Early Big Ten schedule gives Rutgers opportunity to adjust, shape team identity
No. 12 Minnesota, No. 3 Michigan State are 1st on docket for Knights
The Rutgers men's basketball team won its first six games handily — Central Connecticut State being the outlier — because it should have.
The Scarlet Knights boast a '6' in their win column, and it means almost just as much as the '1' in their loss column.
That '1' came out of Rutgers' 78-73 loss to its first real bit of competition of the 2017-2018 season, Florida State (6-0). Until the last couple of minutes, the Knights kept the game within their reach, never letting the Seminoles get too large of a lead on them.
Ultimately it was the breakout play of Florida State's Phil Cofer and CJ Walker, who proved the difference.
From here on out, that is exactly what Rutgers should expect.
With the opening tune-up games in the rearview window for the Knights, they have their first stretch of conference matchups on the docket. Following that is a series of games against New Jersey and New York teams, notably Seton Hall (5-1), who dropped out of the AP Top 25 from its perch at No. 20.
As the calendar flips to January, so does Rutgers' schedule to the Big Ten until the end of the regular season.
It is the same deal as any season, but being that this is the team's second year under head coach Steve Pikiell, expectations are heightened.
The Knights came out of non-conference play this year with strong individual performances across the board, as roleplayers like sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, sophomore forward Issa Thiam and junior center Shaquille Doorson have carved out more minutes for themselves.
But the team as a whole did not play its best brand of basketball, despite the end results, owing to the fact that there should not be too much stock put into their six early wins. Last year, Rutgers started its season 11-1, but finished 15-18, going 3-15 in conference play.
It was an improvement from the year before, and the same could be said from this year to last year, but there really is no substitute for a competitive opponent. For most of the rest of the way, that is what the Knights are getting, and their initiation into Big Ten play this season can not get much tougher.
In the span of two days, Rutgers will travel to Minneapolis to take on No. 12 Minnesota (7-0) before coming back home to battle No. 3 Michigan State (5-1). It is the most difficult two-game stretch the Knights will come across all season, playing against the only two currently ranked Big Ten sides.
When the team resumes its conference slate in January, it will square off against Purdue (6-2) on the road, a team that could very well sneak back into the national rankings when the time comes, as the Boilermakers are receiving votes at the moment.
It is a steep turnaround from the first six games to the competition of the Big Ten, but there is consolation in the down-to-the-wire loss to Florida State Tuesday night.
Rutgers played close basketball with a middle-of-the-road Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) team that is likely to play its way into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament this year.
It at least suggests that the jump in quality may not be as bumpy as it was last year for the Knights. There is a reasonable chance that year two in the rebuild accounts for that transition, at least keeping the team competitive with its conference counterparts.
What is for certain is that Rutgers will know exactly what team it actually is a week from now.
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