Rutgers looks to end 6 game losing streak
Knights head west to Nebraska for weekend matchup
It has not been long since the Rutgers men's basketball team and Nebraska have battled, but so much has changed in the two weeks since.
For starters, the Scarlet Knights (12-14, 2-11) now find themselves four losses deeper since the 60-54 home defeat at the hands of the Cornhuskers (18-8, 9-4). Nebraska is three wins stronger, sitting comfortably in fourth place in the Big Ten, an impressive feat for a team deemed by many to be cellar dwellers at the start of the 2017-2018 campaign.
On Saturday, Rutgers travels back out on the road to Lincoln in an effort to curb its six-game losing streak when it takes on the Cornhuskers at the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Whether that will actually happen is another story, as the Knights are coming off of one of their worst performances of the season, a 22-point loss to a struggling Indiana side in its own right. Rutgers shot the ball at a 24-percent rate, all of this coming just two days after an almost-upset over No. 3 Purdue.
Those two games present a microcosm of the Knights' season up to this point, and head coach Steve Pikiell is acutely aware of the team's struggles in doubling down on its strong play.
"Do we want to be the team that played Purdue the other night, or do we want to be this team? Our seniors have to decide," Pikiell said, after the loss to the Boilermakers. "We can be a really good team, we can beat anyone in this league. But obviously when we play like we played today, that's not who I want to be."
The last time Rutgers met Nebraska, it was a little more of the team that showed up against Purdue, as the Knights did well in stifling the Huskers' scoring output, holding them to a below 40-percent clip from the field.
Since that game though, Nebraska — not usually a strong shooting team, sitting 12th in the conference in field-goal percentage (.435) — has been on a tear offensively, racking up more than 90 points in 2 of its last 3 games and shooting more than 50 percent from the field in both of those games.
No matter how well Rutgers' defense plays come Saturday, that is something the team can only compete with on its best days — its 80-64 win over Iowa being the strongest example.
More worrying for the Knights is that production is coming from all throughout the squad for the Huskers, with five players hitting double-digits in points in a 91-85 win over Minnesota in their last game.
But leading Nebraska has always been James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland, who average 17.7 and 13.1 points per game, respectively, with Palmer tied for third in the Big Ten. The duo tallied 41 of the team's 60 points when it last played Rutgers, going 5-of-11 combined from beyond the arc in the win.
The two wings can cause trouble for the Knights, especially without two of their strongest defenders in senior guard Mike Williams and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, leaving Pikiell to have to switch around his rotations from game to game.
How he will handle the Palmer-Copeland combo — especially from 3, where they have been getting beat out on as of late — will dictate a large portion of the Huskers' offense.
Nebraska, unlike Rutgers, is not a team known for its unwavering defense, and if the Knights can get the ball in the basket like they did versus Purdue, Palmer and Copeland are going to need the rest of the offense to produce in order to get by.
Getting the ball in the basket has been the chief concern for Rutgers this season and certainly over the last six games, being a large part of its losing streak.
Aside from a few blips on defense and uncharacteristically strong shooting nights from their opponents, the Knights could be two or three wins higher in the Big Ten standings if they had solid scoring performances of their own.
For many on this team though, as the season winds down, it is more about making a good night from the field seem typical.
"We need to get together, talk about it ... and move on from this (Indiana) game," senior guard Jake Dadika said. "Then move onto our next game and just decide how we wanna be for the next five, six games, and go out there and be warriors the rest of the season and battle every game."
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