Rutgers looks to turn season into learning experience after 90-56 loss to Nebraska
After losing by 25 points to No. 3 Maryland on Wednesday, the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s Saturday evening meeting with Nebraska was a chance to recover from the blowout by earning its first Big Ten conference win of the season.
Things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
On an otherwise positive day for the Scarlet Knights — the 1976 team that reached the Final Four with head coach Eddie Jordan as its start was honored and, according to Rivals.com’s Stacey Davis, the Knights reportedly secured their first commit from the class of 2016, which Jordan confirmed in his post-game press conference — a 90-56 loss to a Nebraska team that shared an 0-3 start to conference play with its hosts put a dark cloud over the team.
A 25-point loss to a Final Four candidate after being down by as much as 42 isn’t exactly a positive, but it was understandable given the talent at the disposal of Mark Turgeon and the Terrapins.
There’s not as much room for explanation for a 34-point loss at home to a .500 team with a winless conference record.
The conference contest against the Cornhuskers (9-8, 1-3) was the most-winnable game in the foreseeable future for Rutgers (6-11, 0-4).
The Knights’ next four games include a trip to Columbus to face Ohio State, a pair of home contests with No. 19 Iowa and No. 20 Purdue and finally, a meeting with Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The daunting schedule ahead does not instill fear in Jordan. He sees it as a challenge, losing sleep trying to think of ways to improve his team.
“I’m not worried, it’s a challenge,” he said. “As a head coach, you beat your brains in and you try to figure out at 1 o’clock in the morning, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning, ‘What can you say, what can you do, what can you change, what can you add, should I tweak this or change this' … you go out and you see if what you’ve thought about and what you and your staff have talked about, see if it works, see if it helped you a little bit.”
Given the state of the team, both in terms of injury and recent results, Rutgers does not expect to win a Big Ten Tournament title this season.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a winning basketball program. Working to build a winning culture at his alma mater after the darkest cloud in program history — the Mike Rice controversy — cast a nationally sized shadow over the team, Jordan is looking at the long-term.
To Jordan, this season is not a lost cause. Instead, it’s a chance for his team to grow and develop, hoping to eventually return to the glory of his playing days in 1976.
“This is a learning year … our fans have to understand that,” Jordan said. “We’re a young team and we could come back with everybody healthy and some new recruits that we’re going to get. We had a commitment today … so it’s a learning year … you bring everybody back (next year) and we remember these times we got beat up and hopefully we carry the banner for Rutgers then with a great deal of respect.”
While true that the Cornhuskers started off Saturday’s game on fire from the floor, making seven of their first eight attempts — including six straight — to launch themselves to a comfortable 17-2 lead four minutes into the contest, the Knights did little to take advantage when they cooled down.
Rutgers brought its deficit down to single-digits, but Nebraska quickly responded with a 15-4 run to end the half with a 20-point cushion.
Playing with just seven scholarship players — two of which are taller than 6-foot-4 — has played a big role in the bad stretch of games for Rutgers.
Again missing freshman forward Jonathan Laurent after he suffered a mild concussion in a 22-point loss to Wisconsin, the Knights were forced to play with a small line-up and, as a result, were bullied in the paint and on the glass.
Nebraska scored as many points off of second-chance opportunities (20) as Rutgers scored in the paint in total.
The Cornhuskers also got just one less offensive rebound (15) than the Knights had defensive rebounds (16).
Nebraska nearly tripled Rutgers’ production in the paint, scoring 52 while the Knights notched just 20.
The Knights have faced the challenge of playing undersized against big teams before. But after a while, it can become demoralizing, especially after a performance like Saturday, according to Jordan.
“We got Mike Williams (6-foot-2), Justin Goode (6-foot-2) and Bishop Daniels (6-foot-3) trying to box out 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 guys who are over 100 pounds more than they are and you keep boxing out, but they’re too strong,” the third-year head coach said. “As an athlete, you still give some effort but it’s just hard to overcome. It screws with your psyche and it affects some of your ability to give effort. That’s no excuse, that’s just athletic competition. It’s just what happens. When you’re small like we are, you go through what we’re going through, they’re demoralizing moments and we saw a few of them today.”
Lacking size, the Knights focused on attacking the rim and provoking contact, one of the few aspects of the game they were successful at against the Cornhuskers.
“Those small guys are going to get you to foul, which they did,” said Nebraska head coach Tim Miles of what he expected from his opponent. “Hopefully, you could make it tough for them at the rim and we got some of our young guys to block some shots tonight.”
Rutgers was sucessful, going to the line 28 times and converting on 71 percent of its attempts. The 20 points accumulated at the charity strip accounted for nearly 36 percent of the home side’s offense.
On a night where the Knights shot 33 percent from the field — including 12 percent from three — in a 34-point loss, their effectiveness from the line was crucial in making their second straight blowout loss from becoming an all-time low for the program.
“Our jump shots wasn’t falling. I thought they was going to be soft inside, and I guess they were so my mindset was just to attack,” said sophomore guard Mike Williams, who went 7-for-7 from the line. “Free-throws are a major part of this team. Getting to the free-throw line is a major asset so we just wanted to attack the rim and make as many foul shots as we can.”