July 18, 2019 | 72° F

Rutgers approaches Cleveland State with lots to think about after close win

Knights look for more production out of starting lineup heading into Tuesday


There's only one Blue Devils side that the Rutgers men's basketball team would be okay to go down 10-2 against.

The same could be said for any Power Five conference team, but lo and behold, the Scarlet Knights found themselves down 10-2 to Central Connecticut State 6 minutes into Sunday's game.

By way of some "awful" defense, according to head coach Steve Pikiell, Rutgers constantly had to re-climb that mountain throughout the matchup, down against the Blue Devils as late as midway through the second half. 

"We weren't as good on defense as normal days," said sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, who was one of the few bright spots Sunday.

Omoruyi, along with senior guard Mike Williams, eventually did lead the Knights to a 71-67 win over Central Connecticut State.

But when Rutgers (2-0) returns to the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) Tuesday night to take on Cleveland State (0-1), it simply cannot rely on two players coming off the bench, especially with this game being the team's third in five days.

“We’re always worried about prep time, you don’t have a lot," Pikiell said. "So you got to move on from this quickly. Every game’s a different challenge, everybody’s different. Plus, you don’t know a lot about teams early in the year. ... We got to get our coverages straightened out, and we’ll do a better job with that moving forward, and now we have tape to teach our guys."

That mainly applies to the starting five — a unit that collectively failed to produce against the Blue Devils, with only senior forward Deshawn Freeman reaching 10 points. Freeman also collected seven rebounds, capping off a strong weekend in which he also hit double digits in points in the season opener.

But as for the others — Corey Sanders, Geo Baker, Mamadou Doucoure and Issa Thiam — Sunday's game meant a lack of defensive effort and 3-point production, making a would-be blowout into a game decided in the last few minutes.

Omoruyi and Williams — both shooting 50 percent from the field — picked up the slack for the starting lineup, combining for more than half (36) of the Knights' points Sunday.

Whether their output against Central Connecticut State means they'll squeeze their ways into the first five is anybody's guess, but at the moment that's the least of Pikiell's concerns. If Rutgers elects to play small and Williams is fully healthy, he would generally get the nod over Thiam, as he did in the charity exhibition against St. John's last weekend.

“Well, I don’t really worry about starting Mike. He just keeps playing like this and I won’t be able to take him off the court. Same thing — Eugene could start too, I think I have seven starters," Pikiell said.

Though unlikely, that could very well be the case come Tuesday, when the Vikings of Cleveland State come to the RAC to at least do the same as Central Connecticut State did — disrupt the Knights and throw the team off their game.

With how schedules are laid out at the beginning of the season for Power Five teams, Rutgers struggling against any program before the first month closes is not ideal heading into Big Ten play once December rolls around.

Realistically, there should be multiple wins similar to the Knights' 94-38 romp over City College of New York (CCNY).

Fortunately for Rutgers, it has four more games to redeem itself before squaring off against another team at least equal in skill and stature. The first of those four is against a side who, like the Knights, only saw reasonable production out of two players in their last game.

Rutgers welcomes to Piscataway a Cleveland State team that failed to put up 60 points against Akron and shot 38.5 percent from the free-throw line. As with the fixtures against CCNY and Central Connecticut State, there is no reason the Knights should have trouble in notching another mark in the wins column.

Of course, there's the chance Rutgers may need the individual exploits of someone like Williams again. With the clock of his time on the Banks ticking down, there's just extra energy and passion when he checks into games.

He doesn't have many opportunities left as a Knight, so every game matters — whether it's Cleveland State or Michigan State.

"I just wanted to get out there and just play, because like coach said, I have 28, 29 games left, so every game to me counts," Williams said. "Every game to me is precious, so I wanted to come out here and play like it's my last."

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

Jon Spilletti

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