July 21, 2019 | 83° F

Rutgers heads to West Lafayette to face No. 16 Purdue

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez and Dimitri Rodriguez |

Junior guard Nigel Johnson played 19 minutes against Minnesota Saturday, showing no signs of the knee injury that held him out of Rutgers' matchup with Penn State a week prior.

Before Richard Pitino finished his postgame press conference and left the podium in the interview room deep in the bowels of the Rutgers Athletic Center Saturday, the head coach of Minnesota gave a near-perfect description of how the Rutgers men’s basketball team has been performing in its first year under head coach Steve Pikiell.

“They play hard and they play tough,” Pitino said. “It is a scrappy, scrappy team and they have the rebounding numbers and are top 50 in (defensive efficiency rating) ... That's what you try to do in your first year. It is very obvious what (Pikiell) is trying to do. He is trying to get his guys to play scrappy, tough UConn-type basketball. That is very evident. They have an identity and I believe well-coached teams have an identity.”

That identity is one of hard-nosed defense and relentless effort on the boards. The result has been a staggering improvement across the board from last season, but it is in rebounding, particularly on the offensive glass, where the Scarlet Knights thrive.

They average 15.2 offensive rebounds per game, good for the top in the Big Ten and third nationally behind No. 8 North Carolina and Kent State. The number may be slightly inflated due to some putrid shooting — Rutgers rank dead last in the Big Ten in shooting percentage with a 41.3 percent clip that ranks 307th out of 351 teams — but it represents the team’s biggest strength nonetheless.

It also proves to be one of its biggest weaknesses.

The Knights (13-13, 2-11) have yet to win a game in which they were out-rebounded. It has happened on eight occasions, with the 72-63 loss to Pitino’s Golden Gophers serving as the latest example.

It won’t get any easier with a trip to West Lafayette on Tuesday up next on the docket. Though No. 16 Purdue (20-5, 9-3) isn’t as tall as Minnesota as a team, the Boilermakers have what Pikiell called “two of the biggest guys in the world” playing in the post.

He was referring to 6-foot-9-inch Caleb Swanigan, a candidate in the conversations for both the Big Ten and National Player of the Year awards, and 7-foot-2-inch center Isaac Haas. The tandem rank first and third on the team in rebounding, playing major roles in Purdue ranking as the top defensive rebounding team in the conference.

Given the size of the challenge, Pikiell said he’ll make some changes to the rotation.

“Every game poses different problems for us,” Pikiell said before facing Minnesota. “We’re going to have two big guys in that line up (against Purdue) … It’s game-by-game, we go by matchups, who’s playing well (and)f who’s healthy, that kind of thing.”

He mentioned sophomores Shaquille Doorson and Ibrahima Diallo by name, saying a combination of the two or either of them playing with starting center C.J. Gettys is likely to be used.

Whereas Diallo hasn’t seen much of the floor since his impressive display against Seton Hall in the final non-conference game of the year, Doorson’s role has grown in the past couple of weeks. He tied a career-high with 6 points against Ohio State, all of which coming off of putbacks as he collected six rebounds.

Candido Sa, Rutgers' third reserve big, spent most of the season as the trio’s leader in minutes but has suddenly been held on the bench in the past week. The junior played just two minutes in each of the last two games after logging double-digit minutes in all but one of the Knights' first 23 contests.

“I just like the lineup and Eugene has been really good,” Pikiell said of Sa’s limited usage against Minnesota. “Candido’s got to stay ready. It’s not little league baseball. You practice hard, you get opportunities … I thought that was the best lineup (Saturday) against their players.”

Perhaps its no coincidence that this comes as Rutgers' return to near full strength. 

Junior guard Nigel Johnson returned to action from a knee injury against Ohio State, logging 17 minutes in Columbus before putting in 20 minutes at the Rutgers Athletic Center against the Gophers. Sophomore forward Jonathan Laurent finished Saturday night with a minute less than Johnson, his first double-digit outing since picking up a foot injury a couple of weeks ago.

Pikiell said the injuries are "day-to-day", but when facing a top team in the conference at its home venue where it lost just twice this season, the Knights will need all the bodies they have.

“(The Big Ten schedule) is definitely a grind,” Gettys said. “You’re gonna get every team’s best every night and we’ve definitely seen that and we’ve given our best every night, except for the Iowa game. I just think we need to continue to fight and work on the little things.”

The talent gap between Rutgers and its next opponent is nothing new, it has been dealing with this issue for most games since joining the Big Ten three years ago. It leaves little margin for error for any hope of an upset to emerge.

It means the Knights will need to have an uncharacteristically good night from the free throw line, an area that’s doomed them on more than one occasion. That includes a 10-for-22 game against Minnesota and an equally woeful 10-for-24 night in College Park in a loss to Maryland, two of the worst clips that led to Rutgers ranking fourth-from-last in the nation in free throw shooting at 61.6 percent.

In a season of monumental improvement from a year ago, the struggles at the line are a blast from the past, perhaps the biggest reason that the progress is seen everywhere but in the Knights' record.

“Yeah, definitely, because we’re not getting blown out or anything like that,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders when asked if his second season on the Banks feels different than his first. “We’re fighting in every game. It’s frustrating that we’re losing but you could see the progress and that’s something we look forward to seeing. But we want to win, and we can win in this league. It’s just unfortunately, there’s things holding us back from winning.”

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Brian Fonseca

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