Knights defeat three of first six conference foes
The Rutgers men’s basketball team is in rarified air, at least according to recent history, sitting
at 3-3 in conference play. If the season were to end today, the Scarlet Knights would own a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament.
But it does not end today, and the Scarlet Knights have 12 more games.
Fortunately for the Knights, only three of those opponents — Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette — sit above them in the standings.
And they have already shown they can stand against ranked opponents.
In their home conference opener, the Knights rebounded from a 25-point defeat at the hands of then-No. 7 Syracuse to defeat then-No. 24 Pittsburgh, despite watching a double-digit lead shrink to one point.
“When we were punched [against Syracuse], we blinked and backed up, and [against Pitt] we didn’t,” said head coach Mike Rice on Jan. 5. “The guys were great in the huddle. The guys were communicating and protecting each other, and that’s a step forward with this team.”
Since the Jan. 2 loss to the Orange, a theme has developed for Rutgers.
While it has held off late charges from its opponents in each of its three conference victories, it has also shown the lack of an ability to play from behind.
A 24-0 Syracuse run proved to be too much for the Knights while Cincinnati rode a lead that reached 18 points to victory.
In its latest loss, a 3-point defeat Saturday at then-No. 20 Notre Dame, Rutgers could not climb out of a 13-point hole.
Despite the three losses, Rice sees the difference in the team’s players.
“I know that I have a better team than I’ve had the last two years,” Rice said in a statement. “I know that I have some scoring ability, inside and out. I know we have to become more consistent in everything that we do.”
Possibly the biggest factor in the improvement of Rutgers’ conference play — it is only three wins shy of tying its record for Big East wins under Rice — is the emergence of sophomore point guard Jerome Seagears.
Seagears replaced classmate Eli Carter in the starting lineup against the Panthers after Carter committed what Rice called a violation of team rules.
“He was aggressive, he was a leader,” Rice said Jan. 5. “I thought he was tremendous defensively, tremendous in the huddles, and it also gives [sophomore guard] Myles [Mack] a chance to get off the ball and run more plays for Myles.”
The Knights have developed consistency in at least one respect: their performance at home. So far this season, they have lost only two games at the Louis Brown Athletic Center and only one home conference matchup.
Luckily for the Knights, they take on likely their two toughest opponents — Louisville on Feb. 6 and Marquette on March 5 — from the comfort of the RAC.
“If you want to do anything in this league, you have to protect your own home court,” Rice said. “I think we’re starting to have a feeling, a sense of mentality that this [losing] isn’t going to happen to us and we’re going to protect it.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.