RU aims for season sweep of St. John’s
The Rutgers men’s basketball team is not used to being .500 or better in Big East play.
It has failed to crack seven conference wins under head coach Mike Rice.
But with three league wins already and 12 games yet to play, the Scarlet Knights have a good chance to surpass the six-win mark.
Rutgers has its sights set much higher than six wins.
“We just don’t want to get below .500,” said senior forward Austin Johnson. “We don’t even want to think about that. [We want to] remain on the left side of the board and just keep winning. We have big aspirations this year, and we just want to continue to show people we’re a different team than previous years.”
Rice has already given the group his vote of confidence, calling it his best team at Rutgers.
But beyond that, the team has shown its confidence in each other.
It only lost one member from last year’s group — Gilvydas Biruta transferred to Rhode Island — and now has two seniors to lead in Johnson and wing Dane Miller.
Now that the team is more talented than it has been in recent history, the goals have been simplified.
“The guys just want to rack up as many wins as possible,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to have any relapses and just remain confident in one another and stick to the blueprint the coaches have laid out.”
The Knights get their next chance to inch toward their goal tonight, when they complete a home-and-home season series against St. John’s.
In the teams’ previous meeting, Red Storm forward JaKarr Sampson missed a 3-pointer as time expired, giving Rutgers a 58-56 victory Jan. 23 at Madison Square Garden.
But that was not the only close game in the recent history of the tri-state rivalry.
In fact, since Rice and St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin have coached their respective teams — both took over in 2010 — neither team has won a game by more than three points and the series is tied, 2-2.
“[There is a] good chance it’s going to be a one-possession game,” Rice said. “It has been every time. You have to practice and prepare like it, and every possession matters.”
Tonight’s game figures to be no different, especially when the Johnnies have a player the caliber of guard D’Angelo Harrison, who ranks second in the Big East in scoring with 19.6 points per game.
But Rice believes the reason St. John’s (11-7, 3-3) is dangerous is not because of what Harrison can do, but because he is not alone.
Harrison has fellow guards Phil Greene and Jamal Branch to provide support.
“You can’t tilt the floor to Harrison so much anymore because of the fact that [Greene and Branch] are making plays, whether it’s for themselves or for other people,” Rice said. “I think they have better spacing with those guards in. That means it’s more difficult.”
Greene has tallied 51 assists on the season while committing only 27 turnovers. Branch has seen limited action because he has to sit out the early portion of the season after transferring from Texas A&M.
Rutgers (12-5, 3-3) has to worry about more than St. John’s backcourt.
The Red Storm frontcourt is home to center Chris Obekpa, who leads the Big East with nearly five blocks per game, and Sampson, who averages 13.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
“They’re really active, long, athletic, lean, springy-type guys,” Johnson said. “If you throw it up there for them, they’ll get it. You have to get to their body.”
The Knights took the first game of the season series on the road, so St. John’s is likely to arrive at the RAC with revenge in mind.
With both teams at 3-3 in conference play, the winner earns at least another chance to remain in the top half of the Big East.
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.