Rutgers looks to stretch win streak to 3 games in Fordham matchup
The Rutgers men's basketball team has not let up since its strong play against then-No. 3 Michigan State.
Even with a rocky start against NJIT, the Scarlet Knights (8-3, 0-2) put away in-state competition soundly in their past two games, defeating the Highlanders and Fairleigh Dickinson by a combined 47 points.
Next on the docket for Rutgers is Fordham (4-5), traveling from the Bronx to the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) Tuesday night at 7 p.m, in the Knights' final game before the Garden State Hardwood Classic against No. 15 Seton Hall.
Rutgers walks into Tuesday night's game coming off of possibly its best game of the season on Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson. The Knights' 92-point line was a product of guard play — the likes of which the RAC has not seen in quite some time.
Junior Corey Sanders, freshman Geo Baker and senior Mike Williams combined for 55 points in the win — outscoring Fairleigh Dickinson by 1 point — on a collective 62.5-percent mark from the field.
"It just makes it easier," Sanders said on having a cohesive backcourt. "I can attack and if guys are drawing in on me, I can kick it to my teammates. ... It just makes the game easier for me as a playmaker and a scorer."
Whereas most of the Knights' wins this season have been a result of strong individual play from one or two players, Rutgers' win over Fairleigh Dickinson was one of the few times this season where an entire unit gelled so seamlessly.
Carrying that into Tuesday night's contest against the Rams is an entirely different question, but there is ample reason to believe the three — and sophomore wing Issa Thiam, who went 3-of-4 from 3 last game — can replicate their play for midweek.
For starters, they are not just showing up on offense. The four combined for a total of 23 rebounds Saturday night, and with the Knights often favoring an undersized lineup on the floor, that is a remarkable feat.
"Our back court was really good tonight," said head coach Steve Pikiell following the team's win over Fairleigh Dickinson. "They rebounded too. Our guards rebounded, if you look at their numbers and that's something we didn't do a great job of the other night."
Beyond the backcourt, the team as a whole should expect to crash the boards more than usual Tuesday night, as Fordham averages 15 rebounds less than Rutgers per game, with its leading rebounder being a 6-foot-3-inch guard.
Still, the Rams will likely hit the Knights where they struggle — with turnovers. Though Rutgers settled down a bit last time out, the team still committed 19 turnovers against NJIT on Thursday, an alarmingly high clip for a non-conference matchup at home.
Fordham forces on average 18 turnovers per game, most coming by way of steals, with the Rams collecting 103 so far on the early season.
When asked about limiting his giveaway rate after notching six turnovers against NJIT, Baker owed his improvements in the Fairleigh Dickinson game to mentorship from Pikiell, something that will likely come in handy on Tuesday.
"Me and coach had a really good conversation after the last game just talking about being focused every game and that every game counts," he said.
That conversation translated into Baker's first collegiate double-double with 19 points and 11 assists, the most assists for a Knight since the 2015-2016 season when Sanders had 12.
Baker and Sanders have settled into their individual roles as guards smoothly in the last couple of games, with Baker serving as a passer and a perimeter threat and Sanders taking the lead on attacking the basket and in the mid-range game.
Against the Rams, they will come up against a similar guard combo in Joseph Chartouny and Will Tavares. In Chartouny, Rutgers faces Fordham's assist leader with 33 assists, though what he lacks in shooting is made up for by Tavares, who averages 17 points per game, the highest mark between both sides.
But Pikiell has a confidence in his two guards together that has not been there all season, and for good reason. The two starters are finally clicking on the same wavelengths in the same games, and that could very well lead to the Rams seeing the same fate as the two teams before them.
"They're doing a real good job," Pikiell said. "I can move them both around and I think we're getting more comfortable with both of them playing on the ball and off the ball. They do a good job together and I look forward to that continuing."
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