Issues mount in midst of Big East play
With the Rutgers men’s basketball team midway through the Big East season, there is still much to be desired.
After winning three of their first five games, the Scarlet Knights dropped their next four, putting them in 11th place in the conference, five spots below where the current losing streak began.
That is a dangerous trend to go through in the Big East.
“We know that once you get into a rut, it’s hard to get yourself back up,” said senior forward Austin Johnson. “We dug ourselves a hole, so we have to do everything we can to get back on the right path, and it starts with a win.”
Much of that falls of the strength — or lack thereof — of the offense, which has scored more than 68 points only once since a Dec. 28 win against Rider.
That came in a 70-67 win Jan. 17 against South Florida, which sits at the bottom of the conference with a 1-8 Big East record.
It is not difficult to figure out how hard it is to win without the team’s leading scorer.
Sophomore guard Eli Carter paces the Knights with 15.2 points per game, but has gone a combined 9-for-39 from the field in his last three games.
Some of those made baskets came in a Jan. 27 contest at Connecticut, where the game was out of reach and the Husky defense went into cruise control.
Even the emergence of sophomore guard Jerome Seagears could not push the offense to where it needs to be to win games.
But the Knights do not want to have to depend on one or two players.
“We just have to have confidence in other guys,” Johnson said. “Each and every day, somebody shows something [in practice] that they’re capable of doing … on the offensive end. We can’t only rely on [the guards] even though they’re our best scorers.”
And of late Rutgers has failed to protect any of its leads.
It held eight- and 10-point leads against Cincinnati and St. John’s, respectively, but watched as both advantages turned into second-half deficits.
Earlier in the season, like the Knights’ 67-62 win Jan. 5 against Pittsburgh, they held off late-charging opponents.
Perhaps the only explanation Rutgers can provide is its strength of schedule.
Of their seven different Big East opponents this season, USF is the only school below the Knights in the standings and the only one of those seven teams with sub-.500 conference record.
While the first two opponents in the second half of the Big East schedule — Louisville and Georgetown — are daunting, the level drops off for the remaining six games, at least according to the numbers.
Of those six games, only two of them, a rematch with the Hoyas and a game against Marquette, are against teams with winning Big East records.
But that matters little to head coach Mike Rice in one of the best basketball conferences in the country.
“This is the Big East,” Rice said. “If you [take any teams lightly], you’re not going to do very well. Every game is the most important game on your schedule.”
The question still remains as to how the Knights improve what have largely been lackluster performances.
Senior wing Dane Miller believes turnovers only tell half the story.
“Turning the ball over [has been a problem], and defensive rebounding,” Miller said.
Rutgers sits next-to-last in the conference in turnover margin, averaging nearly two turnovers per game more than its opponents.
Unlike earlier in the season, the Knights do not have the luxury of time on their side.
“There are only nine games left,” Miller said. “We have to put it together quick.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.