Playoff fate depends on rivalry
Despite distancing himself from a 14-for-53 stretch and scoring 23 points for the first time since Jan. 5, Eli Carter could still only dwell on the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s six-game skid.
The sophomore guard shot 8-for-18 Saturday against Georgetown, including a 7-for-12 spurt, but no other Scarlet Knights joined him in double figures.
“I just wanted to come out and play well,” Carter said Saturday. “I just wanted to get a win, honestly. I wasn’t really thinking about myself.”
The team’s six-game losing streak ties its season high from last year, when it won only six Big East games. Carter had spent much of it struggling from the field, shooting 26 percent en route to well-documented scrutiny.
A matchup with Georgetown was arguably the best solution.
The Hoyas’ zone defense left room for driving lanes and kick-out options, and Carter often times converted. The Knights’ leading scorer took 3-point shots in rhythm, found open looks around the basket and even converted an off-balance attempt that caromed off the backboard.
“My teammates got me open,” Carter said. “I got shots I was used to making, and I took them with confidence.”
Rutgers’ offense and Carter’s relationship has often been symbiotic.
When Carter shows early promise — he scored 14 points in the first 15 minutes against Georgetown — the Knights become multi-dimensional. He has averaged nearly 15 points in each of Rutgers’ three Big East victories.
Carter’s high-volume scoring opens up opportunities for teammates, said sophomore point guard Jerome Seagears.
“We’re getting a lot of confidence,” Seagears said Saturday. “He’s a terrific scorer, and he puts the ball in the basket easy. He gives a great amount of energy.”
But the final five minutes against Georgetown changed that dynamic.
Head coach Mike Rice said the team’s offense became stagnant, waiting for Carter — far and away Rutgers’ leader with 12.8 shots per game — to make a play. As a result, Carter finished shooting 1-for-6 in another single-digit loss.
“I think we shared the game and had a little more passion for playing for one another than we did [Feb. 6] against Louisville,” Rice said Saturday. “I thought offensively we were attacking efficiently enough to stay with them.”
The Knights’ next opponent, in-state rival Seton Hall, has had similar misfortune.
The Pirates (13-11, 2-9) have lost five straight Big East games and three by 10 points or fewer. Few times in recent memory have the teams met with postseason implications at hand.
But few times will also have more at stake.
Starting tonight, the Knights (12-10, 3-8) face five Big East teams in the bottom half of the conference in their last seven games. Following a matchup at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, Seton Hall plays three of the Big East’s top-five teams.
“Rivalries are always good,” Carter said. “Every Big East team is good, so we have to approach this like any other team. Hopefully we get out of this losing streak.”
Rutgers has not beaten Seton Hall at home since Rice took over in 2010.
For its stake in Big East Tournament positioning, it cannot afford a similar fate.
The Knights have dropped from the top half of the conference standings to 12th during their losing streak. A loss against an ailing Seton Hall team at home could have disastrous effects for fan morale.
“The phrase ‘winning solves everything’ is a well-used phrase in sports because it does in a way,” Rice said. “It brings the energy and life back, the joy back. Now we have to respond.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.