It’s no secret that the Scarlet Knights are struggling lately. Rutgers has gone 2-6 down the stretch, but they are still the same group of players that were 8-4 in the Big Ten with ranked wins over Purdue and Indiana. It’s vitally important that Rutgers figures out how to be that team again ahead of their Big Ten Tournament match against Michigan.
“We’ll find that (spark) again. That’s what we have to do,” head coach Steve Pikiell said in his postgame press conference.
But how exactly can the Scarlet Knights get back to early-season form?
Most fans’ first thoughts go to Derek Simpson and understandably so. The freshman guard saved Rutgers against Penn State and has been a bigger factor of late. Despite getting more time recently, Simpson’s certainly played fewer minutes than guys like Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell over the course of the season.
The importance of this is often overlooked, but the Big Ten is a 20-game grind, and having fresh legs late can be huge for a team at this point in the season. With the wear and tear these players' bodies go through over the course of the year, fatigue can be a major issue in March. Derek Simpson isn’t worn down the way most guys are right now, and having his energy on the floor might lead to more success for the Scarlet Knights.
Getting Simpson more minutes will also allow Pikiell to rest those guys who are worn down after the long year. Caleb McConnell played 39 minutes last night despite not being able to practice the day before due to injury. Paul Mulcahy has battled a few injuries this season as well, and could probably benefit from some added rest. As good as these guys are, getting them a few extra minutes of rest each night will benefit the team more than having them on the court for 35+ minutes down the stretch. They’ll be able to play better and compete harder if they’re not as worn down.
The Scarlet Knights also need to regain some of that confidence and swagger they had early in the season. Caleb McConnell even said that the team is “going through mental stuff that [they] didn’t go through early in the year” and it’s certainly hard not to with a tough stretch like the one Rutgers is in the midst of.
Rutgers doesn’t play again until Thursday meaning they likely leave for Chicago on Wednesday. If I was Steve Pikiell, I wouldn’t have the team practice today or tomorrow. Let them get away from the court and have some fun together, maybe do something like paintball as a team. At this point drilling these guys isn’t going to help. The postseason is like a test you can’t cram for, so there’s no use overstudying now. Let the players use the next few days to rest, have fun, and get their minds right for Thursday.
To go along with that last part, the team needs a mental reset. The regular season is over, it’s behind them, and now a new season begins. Their record doesn't matter anymore, now it’s just the Big Ten tournament. The beauty of college basketball—and especially tournament play— is that anyone can win on any given night, and that needs to be the mindset of this team right now.
In 2018, Rutgers finished dead last in the conference for the 4th straight year. It would’ve been easy for them to just roll over in the Big Ten Tournament, but that’s not what they did. That team went out and competed their tails off, knocking off Minnesota, Indiana, and almost Purdue in the process. If that Rutgers team can do it, then so can this one.
The Scarlet Knights know what’s at stake, a loss and they’re all but invited to the NIT, but the season’s not over yet. This team isn’t going to give up now. The last few weeks have been rough, but they don’t define this Rutgers squad. They have the talent, toughness, and heart to win a few more games this season, all they need is the spark that can ignite the flame.