Knights youth struggles against Louisville's high-pressure defense
MEMPHIS — After a successful start to their AAC Tournament run defeating South Florida for the third time this season, it appeared that the Rutgers men’s basketball team finally hit its stride.
After the first half in the Scarlet Knights’ 92-31 drubbing by No. 5 Louisville, all of Rutgers’ recent promise quickly vanished.
Team leaders, such as senior forward Wally Judge and junior forward Kadeem Jack, were left visibly frustrated, while youngsters like freshman forward Junior Etou seemed a bit intimidated.
Etou started in the Knights’ first tournament win against USF, logging 21 minutes but only scoring 2 points.
This has been a regular occurrence for Etou over his last four games, scoring 9 points in that span. The freshman showed flashes of brilliance for the Knights this season, including an impressive 14-point performance Jan. 15 against Central Florida, but his consistency is not there yet.
Against the Cardinals, Etou finished 1-for-5 from the field and posted three turnovers in 19 minutes. Louisville’s high pressure gave Etou problems for the entirety that he was on the court.
The Republic of Congo native also seemed hesitant on the glass, demonstrated on a play in the first half where he let the ball bounce before grabbing it. It was his only first-half rebound.
“Obviously it was a very disappointing performance for us,” said head coach Eddie Jordan postgame. “A game like that really tests your character, and they’re a good team, top five in the country.”
Louisville guard Chris Jones was the main catalyst in defense, causing six steals while adding a team-high 18 points.
Jones’s 24-year-old step brother Demetrius Ray was murdered March 1 in Memphis and had been at his grave the night before.
Returning to Memphis for the AACs, Jones said he would not let it distract him.
“I think my emotions came yesterday when I went to the grave,” Jones said. “… I don’t really let that get to me playing basketball, I freed my mind off that. I think his death was not a good thing, but it frees my attention right now. So that’s why I was playing harder and playing better too.”
Junior guard Jerome Seagears got to start alongside fellow junior guard Myles Mack, as Rutgers tried to negate the Cardinals’ full-court press. But Seagears only managed nine minutes in the half and turned the ball over three times.
It seemed that Seagears had earned more of Jordan’s trust following a decline in minutes toward the end of the season, but Seagears played little against Louisville.
Seagears sat on the bench for the entire second half, with Jordan electing to play junior guard D’Von Campbell instead.
Campbell played 19 minutes in the game, scoring only 2 points. He turned the ball over four times, including twice in the first half.
Seagears finished his AAC Tournament with 0 total points and just two assists.
While Louisville dominated the Knights the three times they played this season, one thing that certainly led to the Rutgers’ pounding was its unwillingness to attack the paint.
The Knights finished with eight total foul shot attempts and failed to get to the line the entire first half, settling for difficult jump shots and forced passes.
Rutgers showed more intent attacking the paint in the second half, but by then the game was far beyond its reach.
“After a few possessions, I said to myself, ‘Just do what we’ve been doing all year, but let’s move the ball a little bit more and let’s not take tough attempts,’” Jordan said. “Just get the ball in the paint.”
Part of the Knights’ struggles attacking the paint came from Louisville’s high-pressure defense and timely steals.
The Cardinals, who rank second nationally in steals per game, collected 10 steals and forced the Knights into 26 turnovers.