There was no wading into the pool that is Big Ten play for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, as they were thrown directly into the deep end in the conference opener on the road against #12 Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have one of the best starting lineups in the country and they looked like it on Sunday night. Credit head coach Steve Pikiell and the coaching staff, as the Scarlet Knights played extremely hard on both ends of the floor and left it all on the court in their first game away from the RAC this season. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep it close against Minnesota, who won the game 89-67.
The biggest difference in this game was the inability of Rutgers to finish shots near the rim. That was the case many times last season as well, and it was true again Sunday night. Rutgers did a great job on the boards, holding a 14-4 edge on the offensive glass in the first half alone. The problem was that the Scarlet Knights simply couldn’t buy a bucket in the paint, making just 31% of its two-point shot attempts in the opening frame. Of course, they struggled from behind the arc as well, making just 2 of 11 (18%) in the first half. Despite the poor shooting, they were able to stay within six points of Minnesota for much of the first half. However, a sloppy final minute had them trailing 43-33 heading into the break.
The second half started with a flurry of made baskets from both teams, including two big buckets from Corey Sanders, who struggled with his shot in the first half (1-8). However, the Minnesota offense was relentless and after Rutgers had cut the lead to 56-48 with 12 minutes to play, spurted back out to a 12 point lead. The Scarlet Knights did ramp up the defense during this mid-2nd half stretch, as the Gophers fell into a shooting slump, making just 1 of 8 shots from the field. Still, Minnesota was able to keep Rutgers at bay, as there were several instances of the lead falling to 8 points, then immediately rising right back to 12.
Minnesota was able to build the lead even more after Corey Sanders was issued a technical foul for saying something near an official and Gopher star Nate Mason, who promptly hit all four free throw attempts, pushing the lead to 71-54 with with just over 7 minutes left in the game. It’s absolutely inexcusable for Sanders to make such a silly mistake. The positive from that incident is that Rutgers continued to fight, as Issa Thiam hit his second three-pointer of the game, followed by Geo Baker knocking down two free throw’s. Unfortunately, Rutgers wore down in the last four minutes of action and Minnesota finished the game on a 15-5 run to win going away, making the final score look less competitive than it was most of the night.
Minnesota guard Nate Mason had a game high 26 points, including 4 makes behind the arc, as well as 7 assists. Jordan Murphy was a monster inside, scoring 18 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. Reggie Lynch added 16 points, 9 boards, and 5 blocks.
An encouraging development in the loss was the play of freshman center Mamadou Doucoure, who played the best game of his college career in his Big Ten debut. He led the team with 13 points on 5 of 10 shooting from the floor and grabbed 9 rebounds, as well as 1 block. The fact that it came against such a strong frontcourt as Minnesota has, with Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Jordan Murphy and reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Reggie Lynch, made it all the more impressive. Doucoure is playing with poise and showing to be farther along on the offensive end than expected, as he made several jumpers in this game. He did end up fouling out late in the contest, something he needs to continue to work on.
The other freshman to start for Rutgers, Geo Baker, also played better than he did against Florida State last Tuesday. Baker scored 12 points and added 3 assists, as well as 3 blocked shots. While Baker did struggle from the floor, making just 3 of 11 shots from the field, including 1 of 6 from three-point range, he was 5 of 6 from the free throw line. He played within himself in his first road game and Big Ten contest of his career.
Eugene Omoruyi picked up right where he left off against Florida State, making three consecutive baskets near the rim keeping Rutgers in it in the first half after Freeman exited the game with two fouls early on. Minnesota adjusted quickly, double teaming him at times the rest of the way. On the night, Omoruyi finished with 11 points and 2 rebounds.
The veteran core of Deshawn Freeman, Corey Sanders and Mike Williams simply didn’t play well enough for Rutgers to have a real shot at winning this game. The unsettling part was seeing Freeman and Sanders becoming unglued emotionally at certain points. Freeman was frustrated by the refs, who certainly made some questionable calls, but he can’t let that affect his performance. Pikiell kept Sanders on the bench the rest of the game after he picked up the technical foul with 7:03 to play. Both played very hard in this game, but they have to show more poise, especially in conference play. Freeman finished with a second straight double-double, scoring 10 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. Sanders finished with 10 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds. Williams struggled again, scoring just 3 points and he only grabbed 1 rebound. He did add 3 assists. Overall, the trio combined to shoot just 9 of 37 from the floor. The bottom line is that Rutgers won’t win many Big Ten games if those three can’t produce on the offensive end.
After Rutgers held a +7 edge on the boards at the half, they ended up getting outrebounded by -3 margin for the game. That was a big difference in the second half, as the Gophers had another gear and were relentless on the glass. Rutgers scored zero second chance points in the second half, after having 10 in the opening frame. While both teams committed 14 turnovers, Minnesota had a 19-8 edge on points off of them. Overall, Minnesota shot 46% from the field, while Rutgers made just 32%. Rutgers took 13 more shots from the floor than Minnesota, but made 4 less.
The Scarlet Knights did have their second consecutive game of shooting well from the free throw line, making 14 of 18 for 78%.
While the final score is disappointing, let me reiterate that Minnesota is one of the best teams in the country, let alone the Big Ten. I think they have legitimate Final Four potential and thankfully, Rutgers doesn’t have to play them again in the regular season. While Rutgers struggled on both ends of the floor at times, they also played extremely hard and gave the Gophers a competitive game for most of the night. If Rutgers can play this hard against middle to bottom tier teams in Big Ten play this season, they will win their fair share and more than they have since joining the conference four seasons ago.
More importantly, this was the first of four games in a seven day stretch that is absolutely crucial to this season. It doesn’t get any easier for Rutgers, as they come home and need to regroup for #3 Michigan State (7-1), the prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten, on Tuesday night at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights will then host NJIT (5-3) on Thursday night, followed by Fairleigh Dickinson (3-5) visiting the RAC on Saturday night. Rutgers cannot allow for a letdown after playing the two best teams in the Big Ten once they then transition to playing against two local programs that should be expected to play them hard. One day a time though, as Rutgers needs to learn from this game and keep moving forward. There is real potential with this team, but until they can be more efficient on the offensive end, there will be losses like this against the top teams in the Big Ten.
To read postgame quotes from coach Pikiell and Brian's player ratings, click here.