Rutgers kindles spark from previous game's effort entering Michigan
As much as the Rutgers men's basketball team hit the snooze button on its six-day slumber between games this past week, the Big Ten alarm clock is ringing loud now.
With an open weekend extending into Monday and Tuesday, the Scarlet Knights (6-14, 0-7) received a brief break from the unforgiving hardwood of conference play.
But that all comes to an end when Rutgers heads to Michigan for Wednesday's 7 p.m. matchup on Big Ten Network at the 12,707-seat Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.
Still winless in conference play with a losing streak dating all the way back to last season and currently standing at 22 games, the Knights receive a subtle reminder that there is no true break in the Big Ten with their visit to the Wolverines (15-5, 5-2).
With that reality facing a young and inexperienced team sending eight scholarship players to battle, even Rutgers' newest faces have had to mature quicker than expected in order to field a more competitive team on the court.
"Every game's a step forward for us, just as a learning standpoint," said freshman guard Corey Sanders, who averages a team-high 31.9 minutes throughout the first 19 games of his collegiate career. "We've still got a lot of young players that are still trying to work with the injuries we have. So every game is a learning point for us."
Forcibly transforming from a pass-first point guard to a go-to scoring option is just one of the curveballs the 2015-16 season has thrown at Sanders in his first year on the Banks.
With three Rutgers big men out for the year in redshirt freshman forward Ibrahima Diallo (foot), sophomore forward Shaquille Doorson (foot) and junior forward Deshawn Freeman (knee), the Knights have had no other option but to adapt.
That evolution has been evident firsthand with the likes of Sanders, who leads all freshmen and sits tied for 12th overall in the Big Ten for scoring at 14.1 points per game.
But for the Knights to keep their hopes up at remaining competitive for the remainder of the season, despite a rough conference slate continuing as a trip to No. 12 Michigan State looms four days later, Rutgers knows it needs to keep the spark alive from its last time out.
"Well, we started the next day in practice. We talked about things and what's important is that we learn from every game," said head coach Eddie Jordan. "And you can see the growth in Corey Sanders — how he plays defense, how he can find people in the paint ... I'm proud of the way we brought it (last Thursday night)."
To maintain the momentum mustered up from a tightly-contested 90-76 loss to then-No. 9 Iowa just three days after the worst home loss in program history embarrassed the Knights at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the third-year head coach is aware of what his team must tweak as it heads to Michigan.
With the Wolverines winning nine of their last 11 games — the lone two losses came to No. 21 Purdue and No. 3 Iowa, Rutgers' last two defeats — the road task won't be a break from what the Knights have seen.
In fact, it might even be worse.
The struggles have been existent regardless of where the team has played recently, but Rutgers is winless on the season away from the RAC at 0-5 and 0-2 in neutral sites.
In their past four road losses, dating back to the 83-49 loss at George Washington, the Knights have been outscored by an average of 26.75 points per game. Before that, they suffered a disappointing collapse at St. John's where they blew a 16-point lead in Queens.
Understanding how tall the road woes have been stacked to this point, it might be difficult to imagine a scenario where Rutgers can piece together enough to overcome what Michigan might throw at it.
But with freshman forward Jonathan Laurent's return, the Knights saw just how much one body can alter the rotation. The Orlando, Florida, native took the floor for Rutgers after sitting out nearly two weeks with a mild concussion and posted 14 points on a 6-for-10 mark from the field.
Laurent, who admitted he still had some rust to shed after seeing live game action for the first time since Jan. 2, addressed the period of rest approaching following last Thursday against Iowa.
Given the well-documented struggles all across the board, he and the Knights will take what they can get in order to inch closer to getting back into the win column.
"We have a couple of days off coming. That's definitely good for the body," he said. "It was kind of rough, I guess, just coming back into it as quick as I did. It took a toll on my knees, but the next couple of days, I'll be good from here."