Rutgers looks to build on past performances when it hosts Maryland
The most recent outing for the Rutgers men’s basketball team ended in familiar fashion, but it wasn’t a result of the issues that doomed the multiple times this season.
The Scarlet Knights hit 10 of their 13 free throws in the 68-64 loss to Michigan last Wednesday, a 77 percent performance that ranks top among the other 15 Big Ten contests played under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell.
After watching their woes from the charity stripe (a Big Ten worst 61.6 percent) bite them in Iowa City, Columbus and College Park, the improvement is positive progress as the Knights approach the Big Ten Tournament.
“There were practices where we just shot free throws all day,” said junior guard Mike Williams, who converted his three free throw attempts, after the game. “It’s a mental thing. You just got to have, as coach Pikiell would say, some manhood about yourself and just knock them down. I feel like it’s just a mental thing, you just gotta get out there and knock your free throws down.”
Rutgers failed to redeem itself when Iowa came to the Rutgers Athletic Center, the Hawkeyes handing the Knights their worst loss in Big Ten play less than a month after needing a late surge to scrape by at home.
Tuesday night presents a second opportunity at revenge for Rutgers (13-16, 2-14) when it hosts Maryland. The Terrapins (22-7, 10-6) benefitted from the Knights’ third worst performance from the line in their first meeting at the XFinity Center last month, winning by 12 on a night the visitors missed 14 free throws.
Maryland comes to Piscataway on the heels of losing 5 of its last 7 games and dropping two straight by 14 at home to Minnesota and Iowa, a sharp turn from its program-record setting 20-2 start to the campaign.
The current three-game skid the Terrapins are in has taken them from a contender for a Big Ten regular season title to a team in risk of losing a top four seed and a double-bye in the conference tournament that seemed inevitable just a month ago.
The Knights, on the other hand, already sealed a third consecutive last place finish in the Big Ten, locking up the 14th and final seed in the process.
A win in their final two games against Maryland or Illinois throws a monkey wrench in the oppositions season and leaves Rutgers with nothing more than a bump in the win column. While that means next to nothing in the grand scheme of seeding and final positioning in the regular season standings, it can pay big dividends a week later in Washington, D.C.
“It’s definitely important because as everybody knows, the Big Ten Tournament, any conference tournament, it’s really a new season,” said junior guard Nigel Johnson of finishing the season strong. “You could not win a game all year and go in there and win the whole tournament and go to the NCAA tournament so it’s definitely important for us to stay on a groove and play our best basketball of the year at the tournament.”
A meeting with the 11th seed in the first day of the tournament is guaranteed for Rutgers, but who will be on the other side of the court is far from settled. Entering Tuesday, there are six teams who can still finish 11th — Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois, Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska.
Of the group, Rutgers has beaten two (Penn State and Nebraska) and played another two (Iowa and Ohio State) down to the wire on the road, with the remaining two on the opposite end of the spectrum split between dominating and defeating the Knights (Indiana) and not yet playing them (Illinois).
The Knights host the Illini Saturday to close out the season, four days after facing the Terrapins where they can build off two of their most efficient games on offense in conference play.
According to KenPom, the Knights adjusted offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) against Northwestern and Michigan was 109.5 and 100.7, respectively. It marked their first two-game stretch of reaching the 100 point threshold in Big Ten play this season.
Facing the Terrapins, Rutgers will need a perfect performance to win without reaching that century mark for a third straight time. But that won’t be the case if the improvement Pikiell sees in his team continues to manifest itself on the court as it did against the Wildcats and Wolverines.
“They’re well prepared, they come with a good focus,” Pikiell said of his team prior to facing Michigan. “I tell them all the time ‘there are a lot of challenges in this league’ and we challenge ourselves every day. We have to get better, obviously, but this has been a fun team to coach, because no matter what the score is, they keep playing and in tough environments, they keep playing. ... As a team, we’re getting better. … The improvements are there. I know they don’t show up in the win, loss record sometimes, but they’re definitely there and they’re big steps.”