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Rutgers rides freshman forward's emergence into Minnesota

<p>Freshman forward Jonathan Laurent led the Knights with 19 points and 15 rebounds against Penn State Saturday in Rutgers' leading scorer Corey Sanders' absence.</p>

Freshman forward Jonathan Laurent led the Knights with 19 points and 15 rebounds against Penn State Saturday in Rutgers' leading scorer Corey Sanders' absence.

When Jonathan Laurent entered the Rutgers men's basketball program, he might as well have snuck in.

Because of Corey Sanders' entrance to campus as an ESPN Top 100 recruit, Laurent flew into Piscataway from Orlando under the radar. And at first, it took him time to get acclimated to the next level.

But since Sanders received a two-week suspension spanning four games due to what head coach Eddie Jordan labeled a violation of team rules, Laurent has been forced to step up for the Scarlet Knights (6-21, 0-14) as they drag through the remainder of their regular-season slate in Big Ten play.

His most recent effort, a team-high 19 points and game-high 15 rebounds to pace Rutgers despite the loss to Penn State, proved his progression even further. 

The freshman forward followed up his 18-point, 10-rebound effort at Illinois with his second straight double-double in Sanders' absence.

"I've been in the weight room," Laurent said, attributing his increased production to a physical improvement to complement an aggressive mentality. "We have a really good trainer in (strength and conditioning coach) Rich (Dalatri) has been getting me ready for the season, getting me a little stronger so I can compete with the bigger guys down there and it's been helping me a lot, just confidence-wise, just knowing that you're a little bit stronger than when you came in."

As the Knights ready for battle in their Tuesday night trip to Minnesota (7-19, 1-13), an 8:30 p.m. ET tip-off at Williams Arena and Sports Pavilion in Minneapolis on Big Ten Network, they hope Laurent's rookie season hasn't peaked just yet.

“Jonathan did a lot of good things for us (Saturday against Penn State)," Jordan said. "He’s part of our young core that we hope are going to have success for us in our immediate future with him and Corey (Sanders) and (sophomore center) Shaq (Doorson) and (redshirt freshman forward) Ibrahima (Diallo) and the kids coming in, (sophomore forward) D.J. (Foreman) and (sophomore guard) Mike (Williams) getting older.”

Even Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers had high praise for Laurent. Rutgers surely lacked in firepower against PSU, but Laurent's ability to create space and penetrate to the rim for high-percentage shots caught the opposing coach's eye.

“I really like him. He’s rangy, he’s long, attacks the glass, he’s got a nose for the basketball," Chambers said. "I said that in my scouting report. I’ve never seen anything like it, somehow the ball ends up in his hands."

As much as Laurent's game has taken off, the reality remains with the Knights' collective rut of 14 straight losses in a conference skid now on the precipice of 30 games.

The Golden Gophers found themselves in a familiar position as Rutgers just last week. Minnesota also opened up Big Ten play winless with 13 consecutive losses before shocking the conference with a 68-63 upset over then-No. 6 Maryland on its home floor last Thursday.

For the Knights to shed their demons and snap their own skid, they know the process will take much more than another double-double from Laurent.

But with the freshman's play trending in the right direction, he hopes Rutgers can string together enough to make the stars align and leave the Midwest on top.

"That's why we play basketball. Anything can happen on any night and that game showed you that anything can happen on any night," Laurent said. "That's why we go hard everyday in practice and we go hard everyday in the game because if ... Minnesota can beat Maryland, then why can't we beat Minnesota or Maryland or Michigan State?"

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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