Rutgers opens up season at RAC against FDU
The season opener for the Rutgers men’s basketball team has finally arrived, and it will be a familiar showdown, as Fairleigh Dickinson comes to the RAC to face the Scarlet Knights for the 16th time since 1981.
Rutgers, who leads the all-time series 13-2, is coming off a 15-19 season in 2017-2018 and one that ended with a mini Cinderella story in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Knights became the first No. 14 seed to reach the quarterfinals in tournament history, after upsetting No. 11 seed Minnesota and No. 6 seed Indiana in the first two rounds before narrowly falling to No. 3 seed and then-No. 8 overall Purdue. Rutgers fans made themselves known at Madison Square Garden and could be heard cheering the team on through all three games.
Former Knights guard Corey Sanders made the All-Tournament team after leading Rutgers into the third round and taking on the challenge of being the No. 14 seed head on. Although Sanders is no longer on the Banks this season, the team has a number of other players looking to step up into that leadership role.
Sophomore guard Geo Baker made great strides in his first year with Rutgers and had a top-notch game last time out against Fairleigh Dickinson, scoring 19 points and dishing out 11 assists to help lead the Knights to a 92-54 win.
“The final goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Baker said. “As a team we want to win as many games as possible.”
Junior forward Issa Thiam also had a solid game against Fairleigh Dickinson last season, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Thiam went 3-4 for 3-point range and added a steal to his game’s final stat sheet.
Despite the turnover ratio only slightly in Rutgers’ favor at 16-13, the Knights managed to outscore Fairleigh Dickinson by at least 10 points in both halves, including a 50-point outburst in the first half thanks in large part to Baker and Sanders.
In comparison, Rutgers had a slash line of .532/.412/.679, while Fairleigh Dickinson could only muster up a .322/.227/.579 line. The Knights could have had a better end game stat from the stripe after going 9-9 in the first half, but exhaustion clearly got the best of them, as they went a paltry 8-15 from the line in the final 20 minutes of play.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has been extremely successful both against Fairleigh Dickinson and in non-conference games played at the RAC.
Rutgers won both of its games against Fairleigh Dickinson since Pikiell took over control of the team in 2016, while the team has also gone 18-3 at home in games played outside the Big Ten since he joined the sidelines. Pikiell is also 2-0 in his season openers.
Pikiell enters his 14th season as a head coach and the third with the Knights with a fresh slate record wise, but overall, Pikiell is 222-193 with 30-37 on the Banks.
As for the visitors, Fairleigh Dickinson is coming off a season where it went 9-9 in the Northeast Conference and 13-18 overall. Its season concluded in the semifinals of the NEC Tournament, when it lost to LIU Brooklyn in a tight game that came down to a half-court heave being off the mark, and Fairleigh Dickinson losing 78-77.
It returns eight players from last season, including guard Darnell Edge (14.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game) and forward Mike Holloway Jr. (13.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game).
But they will be met by some newcomers on the Rutgers roster, including sophomore guard Peter Kiss and freshman forward Myles Johnson, who both took last season to redshirt, but are now ready to take the floor for the Knights.
“They can shoot, dribble, pass, they see a lot of things on the court,” Thiam said on the newcomers on the roster. “They help us, we help them. We help each other.”
The Rutgers forward duo of sophomore Mamadou Doucore and junior Eugene Omoruyi saw a lot of time on the court last season and are set for big returns this season.
Omoruyi put up 7.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in his second season on the Banks last year after starting seven games compared to 11 the years before, but seeing a spike in his minutes average (12-21.7) in the process.
Doucore started all but five games for the Knights last season, but didn’t get as much playing time as he might have liked, averaging 13.1 minutes per game — resulting in 2.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
As for the RAC, Pikiell hopes to see as many fans as possible in the stands, as Rutgers kicks off another season that is sure to be filled with quite a number of highlights.
“I love the students, we need them,” Pikiell said. “Last year they made (the RAC) electric and packed the place. These guys play better when the students are there.”