Rutgers vs. Hartford: 3 observations from the inexcusable loss
If you thought the Rutgers men's basketball team learned its lesson about taking low-major teams lightly after an upset loss to Stony Brook last Friday, you would be dead wrong.
The Scarlet Knights (10-5, 0-2) hit a new low under Steve Pikiell after falling to Hartford (7-7) by a score of 60-58 at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on Thursday night.
Going into matchup, the Hawks were ranked No. 322 out of 351 teams in KenPom, a statistical ranking of all Division I teams based on efficiency. Rutgers was ranked No. 99 and given a 94 percent chance to win its non-conference finale.
Despite that, the Knights were out-played by a team with less talent and paid the price for a slow start, highlighted by a 16-8 deficit to open up the game.
Here are three lengthy observations on one of the team's worst losses in recent memory.
Rutgers should probably never schedule Hartford again
Last year, the Knights had to scratch and claw back from a 13-point hole with under 5 minutes left in the game against the Hawks and barely escaped with the 77-75 win in a game they should have put away with ease. Rutgers played with fire once again versus Hartford and wasn't so lucky this time around.
The Hawks simply made more shots and were more clutch to close out the game, earning every bit of its highest-ranked KenPom win since taking down No. 60 Stony Brook (a team that was coached by Pikiell as well) in 2013. The bottom line is that the Knights should be able to beat Hartford with ease and have failed to do that two seasons in a row, at home nonetheless.
It's time for Rutgers to ramp up its strength of schedule, because late-December games against low-ranked teams like Hartford offer no advantage.
“Last year against them it came down to that last possession too. They have good players and they are well coached," Pikiell said. "They were here for three days working out in our gym, so they were ready for the game. I thought we were ready too. We had our two best practices of the season, so I thought we were in a good place heading into the game."
As a leader on the team, Corey Sanders needs to show more responsibility
The junior guard was benched for the first 9:04 of the game because he missed his flight back from Florida on Tuesday and as a result was not at practice. If it's a one-time thing, that is understandable, but the same exact thing happened last year when Sanders missed his flight back after Christmas and was subsequently put on the bench to start the team's game against Wisconsin, its first game after Christmas.
Sanders has a rocky history on the Banks, as he was suspended for two weeks his freshman year for an undisclosed violation of team rules, had the flight mishap a year ago and was also benched for the beginning of the team's game against Coppin State this year for a lack of effort in practice.
Let it be clear that him being on the bench for that 9-minute span was not the sole reason why the Knights lost, but it played a role, as they went on a huge run the moment he came in and it was clear the offense was a lot less effective when he was off the court.
"He missed his flight (back to Rutgers after the team’s break). So he missed practice the other day. He came back, he responded. It happens, traveling the day after Christmas is tough," Pikiell said of the situation. "He didn’t start as a result. He likes to start. But it happens, that’s a busy travel day."
But Sanders posted on his Instagram that the reason he missed the flight was because he was sleeping. He needs to be more responsible, as his absence in the first half proved how valuable he is to the team. Rutgers goes as Sanders does, and the point guard out of Lakeland, Florida needs to show more responsibility.
It only gets tougher with a trip to No. 14 Purdue up next
The Knights will get run out of the gym before halftime if they play even remotely close to the level they did on Thursday night. As Pikiell alluded to, there is no excuse for being out-rebounded by a team like Hartford and it was the second consecutive game that Rutgers was beaten on the boards by a low-major team.
"The rebounding is a little frustrating to me because I think we’re a great rebounding team, but we’ve been out rebounded in the last two games,” Pikiell said.
The Boilermakers are arguably the best offensive team in the Big Ten, leading the conference in points per game, scoring differential and three-point shooting percentage and are second in both free throw and field goal percentage.
It will be a tough test for a solid Rutgers defense, but the biggest concern will be the Knights' ability to score points. Purdue is not an elite defensive team, but is above average and Rutgers has been abysmal on the offensive end its last two games.
The Knights shot 34.5 from the field against a typically weak Hartford defense and were 12 of 22 from the free throw line. They will struggle mightily in conference play when the defensive quality increases if things do not change drastically.
"...This is college basketball," senior guard Mike Williams said. "Anything can happen on any given day. We’ll get back to the drawing board tomorrow and get ready for Purdue.”