Rutgers prepares for toughest test yet in No. 12 Minnesota away from home
Knights come up against 3-time Big Ten Player of the Week in Jordan Murphy
Coming off of six easy games to start off the season, the Rutgers men's basketball team was thrust into real competition on Tuesday when it lost a close matchup to Florida State, 78-73.
This Sunday, the quality is amplified even further, as the Scarlet Knights (6-1) will open their Big Ten schedule against No. 12 Minnesota (7-1), a team that was a No. 5 seed in last year's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament.
What that means for Rutgers is it is coming up against a Golden Gophers side that is likely angered following its defeat to No. 10 Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. For the Knights, Sunday's game was always going to be an uphill battle even without that added intensity from Minnesota.
For head coach Steve Pikiell and his players, there is only so much they can control in battling the 12th-ranked team in the country. One of those things is preparation, something Pikiell believes the team has plenty of.
"We play hard and we're going to be ready for the Big Ten schedule," Pikiell said. "I think we obviously have as tough a schedule as any team in the league right out the gate. We have to battle."
Rutgers has arguably its most difficult two-game stretch of the season coming up in the span of three days, as it will first travel to Minneapolis to take on the Gophers before playing host to No. 3 Michigan State on Tuesday.
Even so, dwelling on that short turnaround is dangerous for a side that is already at a disadvantage quality-wise. Being away from home does not help the Knights' cause, seeing as how strong Rutgers' student section was last time out against the Seminoles.
Junior guard Corey Sanders called it a "top-five" atmosphere in his time on the Banks, and the Knights could very well get the same treatment Florida State got come Sunday.
Sanders is one of the few players on this Rutgers squad expected to combat a hostile road environment. Leading the team with 13 points per game, the Florida native had one of his best games yet this season, putting up 20 points and five assists, shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
For much of the game he had to pick up the slack for freshman guard Geo Baker, who was called for two fouls in the first four minutes of the game and eventually fouled out.
"Coach believes in me," Sanders said. "I just feel like I can run the offense with that foul trouble. ... I just gotta be confident and run my team like I usually do."
But unlike previous years Sanders has that same support from his teammates, both in the starting lineup and off the bench.
Chief among those, at least coming out of the Florida State game, is sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, who scored a career-high 22 points Tuesday night. Omoruyi shot 82 percent from the field, and is not even a starter. Pikiell mainly uses him as a substitute for fifth-year senior forward and captain Deshawn Freeman, but showed a look on Tuesday with both of them on the floor at the same time. Whether Pikiell chooses to try that rotation again or keep him on the bench when Freeman is in the game, there is no question that the Ontario native has caught the coach's eye.
"Eugene has been awesome," Pikiell said. "He's the most improved guy in our program. I've been saying that. Brings it every night. He'll get better and better. I'm excited about his progress."
Improvements are relative, and however improved any Knight is this season pales in comparison to Minnesota's best player and the best player in the Big Ten so far this season — Jordan Murphy.
Murphy has won three consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week awards and leads the conference in points and rebounds by overwhelming margins. The junior forward averages 21.4 points per game — 1.4 points better than the next on the list — and his 12.5 rebounds per game are a whole 2.6 rebounds better than the next.
Murphy is flanked by a strong three-point shooting backcourt, with the team as a whole averaging 37 percent from deep this season. Comparatively, Rutgers ranks last in the Big Ten at a 26 percent mark.
Where the teams even out is in the battle on the boards, which the Knights need to take advantage of in order to stay competitive with the Gophers. The teams rank first and second in the conference in rebounds per game, with Rutgers in first at 46.6 and Minnesota trailing closely behind at 43.4.
Murphy makes up a good portion of those rebounds, and he will be matched up with the Knights' captain in senior forward Deshawn Freeman, who is fourth in the Big Ten in rebounds with 8.9 per game.
The strongest case that could be made for Rutgers' success against Minnesota comes from Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, who had nothing but praise for the Knights following his side's win on Tuesday.
It was much of the same — rebounding, strong individual performances, the crowd. And that one thing that Rutgers has in its power come Sunday — preparation.
"I thought Rutgers was very well prepared," Hamilton said. "Early in the head game I think they kept us off balance by mixing the defenses. ... It kept us out of rhythm. They were very well prepared, and they got a lot of second shots there early in the game. We did a poor job of keeping them off the glass. The game could've gone either way."
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