Rutgers hopes to curb its offensive woes on the road against Illinois
Knights look to recover from poor shooting
When you sport the worst offense in your conference, bucking your own trends and producing an out-of-the-ordinary basketball game is one way to solve that.
That is what came out of the Rutgers men's basketball team's loss to Penn State Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Scarlet Knights undermined their Big Ten-leading 14 offensive rebounds per game with only two the entire game. On the positive side, they compiled more assists on Saturday than they had in their previous two games combined, dishing out 10 on the day.
But of course, there was one pattern Rutgers could not curb, and that is the reason for the 17-point loss to the Nittany Lions. It is the reason for all of the Knights' last three losses, and as Rutgers (12-11, 2-8) prepares to hit the road once more against Illinois (11-11, 1-8), there is no area the team needs to focus on more.
"(We) couldn’t make a shot," said head coach Steve Pikiell, following the 60-43 defeat to Penn State on Saturday. "It kind of got away from us a little bit, and our inability to score affects us sometimes on the defensive end."
The Knights' shooting form was one of the few aspects not out of the ordinary, with the team shooting 31 percent from the field, only slightly worse than its 34 and 33-percent outputs in the two games before.
How Rutgers got there is a different story. Junior guard Corey Sanders had his first game without a point, and the Knights' top three scorers (Sanders, freshman guard Geo Baker and fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman) only combined for 9 points.
Coming up against the Fighting Illini, Rutgers will have to make sure it puts the ball in the basket to validate its usually strong defense.
Even when the Knights shoot as poorly as they have this season, their tight defense can often keep them in games they have no business competing in, against teams much stronger than Illinois.
"Playing Rutgers is extremely difficult," said Penn State head coach Pat Chambers. "They make you grind. With their defense, they make it really hard on you. Give them credit, they did a really good job on that end. That's one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten."
But at some point before the 40 minutes close, a lack of scoring is bound to catch up to them. Holding opponents to a weak 35 percent from the field is not going to offset an even weaker 30-percent mark.
Fortunately for Rutgers, the Illini are not exactly known for their defensive prowess, sitting 13th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 72.7 points per game.
When the Knights met with the 14th-ranked defense in the conference, they had one of their best shooting performances of the season, posting a 54-percent field goal percentage en route to an 80-64 victory over Iowa.
In that game, Rutgers held a typically strong Hawkeye offense to 39 percent, something the Knights can do just as well to Illinois Tuesday night in Champaign.
To do so, containing Leron Black in the paint will be a priority of Pikiell's side on defense, a responsibility that will most likely be shared by Freeman and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi.
Freeman will have the advantage over Black on the boards, and Omoruyi has proved a competent post defender, though of course both had trouble against Penn State's Mike Watkins last time out.
But this time around, the Rutgers frontcourt is not coming up against a 68-percent shooter.
And on the other end, when 6-foot-10-inch forward Michael Finke is off the court, forwards like Omoruyi will be able to finish what they started against the Lions. Omoruyi impressed with 9 points on 3-of-4 shooting, the only Knight shooting better than 50 percent Saturday.
It is a sliver of hope among a string of poor scoring performances that only seem to be getting worse. Rutgers is going to need more than 9 points from Omoruyi, and it is going to need more than Omoruyi in general.
"I feel like we just didn’t execute or just didn’t do stuff we are (normally) doing," Omoruyi said. "I feel like this game was kind of a bit rough, but we’ll come back out next game and try harder."
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