Graduate transfer's progression continues despite missed upset opportunity for Rutgers
PISCATAWAY — Omari Grier joined the Rutgers men’s basketball team as a graduate transfer from Bradley this season with the reputation of being a sharpshooter.
Through the first 12 games of the season, he didn’t live up to the expectations. He was hesitant to shoot the ball and as a result, contributed just five points per game.
The Erial, New Jersey, native came out of his shell in the Knights’ 89-66 win over the River Hawks to close out their non-conference schedule, hitting his final six shots from three to push his point total to 22, his most since arriving in Piscataway.
But there were doubts he would be able to replicate the performance against longer, more physical defenders in the Big Ten.
Grier proved his performance wasn’t a one-time ordeal against Indiana, again leading Rutgers in scoring with 20 points, tied with the Hoosiers' senior point guard, Yogi Ferrell, for the game-high.
The explanation for his elevated contributions in the past two contests is an increase in two facets of his game — confidence and aggressiveness.
“I would just say me being more confident in myself, my teammates being more confident in me, coaches being more confident in me as well,” Grier said of his rapid improvement in numbers. “Like I said before, just trying to take more of an aggressive approach for our team to win and my team has been incredibly encouraging as far as boosting me up and encouraging me to score."
Grier scored 15 of his 20 points in the opening half, contributing just five in the final 20 minutes of the contest. He missed his team’s only free-throw on an and-one opportunity that would’ve brought Rutgers within five with 1:16 remaining.
After torching the Hoosier defense whenever they left him open, Grier didn’t find as much space in the latter period.
“Second half, I just feel like I didn’t get as many opportunities as I did in the first half,” he said. “I just feel like they were a little more aware.”
Indiana head coach Tom Crean took responsibility for allowing Grier to be so productive in the first half, saying the initial matchup he put forth to defend the guard was ineffective.
After having junior forward Troy Williams defend him for most of the first half, Crean assigned junior forward Collin Hartman to Grier, a change that made all the difference.
“We switched matchups. That’s on me in the first half,” Crean said. “We didn’t guard him. We just needed to put a different guy on him, that’s the bottom line. He creates a lot of issues because he could space and they find him and so we just made a matchup switch.”
Despite the lackluster second half, Grier still played a large role in keeping Rutgers upset bid alive until the final minute of the game.
Looking to continue his newfound form, he’ll need to enter the Knights’ next matchup — a meeting with Wisconsin in Madison on Jan. 2 — with the same mindset he’s been approaching the last couple of games with.
“I feel like it’s just one of those mindsets before going into the game, looking for opportunities as soon as I catch,” Grier said. “If I don’t have anything, I’m looking to create for my teammates.”
Facing an opponent projected to finish on the podium in the Big Ten when the regular season is over and done with, Rutgers cannot be faulted for the effort it put forth.
But while effort is important, efficiency is vital if the Knights were to have any chance at defeating the Hoosiers and they were not efficient in the most basic aspect of the game.
Rutgers missed a number of layups Division I athletes should be making, a frustrating thing to watch for both players and coaches.
“We didn’t convert our layups, which was sort of disappointing,” said head coach Eddie Jordan. “I told my team, 'No one has blocked your shot yet at the rim. If you convert, that’s probably 12-14 points.’”
Freshman Corey Sanders, who hit back-to-back threes in the final minute to bring his point total to 17, missed three lay-ins he would typically convert on over the course of the game.
While hesitant to admit it was an area that needed work, he eventually came around and realized that making them in practice doesn’t always transition to doing it when it counts.
“We usually don’t miss lay-ups like that. We’ll miss some in the post but the lay ups we were missing today, it wasn’t our type of layup game, I guess,” Sanders said. “If we made those layups, that’s 10 extra points, we win the game. You never know what happens. So I guess that’s something we need to improve on in a game-type situation, finishing at the rim.”
As basic as they appear to be, lay-ins are a crucial aspect of the game that is often overlooked. Jordan advises his guys to take working on them seriously because as evidenced Wednesday afternoon at the Rutgers Athletic Center, they’re not as easy as they look.
“In practice, don’t screw around with your layups. Go ahead and make your lay-ups and don’t think it’s just automatic,” Jordan said on what he told his guys about the misses. “Get to the rim, make your layups in practice and in layup lines. This is all serious stuff.”
While it didn’t end the way Rutgers had hoped, the 6,002 people who came out to the RAC in the early afternoon got their money’s worth with the excited game.
With a strong showing from Indiana fans, the attendance seemed to be split down the middle in terms of fans allegiances, but it was tough to tell with both teams donning red and white as their colors.
When Indiana was opening the game up, fans in red and white striped pants stood and chanted, "I-U."
When the Knights began to close down on the deficit and eventually tie it up, the building was as loud as it’s been all season.
Jordan and his players took notice and appreciated the showing from the fans in their Big Ten opener.
“It was great, I loved it,” Jordan said. “I loved the 'R-U' chant when we were coming back and even when our fans heard some 'I-U' chants, Indiana cheers, we came back even louder. I love that. It’s great stuff. We have to build on it and it gives our guys a lot of energy.”
A fan favorite, Sanders fed off the energy from the crowd throughout the contest. As he and his teammates continue to come out and fight for wins in the prestigious Big Ten, he asks fans to keep showing the support he expected when he signed on to come to Piscataway.
“I liked it. I love the big crowds, that’s one of the reasons I came here,” Sanders said. “I know a lot of people come out to the games to support us and I ask for them to continue to support us and we’re going to keep coming out here and continue to go out here and fight and try to win games.”
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