Rutgers charges ahead for competitive Nebraska side at home
Cornhuskers may be surprisingly tough task for Knights on Wednesday
In a lot of ways, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are exactly what the Rutgers men's basketball team wants to be.
A team that has exceeded expectations in the one metric that matters — wins — during an early conference schedule that very few teams would envy, coming up against six ranked programs.
For a team that entered the season ranked close-to-last in numerous Big Ten preseason polls, taking two of those ranked matchups — by double-digits, no less — would undoubtedly constitute a successful season. Staying competitive in virtually every other game and winning three more conference games to boot is just icing on the cake.
On Wednesday night, the Scarlet Knights (12-9, 2-6) welcome Nebraska (14-8, 5-4) to the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) in a battle between a team that has made slight improvements from last season and one who has steadily progressed from game to game.
Rutgers is the former, a team whose lack of consistency has hampered its progress this season. In the thick of the team's Big Ten schedule, it has hardly been able to string together consecutive good performances.
That came up yet again last time around, following up a dominant win over Iowa by struggling mightily on offense against then-No. 23 Michigan, finishing the day shooting 33 percent from the field.
"We couldn't score today," said head coach Steve Pikiell, after the Knights' loss to the Wolverines Sunday. "Their defense was terrific. If you can't score, you can't win, especially on the road in this league against a ranked team."
Scoring troubles have been a constant issue for Rutgers this year, dictating the end result regardless of its usually stout defense.
Against Iowa, the Knights shot 54 percent and offset a strong 3-point shooting performance from the Hawkeyes.
Just a few days later, Rutgers traveled to Ann Arbor and faced an underperforming Michigan side, one that still finished the day with a 15-point win over the Knights.
It is indicative of the seesaw trend Rutgers has put together through most of its Big Ten slate — winning one, losing one, coming close to knocking off a ranked team and losing to another.
On the other hand, the Cornhuskers have kept up a stable pattern over the last few weeks, winning three of their last five games, one of those being a 20-point win over the Wolverines just a couple of days before they tripped up the Knights.
Three of Nebraska's last four losses — dating all the way back to December — have come against ranked teams, only falling by an average of 5 points in those games.
And statistically, there really is not much reason to believe the Cornhuskers would have knocked off then-No. 14 Minnesota or held then-No. 13 Kansas to only a 1-point win.
Nebraska comes into Wednesday's game as the only team in the Big Ten with a negative rebounding margin — and by a large measure. The team does not shoot well — both in and out of the arc — only ranking above Rutgers in field-goal percentage. And that also leads to a low assist count, posting a 13.7 assists-per-game mark, good for 12th in the conference — still higher than the Knights' last-place 11 assists-per-game line.
But the team has simply found a way to get things done, in part because of guard James Palmer Jr., who stands seventh in the Big Ten in points per game with 16.6.
On the other hand, individual play has not led to the same success for Rutgers. A team that frequently reverts to an iso-offense, the leaders — junior guard Corey Sanders, fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman and freshman guard Geo Baker — have not been able to put together strong enough individual performances to carry the team over the edge when the side is not shooting well.
An inability to adjust mid-game has left the Knights out of the picture in games they really should be competitive in. On Wednesday, they come up against a Nebraska team that has made a season out of playing a meaningful 40 minutes almost every time out there.
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