November 17, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers battles Florida State at home in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Frontcourt leads way for Knights, with 4 players averaging over 5 rebounds per game


The single best sign for the Rutgers men's basketball team going forward is that it doesn't need its star players to have star games every go around. That's what depth is for.

Take Friday's contest against East Carolina as an example.

Junior guard Corey Sanders and freshman guard Geo Baker had off nights, shooting a combined 13 percent from the field, so in came senior forward Deshawn Freeman and unlikely standout junior center Shaquille Doorson for insurance.

Freeman recorded his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Doorson put up career-highs in points and rebounds with 8 and nine, respectively.

But as the Scarlet Knights (6-0) stroll into their first bit of real competition against Florida State (5-0) at the Rutgers Athletic Center Tuesday night, that mentality should be thrown completely out the window.

They're not playing Bryant or East Carolina or the City College of New York, and there's no better person to remind this team of that than the head coach.

"We play in the best league in the country," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "So, we've got to continue to get better ... These guys know there's good teams everywhere."

The game Tuesday is part of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge going on this week in which teams of each conference square off against each other. Rutgers is currently 1-2 in this event, having beaten Clemson in 2014 before losing close games down to the wire against Wake Forest and Miami.

With the Seminoles, the Knights come up against a side that has breezed through its first five games, thanks in large part to a young starting five fluent in the three-ball.

Leading the way in that respect are Braian Angola and M.J. Walker, shooting 13-28 and 11-22, respectively, from beyond the arc so far this season. Florida State as a whole shoots 36 percent from three, a vast improvement over Rutgers' 26 percent mark.

On scoring as a whole, Terrence Mann leads the way, averaging 17 points per game. Mann is also second on the team with 5.6 rebounds per game.

Comparatively, 5.6 rebounds per game for the Knights would be fourth-best on the team. What the Seminoles have over Rutgers in three-point and free-throw shooting (and that's not saying much), the Knights equally have over them down low.

The backcourt of Sanders and Baker was the combination to watch going into the season, but the frontcourt has been invaluable in its production from multiple guys.

"I think the front court has been (leading), between Eugene, Deshawn and Candido giving us good minutes," Pikiell said. "Now, if we get Shaq into that rotation too, I think our front court is capable of doing a lot of things. ... The matchups are always important; who we're playing against and what their skillset is. We continue to do that but I like the pieces."

Rutgers has five players averaging at least five rebounds per game (Freeman, Sanders, sophomore forward Issa Thiam, sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi and freshman center Mamadou Doucoure) and have out-blocked Florida State so far this season, 51-33.

The Knights have the clear advantage in the paint come Tuesday, despite facing a relatively large team in the Seminoles, even with 7 foot 4 inch center Christ Koumadje questionable.

But whatever advantage Rutgers seemingly has over Florida State could very well be offset on Tuesday. Neither team has yet to battle a tough team this year, and the Seminoles have come out of their first five games a lot stronger than the Knights have.

Moving into Big Ten play starting Sunday against No. 12 Minnesota, this is the one of the last chances Rutgers has to smooth out any rough areas. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge provides just the arena to do so — there really aren't many better teams than Florida State to prepare the Knights.

"(It's a) huge challenge obviously. We're playing a really talented team that has huge players. Obviously, the guy (head coach Leonard Hamilton) is a terrific coach and I'm excited to get a home game here in that challenge. Our guys will be ready for it."

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

Jon Spilletti

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