Freshman continues to progress as Rutgers remains winless in Big Ten play
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Freshman guard Corey Sanders went against the old saying, ditching his signature baby dreads in favor of a clean cut ahead of the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s meeting with Ohio State.
Coming into the game having earned his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week after scoring 67 points, 17 assists, 11 rebounds and five steals on 56.6 percent shooting in losses to Illinois and Nebraska, Sanders hoped Saturday would mark a fresh start for the boys on the Banks while maintaining his current form.
Along with the buzzcut came the return of the white headband he’s donned on a few occasions earlier in the season, an accessory that brings good memories to the freshman.
The Lakeland, Florida, native was coming off his first Big Ten Freshman of the Week award last time he wore the headband. He proceeded to drop 20 points, dish four assists and get two steals against UMass-Lowell in the Scarlet Knights’ last non-conference game this season.
While he was able to repeat his individual success, Rutgers was unable to get its first win since that meeting with the River Hawks, falling to the Buckeyes, 79-69.
“(Corey) goes above and beyond the call of duty,” said head coach Eddie Jordan of his prized recruit. “He guards their best players, he is running the show, he’s scoring … we haven’t had a freshman like that here in a long, long time.”
On an afternoon where Quincy Douby, the last freshman to have a similar impact at Rutgers as Sanders, was in the building, the Knights’ leading scorer dropped 23 points as he continues to build his argument as one of the greatest players to ever play in Piscataway.
Clearly the star of his team, Sanders has yet to prove himself to be the undisputed top freshman in the Big Ten.
Leading his fellow conference freshman in scoring (15.9) and steals (1.65) per game entering Saturday, Sanders also evened the score in a battle with freshman guard JaQuan Lyle.
After Lyle dominated Sanders in Ohio State’s 94-68 win over Rutgers Jan. 13, where he became the second freshman point guard in two years to get a triple-double for the Buckeyes against Rutgers, Sanders got his revenge.
Lyle was only able to muster up 4 points in 26 minutes on the floor, a non-factor for Ohio State in its second straight win as a result of Sanders’ lockdown defense.
“I didn’t change nothing up defensively. He was a great player last game, and he’s a great player overall,” Sanders said. “He was just able to score last game … I guess I made it hard for him today. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
Sanders is now averaging 16.2 points per game after his performance against the Buckeyes. As he builds his case for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Saturday’s performance could be pivotal.
When asked about the award, Sanders said he isn’t losing sleep worrying about it, but quickly backtracked and admitted he’d feel a bit slighted if he doesn’t get it come the end of the season.
“If they go by numbers wise, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be Big Ten Freshman of the Year," Sanders said. "That’s an accolade that I want (but) if I don’t get it, I’m not going to cry about it … You know what, that would sit with me a little bit if I didn’t win that award, but ... I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about, ‘Oh, I need to win these Freshman of the Week or Freshman of the Year awards.’ If it comes, it comes.”
But when the awards do come in?
“When it comes, though, it feels good,” he said. “It feels like it’s paying off. I take what the game gives me right now.”
While Sanders put on another show at the Rutgers Athletic Center, his teammates almost seemed like spectators. While he went 10-for-19 from the floor, the rest of his team shot 32.6 percent with a 15-for-46 clip.
But what the Knights' second leading scorer of the night didn’t do in points, he made up for in effort.
Sophomore guard Mike Williams put in another energetic shift for Rutgers, putting up 13 points and grabbing four steals.
His most important contributions, however, aren’t usually evident in the final box scores.
“Believe it or not, he’s our guts and glory guys,” said head coach Eddie Jordan, following his team’s heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Illinois Feb. 3. “Sometimes it’s not pretty, sometimes he misses shots you think it’s going to go in, but he does a lot of unseen things out there, things that don’t show up in the stat sheet.”
With 5:08 remaining against Ohio State, Williams was on the line shooting two. After sinking the first, his second hit the front of the rim and was rebounded by Keita Bates-Diop, who led all scorers with 24 points.
Williams immediately raced towards him, stripped the ball and got fouled while recovering it to return to the line.
“Honestly, the ref messed me up,” Williams said of why he missed the second of his initial pair of free throws. “He threw me off my routine so I wanted to get it back. I’m glad he called the foul to be honest.”
The sequence was just one example of his relentless playing style. While he hasn’t been able match his backcourt partner’s numbers on the stat sheet many times this season, Williams constantly contributes with his infectious hustle and his will to help his younger teammate out.
“For some reason, we can’t find a game where we both could get on. Either I’m on, he’s off, or I’m off and he’s on,” he said. “I’m just here to help him out as best as I can. He’s a freshman, he’s learning … he’s progressing quite fast, more quickly than I expected. He’s a great player and that’s what I expect from him.”