Rutgers rides freshman's energy into return to action at home against OSU
At first, no one had an answer for him.
As Corey Sanders raced out to a red-hot start with 17 first-half points, the Rutgers men's basketball team took a surprising 41-39 lead into the locker room at Ohio State on Jan. 13.
Soon enough, it all unraveled as the Scarlet Knights ran out of gas on the way to their third straight loss of 22 points or more in a 94-68 blowout to the Buckeyes in Columbus.
Exactly one month later, the Knights remain in the same place.
Fighting through a 26-game Big Ten losing streak and current 11-game skid since starting conference play in late December, Rutgers (6-18, 0-11) continues its pursuit of an elusive win since flipping the calendar to 2016 as it returns to Piscataway for another round with Ohio State (15-10, 7-5).
"We have had some good practices for as much as we can," said head coach Eddie Jordan. "Again, we're practicing with three walk-ons that are under 6-foot and they're part of a big part of our practices. So we can't duplicate Ohio State's size. We can't duplicate or imitate what they're going to do by going to different spots and what they do with their zone and man defense and offense."
The rematch, a Saturday matinee set for a 4 p.m. tip-off on the Big Ten Network, serves as the Knights' first time back on the hardwood for live action in seven days.
Rutgers took a loss in the same narrative it has all season long in its latest outing, suffering a 24-point drubbing on the road at the hands of Nebraska last weekend.
Mainly utilizing a seven-man rotation as the Knights continue to drag their way through a vaunted Big Ten slate in their second season as members of the conference, Jordan has acknowledged the obvious deficiencies plaguing his team with the numbers serving as brutal reminders.
In eight of its past nine games, Rutgers has given up 87 points or more — largely on its way to second-half routs.
But for as much as they have been bruised and beaten, the fight is still there within the locker room in the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Much of it starts with a face still relatively new to the program.
"Trying to get off to that same hot start and trying to finish off hot, too, and get a 'W,' man," Sanders said. "Our objective is to go out, play hard and get a win. So that's what I'm looking forward to."
The freshman guard has been a bright spot in the Knights' dark season. He brought home his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week award after posting 67 points, 17 assists, 11 rebounds and five steals on 56.6-percent shooting in Rutgers two games against Illinois and Nebraska.
The Lakeland, Florida, native has been forced to adapt after entering the Banks as a pass-first point guard with spurts of athleticism. Since his arrival, Sanders has morphed into a go-to scorer for the Knights, leading all freshmen in the conference with averages of 15.9 points and 4.2 assists to date.
With a well-rounded game continuing to evolve by each of his team-high 33.3 minutes per game, Sanders doesn't shy away from the expectations to grow up quicker than expected as his team needs him to.
"I'm learning how to put two halves together now a little bit more," he said. "The Freshman of the Week (award is) just showing that I'm playing hard, I'm playing good and as a freshman, and I always had expectations for myself to be one of the best freshmen in this league and that's showing ... But at the same time, my big thing is team and we need a team win. So I don't get caught up too much in the hype."
As much as Sanders deflects the individual buzz, his teammates have seen obvious growth.
"It's great. That's my roommate, Corey, so we bonded a lot ever since we came here," said freshman forward Jonathan Laurent. "And it's great for him. I feel happy for him and everybody feels happy for him. I know Coach Jordan feels happy for him. It's just a great feeling that he's having success while playing right now."
With the team still riding a losing streak now for the past 13 months, Rutgers collectively could benefit from another end-to-end performance that has become know as "The Corey Sanders Show" in the past two weeks.
But as far as the freshman guard is concerned, there's still a fine line between putting up big numbers and actually getting it done.
"I guess the difference is the record, man. We could break that little curse we got right now of our losses and get a 'W,'" Sanders said. "Hopefully, we want more than one win. So hopefully, Saturday will be the start to it."