Rutgers returns to RAC for final home stretch
How much worse can it get?
After the Rutgers men's basketball team's most recent time out on the court delivered a walloping 39-point blow at Northwestern in the Scarlet Knights' final road game of the season, the struggling squad returns home to the Rutgers Athletic Center.
But its next contest, a 7 p.m. tip-off on Big Ten Network against No. 2 Michigan State, projects to provide the complete opposite of a warm welcome back to the RAC.
The Spartans (24-5, 11-5) enter Piscataway on a power trip, winners in eight of their past nine games. Even Sparty's only loss in the stretch, an 82-81 overtime squeeze at then-No. 18 Purdue, could have very well gone the other way.
"I guess what I was most pleased about, as we enter into this final week, is I still think we took a step forward (Sunday after the 88-57 win against Penn State)," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said to reporters in his weekly press conference on Monday.
Rutgers (6-23, 0-16), meanwhile, is in a different state right now.
The Knights have lost 16 straight on the season, in the midst of a Big Ten skid pushing 14 months at 31 conference losses in a row since Jan. 11 of last year.
In their past three games against Penn State, Minnesota and Northwestern, Rutgers has been missing in action on the perimeter. Combined, the Knights' past three opponents have shot 35-for-72 from deep, calculating to 48.6 percent.
The Wildcats (18-11, 6-10) entered the game converting 8.5 treys per game despite sitting near the bottom of the Big Ten at 11th place at the time but buried Rutgers behind a 17-for-28 clip from 3 to make life miserable for the Knights.
It's been an ongoing problem for Rutgers, and with Michigan State having already proven to be deep and dangerous after netting a school-record-tying 17 3-pointers in the 96-62 blowout at Breslin Center in East Lansing, it isn't slowing down any time soon.
"We had to defend (all over the floor)," said sophomore forward D.J. Foreman, after Penn State dropped a 9-for-22 clip on the Knights in their 70-58 loss to the Nittany Lions on Feb. 20. "And it just left a lot of opportunities to everyone else."
Luckily for Rutgers, some help is on the way.
Corey Sanders has returned to practice and will be active for the Knights after serving his four-game suspension over the span of the last two weeks. Third-year head coach Eddie Jordan announced the disciplinary action for the freshman guard in a release on Feb. 15 after a team rules violation.
On top of receiving the two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week back into the lineup to defend along the perimeter, Rutgers has another body down low.
Redshirt freshman Ibrahima Diallo made an early return for the Knights last Saturday at Northwestern, grabbing 3 points and two rebounds during 18 minutes in what was the 6-foot-10 forward's first live game action since Dec. 12 at George Washington. He returned from a fractured foot that initially ruled him out for the season.
While he's aware of how poor Rutgers has played this season, those two additions haven't flown under the radar to Izzo.
"This week, everybody knows what we've got going to this team that's 0-16, a team that's had its best player out the past four games and he comes back in Sanders ... They also got the kid, Diallo, a (6-foot-10) kid who hasn't played all season, really," he said. "We're just trying to sell to our team this: Listen, if we're gonna try to keep getting better everyday, we shouldn't worry about any other things than us."
The Knights get a jolt of energy with nine scholarship players expected to be available for the David-versus-Goliath matchup with the Spartans, giving an undermanned and depleted lineup for much of the season some needed help.
But even at that, there's no telling how much will be enough to dethrone Michigan State.
"Basically, we've been in this situation before. We (were) here last year," said senior guard Bishop Daniels on Feb. 20. "You've just gotta keep fighting. You've gotta get better because the main thing is it's a learning lesson. We can't always win. You're gonna face some struggles in life that you gotta overcome, and this is the perfect time to experience those and see what you gotta do to overcome those certain situations."