Rutgers playing well against conference foes, but 2nd half woes holding team back
For almost the second consecutive road game to start the season, the Rutgers men’s basketball team was looking at an upset that would have catapulted its season into new heights. But despite finishing the job last week against Miami, the team could not close things out Monday night against No. 12 Wisconsin.
The Scarlet Knights (5-3, 0-2) forfeited a 10-point lead in the first half and an overall 5-point lead at halftime, and eventually fell to the Badgers (8-1, 2-0), 69-64 in what was a bittersweet start to their three-game road trip.
Rutgers could not match the same effort it produced last season when it faced Wisconsin at home in Piscataway, N.J., where the Knights captured a hard fought upset win over the Badgers by a similar score of 64-60.
Here are three takeaways from Rutgers second straight loss to a top-12 Big Ten team:
Conference competition brings out the best
Looking back at the Knights' first loss of the season to an unranked St. Johns, they were essentially outplayed from start to finish and nearly lost by 20 in front of their home crowd. Rutgers shot 35 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3, and sophomore guard Geo Baker could not get anything going offensively for himself — he shot 1-7 for 7 points.
But in the recent losses to then No. 9 Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Knights have put up much better fights and gave themselves multiple chances to potentially steal those games. The free throw numbers (11-16 vs their 19-25) and foul trouble were costly against the Spartans, while fatigue in the second half on both sides of the ball hurt the team against the Badgers. Rutgers now enters a stretch of four non-conference games that does not sit it facing a Big Ten foe again until January, a long break that can both get the team some much needed wins and help get it momentum to get over the hump when it comes to conference play.
Speaking of Baker, the New Hampshire native and junior forward Ontario, Canada native Eugene Omoruyi have separated themselves as the clear leaders of this young Knights team in the early season. Less than 10 games into the season, Baker and Omoruyi are No. 1 and 2 in points per game (15.4 for Omoruyi and 14.6 for Baker) and assists per game (4.4 for Baker and 2.1 for Omoruyi). Monday night, Omoruyi led the offensive effort with a team high 17 points on 7-14 shooting and also grabbed a game high eight rebounds. Baker added another 15 points to help keep Rutgers in contention for all 40 minutes of play. This duo will be important pieces moving forward as the Knights look to make a push for the NCAA Tournament.
Though this was touched upon earlier, it is important to stress that Rutgers has had trouble maintaining its first-half production when the team comes out of the locker room for the second half, so far this season. Monday night it squandered a 5-point lead and was outscored in the second half by 10 points. Against Michigan State it let a 2-point halftime deficit grow to as many as 14 points with less than 4 minutes to play in the game. Then, in the win against Boston University after Thanksgiving, the Knights could not capitalize on a 10-point lead after 20 minutes of play and actually tied with the Terriers. Head coach Steve Pikiell seems to know what to say in the locker room prior to tipoff, but has a harder time rallying the team to carry over its play after halftime. He will need to think of a new rally speech fast and might need to add some more cardio to the practice routine, as the team has clearly been tiring out as the games wane on.