March 19, 2019 | 42° F

Rutgers enters 2017-2018 season with postseason sights in distance

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez and Dimitri Rodriguez |

Sophomore guard Corey Sanders sits on the court after turning the ball over in the first half of Rutgers' loss to Northwestern in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament Thursday night.

How much people are expecting out of the Rutgers men's basketball team could be answered within the first few weeks.

There are whispers of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). And while not many peg the Scarlet Knights as a candidate to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, it is not out of the question.

Much of the excitement surrounding this squad comes out of the jump from 2015 to 2016, when head coach Steve Pikiell first took over. Rutgers improved from 7-25 to 15-18 in just one season, and there is no shortage of people who think the team can double down on that result.

Last Sunday's charity exhibition game against St. John's didn't count, but it was a start.

"To get that win, it shows that we're working hard, and it's just more to look forward to," said junior guard Corey Sanders. "(It) felt like it was a great exhibition game, great energy."

Erasing an 11-point deficit midway through the second half, the Knights stormed back to lock the score at 78 before sophomore forward Issa Thiam rebounded and put in Sanders's missed jumper to win it.

Before Pikiell, games like these didn't go Rutgers's way. Games like these didn't exist, period.

Of their 17 conference matchups in the 2015-2016 season, the Knights only kept two of those contests within single digits, losing both, including a triple-overtime home defeat to Illinois.

Last year there were eight such games, not including their three wins in the Big Ten. Whether that'll translate to better play down the stretch this year is anybody's guess, but Pikiell believes that is less about him and more about the identity the team has developed together. There is no shortage of chemistry in the locker room, and the mixture of upperclassmen and incoming freshmen strikes just the right balance.

"I'm very excited about the addition of our newcomers, but I'm most excited that all of our veterans have come back focused and better," Pikiell said. "Experience is always one of the greatest traits you can have. We have veterans who have been through some wars that can help us."

Two of those newcomers have already played their way into the starting lineup — guard Geo Baker and center Mamadou Doucoure.

Baker impressed plenty during the preseason and, though it didn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet, had a strong passing presence on the court against St. John's. He worked the ball into the paint well, often linking up with senior forward Deshawn Freeman and Doucoure in the post. 

The New Hampshire native was also able to control the offense alongside Sanders, switching up reps at the point, as he tied Sanders and Freeman for the lead in assists with three.

Doucoure, a 6-foot-9-inch forward-center hybrid, figures into a small-sided starting five as the center, taking over for CJ Gettys at the position.

As Gettys was last year, he is joined in the frontcourt by Freeman, who may wish his 28-point, 12-rebound output from Sunday repeats itself in games that count later on this season.

The captain, in his final season on the Banks, and Sanders enter as the on-court leaders, and their production versus St. John's confirms that. The duo returns to the team with its eyes set on the same sights as the fans, hoping to get into contention and compete beyond the Big Ten Tournament. 

For now though, as the season comes around in less than a week, all focus is attached to one thing.

"We want to show more progress. We want to show that we're working hard," Sanders said. "The best thing we can give our fans is wins. ... We're trying to really bring that back to the RAC this year. Once the fans see how hard we working, I think they'll get behind that."

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

Jon Spilletti

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