Rutgers eyes revenge against Wisconsin in rematch at Madison Square Garden
It’s fair to say the Rutgers men’s basketball team would hit the reset button during conference play if it had the chance.
Though the growth of the Scarlet Knights is evident to both head coach Steve Pikiell and every other coach he’s faced during his first seven Big Ten games, the reality is they have won just one of those games and only managed to keep one of the six losses to double-digits.
But there are no redos in college basketball —the best Rutgers could get is a fresh start. And what better way to change the course of its conference schedule than by avenging its loss against the team it started with?
The Knights will have that chance Saturday when they host No. 15 Wisconsin, who defeated Rutgers by 20 during its game in Madison a month and a day ago.
It’s the first time the Badgers return to the area since their loss to the Knights as the No. 4 team in the country in 2015, the lowest valley on the road to being national runners-up to Duke and the peak of the first of 3 disastrous years under Eddie Jordan for Rutgers.
Luckily for Wisconsin, it won’t have to play on the same court, city or state it suffered that loss in. Saturday’s matchup will take place at Madison Square Garden rather than the Rutgers Athletic Center — this is the second time this season Rutgers has hosted a home game at the world’s most famous arena.
The Knights look to repeat the result, a 68-53 win over Fordham, with the knowledge that their fanbase is expected to do its part. Student tickets for the game sold out by Monday, setting up a crowd likely to be far more raucous than the announced 8,200 people, that sounded like no more than 1,000, as Rutgers easily took care of the Rams.
“It’s going to be more like a home game for us,” Sanders said. “The first time we played there, there wasn’t many Rutgers people. This time, we (are) going to have our students there, going to be more of an environment for us and we are going to be up for the challenge. It’s just another game that we could still beat a ranked team.”
To have a chance of repeating the greatest upset in program history, the Knights will have to fix the free throw shooting woes that led to a loss to No. 22 Maryland in College Park on Tuesday.
They missed more chances from the line than they made, going 10-for-24 from the charity stripe, a clip that won’t put them in a position to win many games — home or away, conference or preseason scrimmages.
Rutgers is cognizant of the issue, spending much of its media session following the loss to the Terrapins discussing the problem.
"We make them at practice. I think it's just a matter of people forcing it, rushing it or just not focusing 100 percent on making that one free throw,” said junior guard Nigel Johnson. “That's definitely a problem area for us, an area we need to correct soon in order to get the win."
Keeping the Badgers off the line on the defensive end will also be key to the Knights avenging the 72-52 loss. Wisconsin shot 28 free throws that night.
It was one of many difficulties Rutgers had in Madison, on that night it turned the ball over 15 times and missed 14 of its first 15 shots.
The rough start began even before the contest when it was announced Corey Sanders would not start the game after missing a flight back to Piscataway from a short Christmas break back in Florida.
The sophomore guard would check in 10 minutes into the contest and put up a pedestrian 4 points on 1-for-11 shooting in 23 minutes.
His night ended midway through the second half when he fell awkwardly on his ankle and was assisted off the court. This was a moment that looked worse than it actually was, as he started the Knights' next game against Penn State five days later.
It was a night to forget for Sanders and his team. What better way to put it behind them than ending up on the right end of the result Saturday?
“We up for the challenge, we definitely up for the challenge,” Sanders said. “I’m ready to go up there and play those guys … I had a bad game personally (in Wisconsin), so I’m ready to go out there and redeem myself personally and from (Tuesday night). Just give us a chance to beat another ranked team and it’s going to be a great feeling if we could do that.”