Transfer provides spark off bench
Sophomore wing Kerwin Okoro campaigned hard for the NCAA to give him a hardship waiver to immediately play for the Rutgers men’s basketball team.
But once he received knee surgery right before the regular season, the year Okoro fought for became a year of ineffectiveness and little playing time.
That was until Okoro played the defending national champions.
No. 13 Louisville shut down the Scarlet Knights’ top scorers, as junior guard Myles Mack and junior forward Kadeem Jack led Rutgers with 10 points each.
Head coach Eddie Jordan significantly used his bench, which mostly lacked offense.
Then Okoro emerged.
The Iowa State transfer scored 9 points in 13 minutes.
All of Okoro’s points came in the second half. Four of those came from wing Wayne Blackshear fouling him on a 3-pointer he converted, and he made the free throw.
Jordan must decide if that performance merited Okoro more playing time. Entering the Louisville match, Okoro played 37 minutes in seven games.
“Kerwin did some good things out there,” Jordan said postgame. “I am happy about that. We will see [about his playing time] going down the line. It is a credit to him that he came in and gave a lot of effort.”
Backcourt depth was rarely an issue for Rutgers this season, but Okoro’s presence helps. With senior wing J.J. Moore playing an unnatural position to him at shooting guard, any depth at the two is useful for the Knights.
Rutgers holds other two-guard options, but Okoro could change the dynamic if he keeps providing an offensive spark.
If Mack and junior guard Jerome Seagears are playing while Moore is out, Mack plays shooting guard. Rutgers’ next option is typically junior wing Malick Kone.
In recent games, Kone consistently drove to the basket more frequently. But he struggles from outside, shooting 0-for-8 on 3-pointers this season.
When Blackshear fouled Okoro on the perimeter, Okoro made the second 3-pointer of his career. But Okoro also sank a midrange jumper with 12:59 remaining — 19 seconds after he came off the bench.
Unfortunately for the Knights, they still trailed Louisville, 69-29. The Cardinals held a 26-5 second-half scoring advantage, prompting Jordan to remove all five players at that time.
Now Rutgers must avoid a second straight humiliating loss Thursday against No. 20 Memphis, which beat the Knights on Feb. 4, 101-69, in Memphis.
“We need to play with more confidence and stay together, trust our offense,” Jordan said. “[Memphis] is going to pressure you. They are going to body you up. They are going to be physical like they were down there. We have to answer the ball physically and intelligently. We have to make plays.”
Since last offseason, Okoro fought the NCAA and then knee surgery to be part of the equation for the Knights this year.
After getting to play and contribute against the defending national champions, Okoro has more reason to be happy about not redshirting this year.
He might be important for Rutgers to reach its goal of getting one of the top six AAC seeds, so it gets a bye in the conference tournament.
“We’ve just got to learn from the mistakes we made [Sunday] and look forward,” Mack said. “If we look back, it’s going to just affect us.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Josh Bakan on Twitter @JoshBakan. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.