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No. 2 Orange highlight RU’s daunting road

<p>Redshirt freshman forward Kadeem Jack defends Seton Hall’s
Brandon Mobley on Feb. 8. Mike Rice started Jack for his length and
athleticism against No. 23 Notre Dame.</p>

Redshirt freshman forward Kadeem Jack defends Seton Hall’s Brandon Mobley on Feb. 8. Mike Rice started Jack for his length and athleticism against No. 23 Notre Dame.

The Rutgers men’s basketball team entered its matchup Wednesday with No. 23 Notre Dame having lost five of its last six games. It then faced three consecutive games against the top-three Big East programs.

The Scarlet Knights began the stretch with an 18-point loss to the Fighting Irish. The road does not get easier Sunday, when the Knights take on No. 2 Syracuse at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.

“We’re really going to be locked in on having the best possession of offense, the best possession of transition defense to the best halfcourt defense,” said head coach Mike Rice on Monday. “We’re as locked in as that.”

Dane Miller heeded Rice’s call against the Irish. The junior wing scored 11 points and added 12 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season. He had 10 and 10, respectively, in the first half alone.

But only freshman guard Eli Carter joined Miller with 10 points, dropping Rutgers to 4-11 when less than three players score in double figures. The Knights are 0-7 when scoring less than 60 points.

“They play at their pace. [Notre Dame is] a smart team,” said sophomore guard Mike Poole on Monday. ‘Their players stick to their strengths.”

The Orange (26-1, 13-1) bring their own set of assets to Piscataway.

Under head coach Jim Boeheim, Syracuse leads the Big East in scoring and scoring margin, beating opponents by more than 16 points on average.

Boeheim claims arguably his deepest roster, having 10 players if he needs them. Rice said earlier in the season Boeheim’s five substitutes could contend for a conference title on their own.

The Orange shoot the highest percentage in the league, lead the conference in blocks and rank second in assists.

If any team has Final Four pedigree, Syracuse fits the bill.

But Rice cannot afford to have the Knights (12-14, 4-9) take much notice.

“If you start to look — ‘Oh, we have Notre Dame who’s top 25. You have No. 2 [Syracuse]. Then you’re at Marquette’ — it’d be too much for these young guys,” Rice said Monday.

The Orange are likely the Knights’ toughest test in recent memory. But Rutgers had its fair share of success against top-10 teams, beating four in three seasons at the RAC.

Syracuse is the benchmark. Still, it remains mortal.

The Orange rank 14th in the league in rebounding margin, largely because their 2-3 zone inhibits them on the defensive end. They pull down more than 22 defensive rebounds per game, which is 13th in the Big East.

Rice opted for a more athletic frontcourt against Notre Dame, starting redshirt freshman forward Kadeem Jack for his length and quickness. But Jack might now be a necessity — not a luxury — against the Orange.

Boeheim has larger versions of Jack. He also has more.

Six of Boeheim’s regular contributors stand above 6-foot-7. His frontcourt is rangy, strong and aggressive.

The Orange average 13 offensive rebounds per game. The Knights allowed 13 to the Irish.

But Rutgers’ schedule does not get easier once Syracuse returns to upstate New York. A matchup with No. 12 Marquette in Milwaukee awaits, followed by a reunion with Seton Hall.

A 4-11 start to Big East play is not far from the realm of possibility. But it does not mean it would not be disappointing, following a 3-3 stretch to begin the conference schedule.

For some, it means looking back to those top-10 victories, even if they are now distant memories.

“All the good times that we had, all the big games we know,” said junior forward Austin Johnson on Monday. “We know we’re more capable than what we’re putting out right now. We just have to stick with it.”

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