Sanders to stay in Piscataway after strong freshman season despite coaching speculation
INDIANAPOLIS — The last member of the Rutgers men’s basketball team to walk off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis was the one who gave the most to the Scarlet Knights all season.
Freshman guard Corey Sanders hung his head after his team suffered its 18th loss in its last 19 contests, an 89-72 drubbing against 11-seed Nebraska (15-17, 6-12) in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, as assistant coach Greg “Shoes” Vetrone wrapped his hand around his waist.
But there was nothing Vetrone could do to take away the pain of the final bump on the seemingly endless road that was the Lakeland, Florida, native’s freshman season on the Banks.
“I knew (my freshman season) was over with like two minutes left (in the game),” Sanders said. “(Vetrone) was telling me it was one of those nights. I really couldn’t find myself, man.”
Rutgers (7-25, 1-17) once again bowed out in the earliest moment possible after losing in the first round of the conference tournament for the second consecutive season.
While losing to the Cornhuskers wasn’t a new experience for Rutgers this season — it lost the previous two meetings this season by an average of 27 points — the lack of production from its star player wasn’t expected.
Sanders — who led the Knights, as well as all Big Ten freshmen, with an average of 16.2 points per game — could only muster up 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting in 31 minutes.
Guarded tightly by Benny Parker for a long stretch in the second half, Sanders struggled to sink routine shots he’s had little difficulty making throughout the season. He doesn’t believe it was his defender that slowed him down, though.
“I feel like nobody could guard me anyway. It was just, the ball wasn’t going in for me. It wasn’t going my way this night,” he said. “I sat down for a long period of time in the first half and I feel like that’s what threw me off.”
With his first season at Rutgers officially complete, Sanders could reflect on the campaign he was able to put together.
Despite finishing the regular season at the top among Big Ten freshman in scoring (16.2 per game), assists (4.3 per game) and steals (1.8 per game), he was not selected by conference coaches to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
Earning an All-Big Ten honorable mention from members of the media wasn’t enough to satisfy Sanders, who felt like he didn’t get what he deserved for what he was able to produce.
“I did get snubbed (from the Big Ten All-Freshman team). It is what it is. I ain’t really too worried about it, but I got snubbed,” he said. “I led Big Ten freshmen in three categories, I was top-10 in the others, so I felt like my freshman campaign was pretty good.”
The Knights' best player this season has been a big supporter of head coach Eddie Jordan from the moment he stepped on campus in Piscataway.
But with the third-year head coach firmly on the hot seat following a second consecutive last-place finish in the Big Ten after two losing streaks of at least 15 games, questions of Sanders transferring have been raised by the scarlet faithful.
He put all the doubts of his loyalty to Rutgers to rest following the game.
“Next season starts now,” he told The Daily Targum. “This is my team. Whatever happens, I'm going to be here."
While Sanders still has at least three years of college eligibility remaining, four Knights played their final minutes of collegiate basketball in Indianapolis.
Senior guard Bishop Daniels, senior center Greg Lewis, graduate transfer Omari Grier and senior walk-on guard Jalen Hyde donned their Rutgers jersey for the final time against the Cornhuskers, ending another tumultuous season with a result they’ve become accustomed to.
Reflecting back on their final season shortly after it ended, the only thing they could do was express gratitude to those who went through the adversity with them.
“The main thing is just talking to the young kids and thanking them and coach Jordan for giving us this opportunity this year, to fight with us through all the struggles,” Daniels said. “Like I said, main thing was just thanking everybody.”
Lewis, who played in 31 of the Knights' 33 contests this season despite a knee injury that left him hobbling up the stairs of the Rutgers Athletic Center after games, agreed with his classmate, adding the difficulties his team faced with all the injuries it had.
“Yeah, I feel the same way. Just thanking the guys,” he said. “Like coach said, we were down men, all types of adversity and we still came to fight every day. So I’m appreciative.”
Rutgers played a majority of its conference schedule with just seven scholarship players, including a four-game stretch playing with six.
The Knights were without junior college transfer Deshawn Freeman (knee), who led the team in scoring prior to his injury, after their loss to Wake Forest Nov. 30.
The blow came after losing sophomore center Shaquille Doorson (foot) in the preseason and before losing redshirt freshman forward Ibrahima Diallo for 18 games with a broken foot in the week of practice after the loss at George Washington on Dec. 12.
The injuries had a big impact on Rutgers' performance on the court as it suffered 13 losses by at least 20 points, including a program-record 50-point loss to Purdue at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Jan. 18.
Of the 13 blowouts, 10 came during the program-record 17-game losing streak to start Big Ten play.
But what wasn’t seen was how the injuries limited the Knights ability to prepare for the gruesome conference schedule they faced.
“We couldn’t have practice where we could simulate the other team. We had three walk-ons all under 5-foot-10 playing forward position and you just can’t duplicate (Nebraska senior guard) Shavon Shields driving with a 5-foot-9 walk-on,” Jordan said. “Those are ramifications that you just can’t get better and in some places, you can’t grow as fast as you’d like because you just can’t simulate the other team with a scout team. That’s just part of it.”
While Jordan may find himself without his job at the helm of his alma mater next winter, Rutgers has some things to look forward to in its third season in the Big Ten.
With Freeman coming back healthy, transfer guard Nigel Johnson gaining eligibility after sitting out a season due to NCAA regulations, a more physically and mentally developed Sanders and a full roster after it recovers from injury, there’s nowhere to go but up in Piscataway.
“I know he has a good group of kids coming back,” Daniels said. “They’re going to be good next year.”