Rutgers welcomes Wolverines to commence season-ending homestand
The Rutgers men’s basketball team is heading into the home stretch of its season — literally.
After playing 10 of their first 15 conference games away from the friendly confines of the Rutgers Athletic Center, the Scarlet Knights (13-15, 2-13) close out their season with a three-game homestand.
“No team has been on the road like we have so it’s nice to come home for a few days and practice and shoot on the court you’ve been on all year long,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Looking forward to a home game stretch here. We haven’t really had one all season.”
The first visitor on the docket is Michigan, a team on the bubble fighting for a bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. Similar to Northwestern last Saturday, the Wolverines (17-10, 7-7) can not afford to suffer a loss to the Knights as it would create a severe dent in their resume.
Ruining Michigan’s resume would serve as revenge for Rutgers, as the Knights have never beaten the Wolverines — losing all nine meetings between them, including the 2004 National Invitational Tournament (NIT) Championship game and during the 1976 Final Four.
While the past supports Michigan as the favorite, the present circumstances point positively towards Rutgers. The Wolverines enter Piscataway with a record of 1-7 on the road this season, including 1-5 in Big Ten play, with the most recent coming in the form of an overtime loss to Minnesota.
As similar as their struggles away from home are, the team's strengths and weaknesses are the antithesis of each other.
The Wolverines are on pace to set a program-record in team free-throw percentage, shooting at a 77.8 percent clip from the charity stripe, as the Knights’ 61.2 percent mark ranks worst in the conference by a sizable margin. The same applies to ball security, where Michigan ranks top in the nation in fewest turnovers per game with 9.4.
If the Wolverines keep their turnovers to single digits as they’ve done 20 times this season, Rutgers will need a steady performance on the defensive end, and on the offensive side of the floor, another sparkling shooting performance from Nigel Johnson.
The junior guard has been on fire from the floor since returning from a leg injury, shooting 41.5 percent over the last four games. The best performance over the stretch came in West Lafayette against No. 16 Purdue, where Johnson went 9-for-17 from the floor and 5-for-6 from beyond the arc.
“I just went out there and stopped thinking so much and stop worrying about missing and making every shot and just started playing,” Johnson said. “I got hot and my teammates just kept looking for me and kept encouraging me to shoot. Coach was telling me to shoot my shot, take open shots and I’ve been making them, so it’s definitely boosting my confidence up.”
Johnson had 16 points against the Wildcats last Saturday, a game in which the Knights ultimately collapsed in the final minutes after holding the lead for most of the second half. It was a story seen multiple times this season, one in which 35 minutes of impressive basketball is undone by struggles to hit free throws down the stretch.
Finishing games and developing its free throw shooting are at the top of the list of things Rutgers is working on as the postseason approaches. Because unlike the Wolverines, who are well-positioned to compete for an at-large bid, the Knights’ only hope in reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 is running the table in Washington D.C. next month at the Big Ten tournament.
But before they take the trip down I-95, Rutgers hosts Michigan, No. 24 Maryland and Illinois at the RAC, three chances to build momentum and further the development Pikiell has seen throughout the season.
“We really just want to get some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament,” said graduate center C.J. Gettys. “We want to be firing on all cylinders, stay there the duration of the tournament, make it to the final day. That’s the ultimate goal but we just need to keep working hard and making shots.”