Rutgers eyes clean slate in tournament
Even the coach whose team handed the Rutgers men’s basketball team its most lopsided loss of the season gave the Scarlet Knights a chance in the AAC Tournament.
“Rutgers has very good guard play, and their frontcourt’s getting better,” said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino on Monday’s AAC coaches teleconference. “The one thing I can tell you about conference tournaments, anything is possible. If your team is totally not ready emotionally and not focused in on your goals, anybody can get beat.”
Seventh-seeded Rutgers’ (11-20, 5-13) first challenge in Memphis’ FedExForum comes tonight against 10th-seeded South Florida (12-19, 3-15).
The winner faces second-seeded Louisville (26-5, 15-3) tomorrow. The Cardinals embarrassed Rutgers on Feb. 16, 102-54.
Louisville shared the conference’s championship with Cincinnati for tying with the conference’s best record. Although whoever wins the AAC Tournament is not the official conference champion, the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament still matters.
Before Rutgers worries about Louisville, it must defeat a Bulls team with an eight-game losing streak and the conference’s last seed.
It’s not a guarantee.
The Knights defeated USF twice this season — 79-69 on Feb. 8 in Tampa and 74-73 on March 1 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
But those victories could play into Rutgers’ demise, said head coach Eddie Jordan.
“The other team’s saying, ‘Look, we’ve been beaten by this team. We should’ve won at their place. We stuck against them at our place, and we’ve got a great chance to beat this team once,’” Jordan said. “That’s sort of human nature going into a game after you lost twice against a team.”
Three losses in USF’s skid came by one point.
Central Florida beat it, 75-74, Feb. 15. Rutgers defeated it, and most recently Temple took a 66-65 victory Saturday to clinch the ninth seed.
Bulls head coach Stan Heath was not available to comment on the matter because his flight occurred during the coaches’ teleconference.
USF’s last regulation victory came Jan. 28 against Southern Methodist. Rutgers’ last win came against South Florida. But its close losses against No. 19 Memphis, No. 21 Connecticut and No. 13 Cincinnati featured competitive play against the AAC’s elite.
But with losing records, Rutgers and South Florida can both truly prove themselves with a tournament run.
“We kind of had a rough season … so obviously we know every game could be our last,” junior forward Kadeem Jack said after Saturday’s 70-66 loss to the Bearcats. “… They say a wounded dog is the worst to face, so I think we need to go out there and play like that.”
The Knights hold more depth than the start of the season, when sophomore wing Kerwin Okoro sat out after knee surgery and freshman forward Junior Etou sustained a six-game suspension.
Okoro lost 20 pounds in the last five or six weeks, Jordan said. His efforts paid off with an 8-point performance in 18 minutes against Cincinnati.
The Iowa State transfer gives Rutgers greater versatility and can play small forward as Rutgers’ only tall guard at 6-foot-5.
Etou developed into a productive piece, averaging 5.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a rookie.
Even Jack is a new cornerstone this season, averaging 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per match.
Rutgers might get its usual result of an early conference tournament exit, but it still has different pieces to develop than years past.
“We thought coming into the season we’d be better, and we are [at this point], even though we’re losing to the UConn’s, to the Cincinnati’s, to the Memphis’ of the world,” Jordan said. “It’s just going to happen, but we’re playing better and I like the pace as far as the process.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Josh Bakan on Twitter @JoshBakan. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.