Rutgers hosts Indiana to kick off Big Ten conference play
When the Rutgers men’s basketball team gathered with local reporters at Media Day on Oct. 27, optimism was high and goals were ambitious.
While head coach Eddie Jordan refused to make any specific predictions beyond what his team would work on at practice that day, some of his players — namely sophomore forward D.J. Foreman and sophomore guard Mike Williams — planned on getting through non-conference play without a blemish on their record, a perfect 13-0.
More than two months and 13 games later, the Scarlet Knights (6-7) can look back on their non-conference schedule with the knowledge that perhaps their goal of perfection was too ambitious.
But with Indiana (10-3) coming to town Wednesday to tip-off the Knights’ second go-around at a daunting Big Ten schedule, the boys from the Banks can wipe the slate clean as they begin the crucial portion of the season.
For Rutgers, the high level of competition in what freshman forward Jonathan Laurent called “the best basketball conference in the country,” is not intimidating. This is what they came to Piscataway for — to play against historic programs.
“I’m extremely excited,” said graduate transfer Omari Grier. “Watching those games, they’re extremely prolific, they’re exciting to watch ... every kid dreams about playing in these big-time games and a lot of these games we’re going to be playing moving forward are going to be pretty much big time games. So I’m excited to be here and I’m excited for Big Ten play to start.”
The guard played a big part in his team finishing out its non-conference schedule in the best possible way, with an 89-66 win over UMass-Lowell on Monday night that brought Rutgers its second straight win.
After missing his first shot from three, Grier caught fire, unconsciously hitting six straight from deep on his way to 22 points — the largest point total of any Knight in a single game this season.
Freshman guard Corey Sanders, who leads both Rutgers and all Big Ten freshman in scoring with 14 points per game, didn’t lag far behind. He complemented Grier by dropping 20 points in addition to his career-high seven rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week earlier in the day on Monday, Sanders remains as confident as ever as he prepares to join Grier in achieving their dream of playing big-time basketball in a premier conference.
“I’m ready for it,” Sanders said. “It’s a big-time stage I’ve been dreaming of and I know the guys have been dreaming of it, too. Just getting ready to get a crack at it … I’ve been working on my jump shots, just executing plays right, doing little things. It’s all paying off right now, so I’m just trying to stay confident going into Big Ten play.”
Indiana presents a tough test for Rutgers out of the gate.
Although the Hoosiers have not been playing up to the always sky-high expectations of one of the most demanding fan bases in college basketball — they suffered upsets to Wake Forest and UNLV in addition to losing by 20 to Duke earlier in the season — Tom Crean’s team will have history on its side.
Indiana has never lost to the Knights, defeating them all three times these two teams have met. The latest matchup was the most lopsided of the three, an 84-54 blowout in last year’s meeting at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
With the Hoosiers ranking third in the country in scoring offense with 89.1 points per game, Rutgers could be in for another long night if it doesn’t repeat its lights-out performance from Monday night when Wednesday afternoon rolls around.
In the era of one-and-done, Yogi Ferrell is a rare senior star that leads Indiana. The guard is averaging 16.4 points per game, 1 of 4 Hoosiers with double-digit scoring averages.
Sophomore guard James Blackman Jr., who combined with Ferrell creates one of the most feared backcourts in the country, enters the RAC averaging 15.8 per game. Junior forward Troy Williams (13.9) and freshman center Thomas Bryant (12.2) rounding out the double-digit average list.
The journey through the gauntlet of the Big Ten for the only team in the conference with a losing non-conference schedule begins Wednesday at 1 p.m. against a preseason title candidate, but that doesn’t scare head coach Eddie Jordan.
While the challenge of facing opposition that brought his team to a 15-game losing streak to end the season — tied for the second-longest skid in school history — is made even greater with just eight scholarship players available, he feels his players are ready.
After all, that’s what they came to Rutgers for.
“We’re ready,” Jordan said. “I told the guys in the locker room, ‘This is why I recruited you, this is why you came.’ We sold the Big Ten, we sold a great university, we sold … a handsome coach, and that’s why they came. So let’s get ready, buckle up the boot straps, put our hard hats on, play with more discipline, more toughness … playing smart, playing with confidence, playing unselfish basketball and with toughness.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.