Adversity leads Rutgers into Big Ten Tournament opener against Nebraska
INDIANAPOLIS — Six hundred and ninety miles separate the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, and Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
It's a journey that the Rutgers men's basketball team finds itself on as the regular season closes and postseason play begins. Running all over the Midwest in their second year as members of the Big Ten Conference, the Scarlet Knights (7-24, 1-17) have been to hell and back.
They had to endure the déjà vu of the same struggles that led to a 15-game losing streak at the end of their 2014-15 season in basketball's premier conference, seeing that skid continue with the Big Ten losing streak ballooning to 32 as the program record hit 17 losses in a row.
But after Rutgers' first win since Dec. 28, a 23-point blowout victory against Minnesota last Saturday at the RAC, the Knights venture into one last uphill climb as the countdown to the Big Ten Tournament begins in Indy.
Given how the season has panned out to this point, Rutgers knows any road, train or flight to the "Big Dance" teeters on the borderline of impossible. The 14-seed Knights get 11-seed Nebraska in the first round on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network.
But through the dark days and nights of this winter, players like senior center Greg Lewis are still here and ready to give it all they have. That all starts with the Cornhuskers (14-17, 6-12).
"Just try to build on this," Lewis said after Rutgers beat Minnesota, 75-52, on Senior Day at the RAC. "It doesn't matter who we play. We gotta go hard in practice and just try to pay attention to detail and correct everything we've been doing wrong for this past season."
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Considering the past two match-ups with Nebraska, Lewis and the Knights have a ton of film to digest and endless practices to conduct if they're to do that.
But now, Rutgers is as close to full strength as it's been in three months.
The Knights were down to just seven scholarship players at Nebraska, adding redshirt freshman forward Ibrahima Diallo back into the mix and freshman guard Corey Sanders back in the starting lineup since his return from suspension.
Sanders, who leads Rutgers and all Big Ten freshmen with 16.2 points per game and is tied with Ohio State's JaQuan Lyle as the league's top facilitator among rookies at 4.3 assists per game, has turned from a bright spot into a rising superstar.
The former ESPN Top 100 recruit and LSU's Ben Simmons are the only freshmen to average 16.2-plus points, 4.3-plus assists and 1.8-plus steals per game, but opposing coaches in the Big Ten left him off the conference's All-Freshman Team after the list of five rookies was released on Monday.
"I think it speaks for itself," Sanders said of his first year on the Banks last Saturday after the Knights beat the Golden Gophers. "I mean, stat lines are good. It's just the winning side. I'm not really into myself, so I let all of that speak for itself and I just play ball."
As far as the winning side goes for Rutgers, it's clear that Eddie Jordan's team has its work cut out for itself. The third-year head coach came under fire in the midst of the Knights' historic losing streak, but has been vehemently defended by his players all year long.
"I'm a big Coach Jordan fan," Sanders said. "That's my man and I got his backing 1,000 (percent) and I know this win (against Minnesota) is taking a little pressure off him, but we still back at it. We trying to get more wins coming to the Big Ten Tournament. We know we're the underdog, but anything is possible."
Regardless of how Rutgers got to this point, the embattled hoops program is here. And as much as March is known for its madness of upsets, court storms and net-cutting, the realistic scenario facing the Knights is that they don't make it past the Cornhuskers in the first round.
But as Rutgers and Jordan get ready for the do-or-die scenario of the postseason, they go full-steam ahead into their conference's bracket hoping a winner's mentality keeps the momentum rolling.
"We practice hard everyday and our kids they listen and do everything we ask of them so we have momentum every day," he said. "We don’t have bad days and we are not slouching, we are not discouraged. We have great character kids and that is part of what I was put in this position to do — to bring integrity back to the program."