Rutgers seeks season sweep on road hoping to end three-game skid
The last time the Rutgers men’s basketball team faced Penn State, Kadeem Jack’s resolve was tested.
The Scarlet Knights’ star senior forward had shown up late to a team breakfast the game before, and as a result, was benched by head coach Eddie Jordan and played only 18 minutes in a four point loss to Northwestern on Dec. 30 — the program’s first Big Ten game.
But Jack responded four days later against the Nittany Lions by producing his second double-double of the season, which not only displayed strong character but also helped push Rutgers to its first ever Big Ten victory, 50-46.
When the Knights (10-10, 2-5) make the near four-hour trip to “Happy Valley” for Saturday’s noon rematch against Penn State (12-7, 0-6), that resolve will be tested again. Only this time, it’s the entire team that must respond to adversity.
The Knights, who haven’t previously lost more than one game in a row all season, are now in a three-game losing slump with all three defeats resulting from poor execution in the final minutes.
A Tuesday home loss to a wounded and struggling Michigan squad in front of a raucous 7,365 fans capped off Rutgers’ frustrations, with the team’s climax seemingly its historic win against then No. 4 Wisconsin is now becoming a distant memory.
The string of losses is an unfamiliar predicament for the Knights this season who risk falling below .500 pending a fourth consecutive defeat.
When Jack was asked where the team goes from here following the Michigan loss, the 6-foot-9 co-captain kept it basic. “Get back in practice and get ready for the next game.”
If only it were that simple.
The loss not only gave the Rutgers players a sickening feeling, but also exposed a flaw that’s plagued them throughout the season: lack of depth.
The Knights managed just 7 bench points compared to the Wolverines’ 19 and only Jack and senior guard Myles Mack scored in double figures.
Though that was all Rutgers needed to beat Penn State at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, holding the Nittany Lions to 28.8 percent from the field and 5-of-27 from beyond the arc, its defensive efficiency will be tough to repeat. Especially for a team that’s 0-3 in conference play on the road this season.
The lack of depth has also led to concerns of fatigue for Mack, who Jordan said earlier in the week needed to get more rest.
But given his importance in orchestrating the Knights’ offense, Jordan kept the St. Anthony High School product off the floor for just 60 seconds, three minutes above his 36.3 minutes per game average that ranks second highest in the conference.
With Mack being doubled by opposing teams and his minutes continuing to pile up, more players will have to produce for Rutgers offensively.
Jordan, however, feels Mack has handled himself well.
“Everybody focuses on Myles,” Jordan said. “I mean, everybody we play, whether it’s man [or] zone. They trap him, they double-team him in pick and rolls. They try to deny him coming off of screens. But he’s done a wonderful, wonderful job in his role for us keeping us organized.”
Luckily for Rutgers, Penn State is also overly reliant on one player. That player just happens to be the nation’s fourth leading scorer in guard D.J. Newbill.
Averaging 21.9 points per game — the only Nittany Lion averaging double-figures — Newbill was limited to 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting in their first meeting.
Holding Newbill, an average 46.9 percent shooter from the field, is wishful thinking. But if Rutgers can keep him from consistently penetrating the paint and win the battle on the boards, then a road win is well within reach.
Penn State is a far more challenging team at home boasting a 7-2 record in which it easily handled team’s like George Washington, who bullied Rutgers in its season opener.
The Nittany Lions are also winless in conference play, and given the Knights have fallen to two previously winless conference teams already, they know Penn State is desperate for a victory.
“One thing about going into Penn State, we already beat them and we know they’re going to give us their best game,” said junior guard Bishop Daniels. “They felt like we shouldn’t have beat them when we did. So, these next couple days at practice we got to come in and ready to work. We have to be more disciplined than ever, especially going on the road and trying to get a win against Penn State.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow @SeanStewartRU and @TargumSports on Twitter.