Rutgers looks to repeat magic from a year ago against Wisconsin
The last time the Rutgers men's basketball team faced Wisconsin, a number of students on winter break slowly rushed the court after the Badgers had left the floor at the Rutgers Athletic Center to celebrate the biggest upset in school history.
Led by senior guard Myles Mack, the Scarlet Knights defeated then-No. 4 Wisconsin, 67-62, earning their highest ranked win in program history while also getting their first ever Big Ten conference win.
An emotional Eddie Jordan spoke after the game fighting back tears as he looked back on how far the program had come since he took over following the Mike Rice controversy.
“I'm just happy for our community," Jordan said after the game. "We've suffered, and I'm just happy for them. I'm happy for everybody — the state, our faculty, everybody that supports me, our fans."
The rest of the season went in completely different directions for both programs after that game.
While the Badgers went on to win 21 of their next 22 on their way to winning the Big Ten Tournament and reaching the National Championship — where they finished runners-up to Duke — Rutgers lost its final 15 games to end the season on the second-longest losing streak in school history and has yet to defeat a conference opponent since.
Nearly a full year later, few things remain the same from that night at the RAC.
Wisconsin will again be without the reigning Naismith College National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky, who missed the last year’s contest with an injury and will miss all future meetings after graduating to the NBA.
But it will return key starters from last season in point guard Brandon Koenig and preseason All-American Nigel Hayes.
Rutgers returns third-year head coach Eddie Jordan, who continues to build a competitive team in an unforgiving conference, as well as starting senior center Greg Lewis and senior guard Bishop Daniels.
From there, both teams are now very different.
In addition to being without Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, who joined Frank the Tank in the NBA, the Badgers (8-6, 0-1) are playing just their third game in the past 15 years without Bo Ryan.
The legendary head coach announced his retirement following Wisconsin's 64-49 win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 15.
"After months of conversation with Barry Alvarez and his administrative staff, as well as my wife, Kelly, I have decided that now is the right time to step down from the head coaching position here at Wisconsin," Ryan said in a statement released after his team snapped a 2-game losing skid.
The Badgers will continue to have a familiar face yelling at them on the sideline, however, as longtime assistant Greg Gard has taken Ryan’s place for the rest of the season.
The Knights (6-8, 0-1), on the other hand, will be without the hero from what is still their last Big Ten win, Mack, after he and their other leading scorer, Kadeem Jack, graduated.
With the absence of their two leading scorers from last season, they will continue to depend on Big Ten Freshman of the Week Corey Sanders — who leads all Big Ten freshmen in scoring (14.2) and steals per game (1.6) — to provide much of their points as he’s done all season.
The first-year point guard hopes to continue receiving help from Omari Grier, who has come alive in Rutgers' past two games.
The graduate student dropped 22 points in the Knights non-conference closer against UMass-Lowell and followed his best performance of the season with a 20-point game against Indiana.
The game came down to the final minute, but looking back on the whole game, Rutgers lost the game with its inability to hit uncontested layups. The Knights inexcusably missed a number of shots in the paint that ended up costing them their first Big Ten win of the season.
“It’s extremely tough,” Grier said of his team’s missed opportunities throughout the contest. “Going down the stretch, you look at the score and then you’re saying, ‘Oh, man. If we would’ve made those layups, the game would’ve been different and we would’ve been not only two points down, but we could’ve been five or six points ahead of the game.’ But those are just mental lapses that we just need to make sure we improve on moving forward.”
The Badgers present Rutgers with a chance to get back on track in conference play.
This time, the meeting will take place in Madison rather than Piscataway, but home-court advantage isn't something Wisconsin has taken advantage of this season. The Badgers have lost as many games at the Kohl Center (four) this season than they had lost all of last season, home or away.
Among the teams that left the Badger State with a win are Western Illinois, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette and Purdue.
The Boilermakers defeated Wisconsin, 61-55, to open Big Ten play for both teams Tuesday before the Knights dropped their contest to the Hoosiers, who the Badgers will face in their next contest.
With both teams looking to right the ship of their seasons, the battle in Madison promises to be another gritty Big Ten conference contest.
Seeking its first Big Ten conference win since the memorable meeting with Wisconsin nearly a full 365 days earlier, Rutgers will have the added struggle of playing with just eight scholarship players, including just two bigs, once again.
The Knights struggled on the glass down the stretch against Indiana. After outrebounding the Hoosiers in the first half, Rutgers lost control and finished with 29 rebounds, 14 less than the Hoosiers' 43.
Lewis hesitated to put his finger on a reason behind the decrease in production, but finally put it down to fatigue. Immediately after, he acknowledged that there is a long season ahead for his team, so they're going to have to get their cardio up to have a change to compete.
“It’s a lot more basketball so we’re going to have to get used to it,” Lewis said. “No excuses.”
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