RU fights to revive stalled play
The Rutgers men’s basketball game against St. John’s on Wednesday was full of chances.
The Scarlet Knights had the opportunity to move above .500 in Big East play, to continue their dominance at home and to beat the Red Storm twice in the same season for the first time in more than 30 years.
But none of that happened.
Instead, a 17-0 run by the Johnnies put Rutgers in a hole it — once again — failed to climb out of.
“We weren’t making any buckets. I wasn’t disgusted with some of the execution, but we have to be tougher,” said head coach Mike Rice on Wednesday. “You have to finish layups — we missed nine layups in the first half alone. This group has to become more consistent, and the first thing about it is the toughness aspect.”
Toughness was one of the deciding factors in a game between two teams that, until Wednesday, had not beaten each other by more than three points in the past two seasons.
The Knights stole the first game of the season series on the road at Madison Square Garden by a score of 58-56.
Instead of taking advantage of a home crowd, they allowed the game to escape and must work that much harder to reclaim a spot in the top half of the Big East.
“The [bright side to the St. John’s loss] is we have [11 games] to … get ourselves back on track,” said senior forward Austin Johnson.
The quest begins Sunday in Hartford, Conn., where Rutgers takes on Connecticut and first-year head coach Kevin Ollie, a game Johnson called “a big opportunity.”
Judging by their conference record, the Huskies (12-5, 2-3) may have lost some of their bite since longtime head coach Jim Calhoun retired after last season.
But their three conference losses came against teams — Louisville, Marquette and Pittsburgh — that rank in the top five in the Big East.
In addition, UConn went on the road to Notre Dame and upset the Irish, a team that, less than a week ago, handed Rutgers (12-6, 3-4) a loss.
For the Knights to leave the XL Center with a win, the first thing they have to do is shake a hangover from the St. John’s loss, something Johnson believes the team is fully capable of.
“You can’t let it keep going down,” he said. “We have to make sure we do all the little things so we can rebound and get back on the right track. If you get going in the wrong direction, it’s hard to get back up.”
Rutgers’ first job, something it failed to do against the Red Storm, is to contain UConn’s guards. Both junior Shabazz Napier and sophomore Ryan Boatright average at least 16 points per game, more than any Rutgers player.
Freshman guard Omar Calhoun also owns a double-digit scoring average, giving the Huskies a third scoring option at the position.
The Huskies are one of the few teams in the Big East keeping pace with Rutgers in free throw percentage.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Knights have against UConn is one of the places it lacked against St. John’s — interior play.
While Rutgers averages 2.9 more rebounds per contest, the Huskies sit next-to-last in the Big East, averaging 4.1 rebound less per contest than their opponents.
If nothing else, the game helps the Knights put their latest loss behind them, since any lapse in focus in the Big East can lead to trouble.
“Every game, to be honest with you, in the Big East is important,” Rice said. “Every game means so much. I know we’ll go back to work and gauge the fight in this team.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.