Rutgers rounds out non-conference play with UMass-Lowell at home
As much as Eddie Jordan enjoyed returning to the win column with the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s 72-64 come-from-behind victory over Fairleigh Dickinson last Wednesday, the third-year head coach’s postgame assessment of his inexperienced squad’s slow start was blunt.
“A young team is gonna drive you nuts,” Jordan said. “They need to execute, they need to know what the details are — important. Even coming to over to the coach when it’s time to talk … every little thing means something and they don’t understand that. And eventually, they will.”
For the sake of the Scarlet Knights’ continuous progression in the 2015-16 season, they look to garner a greater grasp of Jordan’s words when they host UMass-Lowell in the finale of their non-conference slate.
When the Knights (5-7) and the River Hawks (4-7) tip off from the Louis Brown Athletic Center at 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network, Rutgers gets to relish the final tune-up before the conference that handed it misery in the form of a 15-game losing streak starts back up with a loaded gauntlet.
By the talk of the Knights after picking up their sixth win in eight games against FDU last week, the consensus surrounding the team centers on closing out non-conference play on the right side of things before shifting the focus two days later to Wednesday’s 1 p.m. Big Ten opener with Indiana at the RAC.
Even with just eight scholarship players left on the active roster as its three big men in sophomore center Shaquille Doorson (foot), Ibrahima Diallo (foot) and Deshawn Freeman (knee) remain out, the reality is for Rutgers to make do with what it has.
“It’s been frustrating, from a team perspective,” said senior forward/center Greg Lewis. “I know how much we need Shaq (Doorson) and Ibrahima (Diallo) and even Deshawn (Freeman) going into conference play. We need those guys. But … everyone’s starting to get the point that they gotta step up.”
Lewis led by example of those sentiments during the Knights’ last time out on the court, posting a season-high 10 points and career-high 14 rebounds despite four personal fouls over the course of 31 minutes against FDU.
Freshman guard Corey Sanders, who ran the point aggressively to a career-high 21 points on a 4-for-8 mark from 3-point range and 7-for-10 clip from the free-throw line, stepped up for Rutgers as well when the team desperately needed him to get buckets.
The pass-first point guard’s responsibilities have shifted with the adaptation to the lineups’ changes, averaging a team-high 13.5 points per game to make him the Big Ten’s leading scorer among freshmen.
But the Lakeland, Florida, native hasn’t lost sight of what each win means to the team’s collective confidence with Big Ten play right around the corner.
“We needed it. We needed to have something under us while we’re going into these conference games … (the win against FDU) was like a refresher,” Sanders said. “But we know we still have to work. It’s not the ending point.”
UMass-Lowell enters a loser in five of its past six games, featuring three consecutive losses. The second of the three came in an 83-79 defeat to Central Connecticut, which Rutgers overcame a slow start to handle roughly three weeks ago at the RAC, 75-59.
But given the River Hawks' ability to score at 74.5 points per game — not to mention a respectable most-recent loss to then-No. 25 Connecticut where they posted 79 points — and the Knights’ propensity for slow starts, Rutgers knows it can’t sleepwalk into this one.
To Sanders, that was evident from the moment Jordan walked into the locker room as Rutgers trailed FDU by two points, lighting a fire under the team by instilling a sense of urgency to play a complete game.
Whether or not it features a similar need for Sanders in particular to step up or not, the Knights know they need stronger effort and execution from start to finish in one way or another.
“Coach (Jordan) came in halftime and was like, ‘We’re showing fight. We show fights every game. We come back every game, but we’ve gotta take care of the game this time. We’ve gotta get up, settle down and work being on top,’” Sanders said. “And he just came to me and told me to be the quarterback out there and be aggressive and try to make for others and myself and that’s what I did.”
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