clear after the game of what he thinks of Rutgers. He stated, “Give them credit. I think Steve (Pikiell) is one of the better coaches in this league. He did a good job with this team. He benched a couple of guys, he moved a couple around, and I think he’s got their attention. It wasn’t that long ago that this was a top-10, top-15 team in the country. It’s not a surprise that they played well.”
While the season was on the verge of spiraling out of control, Pikiell and the players have responded with back to back victories. They jumped to a NET ranking of 34 and a KenPom ranking of 28 after Thursday’s win over Michigan State. Another win on Sunday night at Northwestern, a team who has lost seven straight, would put Rutgers back at .500 in Big Ten play and keep them right in the middle of the standings.
Leadership and the willingness of accepting new roles has been key during this recent stretch. If this team sticks together and remains focused on playing for each other and remembers their defensive identity, then their best basketball is still to come.
It’s been a rocky road this past month, but when has being a Rutgers basketball fan ever been a joy ride? We are conditioned for more downs than ups, but after the past week, this team has given renewed hope that the ultimate goal of ending the 30 year NCAA Tournament drought is only weeks away.