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Stretch puts hopes in jeopardy

<p>Sophomore guard Jerome Seagears sets up the Knights offense Sunday at the XL?Center as Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright defends. Seagears scored in double figures for the first time this season.</p>

Sophomore guard Jerome Seagears sets up the Knights offense Sunday at the XL?Center as Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright defends. Seagears scored in double figures for the first time this season.

Jerome Seagears exited the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s locker room Sunday at the XL Center with his hood up and stood innocently against a white-tiled wall.

The sophomore guard had posted a career-high 21 points at Connecticut only minutes earlier, but talk after the game swirled around the Scarlet Knights’ scoring disparity.

He answered questions about the Knights’ guard dependency. He heard about the team’s offense down the stretch. And he looked to Rutgers’ upcoming schedule for support.

He will not find much.

“This is the most important right here because this next three-game stretch is going to be big for us,” Seagears said. “Although we’re 3-5, we still want to win these next three games so we can get a winning record and just try to push, because that’s going to be big time at the end of the season.”

Three of the Big East’s top-seven teams await the Knights in an 11-day span, beginning tonight at Cincinnati (16-4, 4-3). Should Rutgers (12-7, 3-5) drop all three games, it would need to win six of its final seven to finish at .500 in Big East play — nearly essential to enter consideration for the NCAA Tournament.

Teams that finish two games under .500 rarely stand much chance, except when the league’s depth afforded it an NCAA-record 11 bids to the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

The Big East’s climate is different this year.

Only four league teams are in the top 25, Connecticut is banned from postseason play and West Virginia left for the Big 12, leaving the conference with 15 members.

The Knights, then, need urgency.

“We just have to find whatever it takes, that X factor,” Seagears said. “When we get stops, our offense picks up.”

Rutgers would likely prefer the missing link to come from its frontcourt.

Only 14 of the Knights’ 54 points Sunday came from their forwards, which shot 35 percent from the field. Plagued by foul trouble, senior wing Dane Miller did not take a shot.

“We definitely do, but sometimes we want to get it into our bigs because that’ll make it easier for us,” Seagears said of Rutgers’ reliance on its guards. “If they’re hitting early, we just keep going to them early and see if we keep riding off of them the whole game, make it easy for us at the end.”

But Rutgers’ options inside have their own limitations.

Senior Austin Johnson averages only 16 minutes per game. Sophomore Kadeem Jack is still learning about post offense. And junior Wally Judge, the Knights’ most viable inside scorer, takes only six shots per game.

“We can’t have one or two players, we need four or five players,” said head coach Mike Rice on Sunday. “Our balance has gone out the window because guys are too inconsistent. I appreciate Jerome and his game, but you need more for victory in the Big East.”

Seagears said South Florida point guard Anthony Collins is the only other player he remembers playing with as much poise as Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier. Seagears was the primary on-ball defender against Napier, who shot only 2-for-7 in the second half.

But Napier’s affect on the game spans several layers.

Rice said sophomore guard Eli Carter, the Knights’ leading scorer, is still playing good defense despite a 14-for-63 shooting stretch in five of Rutgers’ last six games.

“When your leading scorer struggles like that, you’re going to struggle at times,” Rice said. “Let’s say Napier was going through that, UConn would struggle. Let’s say Russ Smith, Louisville struggles. He’s pressing.”

For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.

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