Rutgers hits road after strong win to take on No. 23 Michigan
It is not all that surprising to see players like sophomore forward Matt Bullock and senior guard Jake Dadika get playing time in blowouts.
But when that blowout is against Iowa and that playing time includes valuable, first-half minutes, there is reason for shock.
That is the game the Rutgers men's basketball team played last time out against the Hawkeyes, defending its home court with an 80-64 victory just three days after suffering one of its worst losses of the season to Ohio State.
A team that has made a pattern of following well-played games with poor ones, the Scarlet Knights (12-8, 2-5) now look toward Ann Arbor, where they will battle No. 23 Michigan (16-4, 5-2) Sunday with hopes of curbing that trend. That means playing close to the way they did against Iowa.
The team has shown it has an ability to respond from tough losses — even with the absence of senior guard Mike Williams off the bench — and the team feels that that ability can translate to following up good wins with more of the same.
"We just try to stay humble, level headed and work," said junior guard Corey Sanders. "That was a tough loss for us, and Mike brings a lot to our team leadership wise, rebounding and scoring, so it's hard to replace him. But we have people prepared to step up. That was our focus coming into practice these past two days preparing for Iowa, and now we're going to prepare for Michigan."
That preparation will include, as it did with Iowa, accounting for Williams's minutes, and Wednesday night, that meant increased minutes all around and time on the court for players like Bullock, who scored his first career points for Rutgers.
For Bullock, more playing time means supplementing his teammates and providing energy off the bench. He did so against Iowa, kicking off fast breaks and working the backcourt alongside Sanders and freshman guard Geo Baker.
"It felt great to be out there. Once I got the nerves out, I think it went pretty well," Bullock said. "I can take this, move forward and try to keep bringing energy to the team. I can definitely build off of this."
Bullock and the rest of the bench will once again have a major hand on this weekend.
Coming up against a stout Wolverine offense — with Michigan being the only Big Ten team with a better turnover margin than the Knights (+4.7 to +4.6) — Rutgers will need to keep its shape and discipline defensively despite the shifting matchups and rotations.
That will also come in play in defending the 3-ball, an area the Knights could not contain effectively versus Iowa, with Hawkeyes Jordan Bohannon and Nicholas Baer combining for eight 3-pointers on the night.
Despite Rutgers boasting the best 3-point defense in the Big Ten — with opponents shooting 31 percent from 3 — the Wolverines come into the matchup with a sharpshooter in Moritz Wagner, who has knocked down 42 percent of his 3-point attempts so far this season.
Outside of Wagner and teammate Charles Matthews, who both average 14.9 points per game, Michigan hosts a modest offense, sitting in the bottom half in scoring in the Big Ten, much like the Knights.
But the Wolverines very much win their games through their defense, and Rutgers will need more of its Iowa performance to come out Sunday on the road. The team shot well from deep, in transition, in the paint and from the free-throw line, and that primarily came through Baker, Sanders and sophomore guard Issa Thiam.
But on Sunday, whether it is from them or a completely different cast of characters, they are going to need the exact same on the shooting end to compete.
"We've played a really tough schedule, so I told these guys to keep fighting," said head coach Steve Pikiell. This was a tough stretch for us, and we were ready to play today ... When we're locked in like that, offensively and defensively, we have a chance to be a good team."
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