Rutgers returns home, hosts Minnesota to start season-ending homestand
Steve Pikiell’s first trip around the Big Ten as a head coach in the conference was by no means a cakewalk, even by the league’s already rigorous standards.
His first Big Ten game with the Rutgers men’s basketball team was against preseason league favorites Wisconsin in Madison. It didn’t get much easier from there as his Scarlet Knights took trips to East Lansing, Iowa City, Bloomington, College Park, State College and Columbus through the first two-thirds of the conference schedule, often playing two games in between every pit stop they made back home.
But as his first season in Piscataway comes to a close, Pikiell and the Knights finally get a chance to set up shop at the friendly confines of the Rutgers Athletic Center, where they play 4 of their final 6 games of the regular season.
To say they’re relieved is an understatement.
“Thank God,” Pikiell said when asked of his first Big Ten homestand. “(The RAC has) our rims and we shoot better here and our fans. Hopefully, they’ll come out and pack the place. It’s been a hard place to play for people and we need some of that … we’ve just been on the road and playing tough teams on the road in tough environments. So it’ll be nice to be home for a few.”
Minnesota (17-7, 5-6) is the first of the four visitors Rutgers (13-12, 2-10) is expecting over the next couple of weeks. The Golden Gophers take the trip east riding high off a thrilling triple-overtime win over rivals Iowa in Minneapolis Wednesday.
It’ll be a second straight Saturday the Knights face an opponent with extra minutes on their legs, with last weekend’s visit to Penn State ending in their first ever Big Ten road win.
The circumstances are nearly all inverted — the Nittany Lions lost in triple-overtime to Indiana at Assembly Hall before hosting Rutgers, where as the Gophers visit the RAC after a win — but the fatigue is all the same.
“It’s got almost like an NCAA Tournament feel of a 1-day prep where (Thursday) wasn’t a whole lot we could do but rest them,” said Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino. “Because (Wednesday) was an exhausting game, mentally, physically exhausting.”
The contest is the first between the programs since last year’s regular season finale, which ended in Rutgers earning its first and only conference win, snapping a 32-game conference losing streak by blowing out a depleted Gopher team playing with just five scholarship players due to the suspension of three players and a season-ending injury to a fourth.
With both teams coming into the game vastly improved from that meeting nearly a year ago, evidenced by the exchange of compliments from the head coaches in their respective media availabilities to preview the game, it’s sure to be a better matchup.
Add in Minnesota’s tendency to play in tightly contested games — 4 of the Gophers’ 11 Big Ten games have gone into overtime — and a gameday promotion surrounding the most contentious debate in the state of New Jersey and this game becomes a must-watch.
“This is an exciting team to watch,” Pitino said of his squad. “Whether or not we win or lose, I don’t know, but we’re obviously in a lot of close games, so from a fan perspective, they’re getting their money’s worth. For us, I hope that helped them mentally get tougher.”
Mental toughness is the biggest improvement the Knights have made under Pikiell that can’t be seen on the stat sheet. Barring their games at Michigan State and Indiana as well as at home against Penn State and Iowa, Rutgers hasn’t let opponents run away like it did last season.
The latest example came Wednesday, when the Knights tied the game up at 62 with a minute to go against Ohio State despite the fact sophomore guard Corey Sanders, their leading scorer, fouled out with five minutes to go and his team down by as many points.
While the rally fell short due to a poorly executed final minute, it was added another example Pikiell could point to when he mentions the improvements he’s seen over the course of the season.
“They fought. That’s all we could ask for,” Sanders said. “I fouled out but they just kept it up, kept with it, kept playing defense and we’re able to tie it up … just to see the fight and not to give up was the biggest thing for me.”
That fighting spirit will certainly need to be summoned Saturday when the Gophers inevitably host their weekly block party at the RAC. Minnesota ranks top in the Big Ten and third in the nation in block percentage, swatting away 16.2 percent of shots taken against them, according to KenPom.
Pikiell warned his team of the Gophers’ ability to turn blocks into transition buckets, one of the many things he rattled off when asked of the challenges the visitors present.
But the Knights present plenty of challenges as well, which Pikiell mentioned and Pitino acknowledged.
Their biggest downfall in games as close as most expect this one to be has come in sealing the deal and hanging onto the win.
Rutgers failed to do it at Ohio State, Iowa and, most notably, against the Badgers at Madison Square Garden. But it did manage to do it against Nebraska for its first conference win of the season and against Penn State for its first Big Ten road win ever.
Whether it will even the scale with a win or fail to hold on late once again will be seen when the Knights make their homecoming Saturday afternoon.
But no matter the result, there is no doubt Rutgers is in a better place than it was when it beat the Gophers 344 days ago.
“We’ve been improving. Every guy is improving, from (freshman forward) Issa (Thiam) to (sophomore forward) Shaq (Doorson),” Pikiell said. “We’re getting better, we’re in all these games. … We’re in every game. We could play with anybody. We just gotta learn how to finish off games and we haven’t been as successful in that part of the job as I’d like. But the guys feel good about themselves.”