Rutgers eyes revenge at Illinois despite suspension of freshman guard
Just when the Rutgers men's basketball team's season started to look up, it all hit a new rock bottom.
The program announced in a news release on Monday afternoon that it had suspended Corey Sanders for two weeks, keeping the freshman guard out for the next four games.
Head coach Eddie Jordan addressed the disciplinary action in the release, keeping the specifics of the suspension vague.
"Although I am disappointed to announce this suspension, I believe that it will serve as a valuable learning experience for Corey," Jordan said in the release. "The team will continue to work hard in his absence and looks forward to his return."
For the Scarlet Knights, it might not have come at a worse time.
Rutgers (6-19, 0-12) heads to Illinois for a 9 p.m. ET tip-off rematch with the Fighting Illini (11-14, 3-9) on Tuesday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
Given the fact their last matchup was a 110-101 triple-overtime loss where the Knights nearly pulled off their first win since Dec. 28 — and the first Big Ten victory since Jan. 11 of last year — the subtraction of Sanders leaves the team in a limbo.
The Lakeland, Florida, native increased his game averages of 16.2 points and 4.1 assists — both lead all Big Ten freshmen — after his 23-point performance in Rutgers' latest loss, a 79-69 defeat to Ohio State at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Saturday.
He even stepped his game up a bit more on the defensive side of the ball, keeping opposing freshman guard JaQuan Lyle in check for just four points on 1-for-6 shooting.
"I don't really look at matchups too much. I just go out there and play," Sanders said on Saturday. "I don't really care about what the matchup's gonna be because that's not what I'm worried about. I'm just worried about trying to (get) my team to play good and focus and things like that. I'm not too much worried about matchups."
Moving on from Sanders, for now, the Knights will be back down to seven scholarship players. Already working in a seven-man rotation, redshirt freshman guard Justin Goode would be the next scholarship player up in the rotation and Bishop Daniels projects to fill the void at point guard.
The senior guard has played in all 25 games for Rutgers, starting in 10 with averages of 8.6 points and 2.6 assists.
Past the Miami transfer, sophomore guard Mike Williams slides up as the Knights' leading scorer (12.1 points per game) among active players on the roster.
Williams has largely served as a shooting guard with range to complement Sanders as the freshman's game grew but could see a much larger dependence on a team severely lacking now in offensive weapons.
The lack in size has been evident for Rutgers, which is already without three big men while hobbled senior center Greg Lewis plays through a nagging knee injury in his final season on the Banks.
"It was a physical presence we brought (Saturday) — and we haven't had that in a while," Jordan said, referring to his team's presence defending the Buckeyes in the paint. "So I tell my team: Look, we didn't win the 'W' in the 'W' department. But we won the spirit and physical presence and progress. That's what satisfies me."
As much as Jordan might be satisfied by the Knights' effort in their most recent outing, there's no doubt that Rutgers longs for its elusive Big Ten win.
And even if the Knights ultimately matchup best with the Fighting Illini in comparison to the rest of the conference, it expects to undoubtedly grow much more difficult without the presence of their rising star freshman in Sanders.
But with no other option than to bite the bullet head-on, Rutgers heads forward into Illinois with revenge fresh on its mind.
"We can't look over Illinois," Williams said. "We go away to play Illinois for the rematch, the crazy triple-overtime game … I feel like if we could finally come together and (we could) possibly get a win."