Rutgers dominates Cleveland State to start season 3-0
Just two days after sleepwalking through a close win over Central Connecticut State, the Rutgers men's basketball team put together a dominating performance to cruise by Cleveland State, 70-38.
While true freshman guard Geo Baker broke out for career highs in points (14) and assists (7, with 0 turnovers), it was a balanced effort across the board for the Scarlet Knights (3-0).
Junior guard Corey Sanders notched a double-double with 13 points and a career-high 10 rebounds to go along with a season-high 6 assists. Sophomore wing Issa Thiam added 14 points of his own and 7 rebounds. Senior forward and captain Deshawn Freeman rounded out the Knights in double figures with 10 points.
But most importantly, Rutgers was able to get back to its dominant defensive ways, holding the Vikings to just 31 percent shooting from the field and an abysmal 13.6 percent mark from three-points range.
In their last game, the Knights allowed the Blue Devils to shoot 48 percent, a number not nearly good enough for Pikiell.
But his team bounced back on Tuesday night and completely dominated Cleveland State, especially in the second half when it allowed just 16 points.
"That's the kind of defense that I like," Pikiell said. "Everybody contributed and it's a great team win."
And while defense was the reason the Knights won, it was an offensive possession that may have given them the spark they needed to pull away.
After going 0-7 in the first two games of the season from three-point range, Baker finally broke through and sunk the first long range shot of his Scarlet Knight career with 5:45 remaining in the first half.
"My teammates just kept telling me to keep shooting and they really believed in me," Baker said. "It felt really good when I shot it and it went in."
After making the shot, Baker looked up to the ceiling and appeared to let out a huge sigh of relief. While Pikiell was happy for the budding star, his reaction was not the same, to say the least.
"Just get back on defense," Pikiell said when asked what it was like to see Baker make that shot.
And for the second time this season, Rutgers received a huge boost from the aforementioned Thiam, who is starting to develop into a really important player for Pikiell.
The Senegal native caught fire from three-point range, starting the game 4-5 from deep. But he also contributed on the boards with his 7 rebounds, an area that didn't exist in his game a year ago.
"(I) loved Issa," Pikiell said. "He's gotten better...He made some timely shots. He's been better. He's been better all year, he's been better in practice. His rebounding numbers now are crazy for a guy who didn't rebound a lot last year."
And of course, it wouldn't be a Rutgers basketball game without mentioning Corey Sanders, who hit double-digits in rebounds for the first time in his career. Sanders has already shown an increased willingness to go up for boards in the first two games, and Tuesday's performance was the best in his career in that respect.
While he joked after the game that he doesn't spend extra time working on rebounding, he admitted that he wants to push the ball in transition and he wants to get the ball in his hands to get the offense up the court. The only way to guarantee the ball in his hands after a missed shot is to get it himself, and he shown a tremendous drive to make that happen.
"If I can rebound the ball, we can start the (fast) break," he said. "...I'm just trying to get the ball and push it. We're a fast team, we got fast guys and we try to use that to our advantage."