Rutgers receives boost from freshman forward
When Jonathan Laurent hit his head hard in the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s meeting with Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Jan. 2, everyone on the Scarlet Knights’ bench held their breath.
The freshman forward left the game and was later diagnosed with a mild concussion, an injury that added him to the already long list of players head coach Eddie Jordan wouldn’t have at his disposal in the early stages of the Big Ten conference schedule.
The Knights (6-14, 0-7) were left with just seven scholarship players heading into a stretch of games at No. 3 Maryland and Ohio State in between hosting Nebraska, No. 20 Purdue and No. 9 Iowa.
The results may have been worse than what was expected.
Rutgers was embarrassed on multiple occasions during the five-game stretch, losing by an average margin of 31.4 points, with all coming by at least 20 points.
The Knights broke the record for worst loss at the Rutgers Athletic Center in consecutive games. After suffering a 34-point loss to the Cornhuskers, who were winless in conference play entering the RAC, Rutgers was humiliated in a 107-57 shellacking at the hands of the Boilermakers.
So when Laurent was cleared to return to practice two days prior to his team hosting the No. 9 Hawkeyes, as first reported by The Daily Targum, the mood around the Knights instantly improved.
“First day of practice when I came back, everybody was happy I came back,” the Orlando, Florida, native said. “We just had another body on the bench.”
But Laurent provided more than that. And the boost transitioned well into the team’s next game.
While Rutgers wasn’t able to snap its now-22-game losing streak in conference play with a 90-76 loss to Iowa, the improvement from the previous five games was evident.
Laurent’s presence inside was crucial in the Knights keeping the game close throughout the first half and for a chunk of the second period.
Owning a rebound margin of minus-17.1 in Big Ten play after getting outrebounded by 40 against Purdue — the Boilermakers had more rebounds (63) than their hosts had points (57) — Rutgers was within five boards of the Cornhuskers when the final horn sounded.
In addition to helping on the boards, Laurent provided a presence in the paint on the other end of the floor. The Knights were outscored in the paint in all five conference games when Laurent was sidelined.
They outscored opponents inside the key in both games he’s played in.
“His presence helped us,” Jordan said of Laurent. “He gives us good athleticism. He’s got a good knack to score around the basket. He defends every position. We’re happy to have him back.”
Perhaps the player most happy to see No. 4 back on the court for Rutgers is Corey Sanders.
The leading scorer among all Big Ten freshmen is tasked with leading the undermanned Knights through the gauntlet that is the conference schedule, a difficult task without his fellow Florida first-year.
Having Laurent back on the floor gave Sanders another scoring hand to feed, something he can never get enough of.
“It was good. Jon’s the player that he is and it showed,” Sanders said. “He’s very active, he’s an explosive guy and he does a lot of things right for us. It was good having him back out there.”
Laurent was joined by junior college transfer Deshawn Freeman, sophomore Shaquille Doorson and redshirt freshman Ibrahima Diallo as the injured players for Rutgers.
Sharing the frustrations and setbacks of being out with teammates going through the same thing was a big help in getting him through it.
“When you can’t practice around other teammates, you kind of feel left out,” Laurent said. “So it was good being around them because they helped me just kept my head and keep it going.”
While the pain of his concussion was difficult to deal with, watching helplessly as his teammates practice and play without him ate at him more than anything.
Now that he’s back, his focus is completely on ending the current 7-game skid and getting the Knights back on track.
While Rutgers wasn’t able to do so against Iowa, things are looking up for the Knights with Laurent back in action.
“I’m feeling kind of banged up right now,” Laurent said following his team’s loss to Iowa. “But really happy to be back.”