Rutgers hopes to duplicate result from last year as Penn State surges in
This point of the season was supposed to be the easy part for the Rutgers men's basketball team, but it all just cranked up a few notches in difficulty.
Riding a losing streak of 13 games for the season and 28 Big Ten contests dating back to last year, the hits keep coming as the Scarlet Knights (6-20, 0-13) host a resurgent Penn State at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the matchup with the Nittany Lions appeared favorable for the Knights.
Despite the losses piling up, Rutgers had a bright spot with Corey Sanders emerging as a budding star. The rookie guard upped his game averages to 16.2 points, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals — all of which lead freshmen in the conference — on his way to his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week award.
But with Sanders receiving a two-week suspension from head coach Eddie Jordan on Monday, the Knights remain without the Lakeland, Florida, native for the next three games — versus PSU, at Minnesota and at Northwestern.
Back down to seven scholarship players, Rutgers struggled mightily on the road in a double-digit defeat on the road at Illinois — the same team it nearly put away at the RAC before a triple-overtime loss.
"When we come in and we don't get the 'W' and we don't give the effort and we don't see progress, then that's a problem," Jordan said last Saturday, before commending his team's effort in the 79-69 home loss to Ohio State.
But with the Nittany Lions (13-13, 4-9) leveling their overall record back to .500 after an upset of then-No. 22 Indiana before knocking off No. 4 Iowa on Wednesday, PSU has won two of its past three to bring the momentum onto the road.
"I'm really proud of my team, especially the seniors," Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers told reporters in his postgame press conference after upending the Hawkeyes. "I don't wanna diminish anything Nebraska did — they played great in the second half — but that was not who we were and that's not Penn State basketball."
Chambers referred to the Nittany Lions' 70-54 drubbing to the Cornhuskers last Saturday in Lincoln, temporarily halting the momentum from the upset win over the Hoosiers before Penn State rebounded in stunning fashion this week.
Brandon Taylor, who leads PSU with a team-high 16.5 points per game, averaged 21 points an 7.5 rebounds in the two upset wins for the Nittany Lions against Indiana and Iowa.
"It's very true you practice the way you play," Chambers said. "Those guys get after it on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and our practice translated to the game ... Brandon Taylor's leadership the last three days was just incredible. He would not be denied in his last three days and (Wednesday night)."
The Knights, on the other hand, return to Piscataway after dropping to 0-9 in away games as their on-the-road woes continue.
Rutgers, which hasn't had a taste of a Big Ten win in quite some time, chalked up the first Big Ten win in program history at the RAC with last year's 50-46 edging of Penn State on Jan. 3.
But much has changed since the historic win.
The Knights' two leading scorers that day, Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack, both graduated. Luckily for Rutgers, its third-leading scorer was senior guard Bishop Daniels, who had a solid game last time out against Illinois.
Daniels scored 15 points to go along with a game-high seven assists and four rebounds as he took over the role of the suspended Sanders.
As much Jordan claws for positives to pull from his beaten, bruised and undermanned squad's long season, the Knights remain in a predicament as the Nittany Lions pounce into Piscataway.
But even with Rutgers' subpar 6-9 mark to show for its performances on its own hardwood floors, the Knights still feel they hold the upper hand when it boils down to taking the court at the RAC.
And as Penn State enters with a 3-8 mark away from Happy Valley, Rutgers hopes the familiarity of playing at home helps when it returns to defend it on Saturday afternoon.
"Homecourt advantage worked a lot," said sophomore guard Mike Williams, the Knights' second leading scorer in Big Ten play, after the Ohio State loss. "The gym finally got loud, our guests got into the other team's head and we know this court better than anyone else. So that was a major advantage — just wish we got the 'W.'"