Rutgers enters Big Ten Tournament at No. 14
For the fourth consecutive year, the Rutgers men's basketball team will enter the Big Ten Tournament in 14th place.
Teetering between 13th and 14th before Iowa's win over Northwestern on Sunday night, the Scarlet Knights can at least come to terms with the fact that there really is not much difference between the two spots.
If at 13th, Rutgers would have come up against an Illinois side that has gotten past it twice already this season, a result many expected just minutes after falling to the Illini at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) Sunday night.
"Like they say, third time's a charm," senior guard Mike Williams said. "Growing up I heard this quote saying that 'it's hard to beat a team three times in a row,' so we got a good feel for them now and we'll be more prepared."
But now, sitting in last place in the conference, the Knights (13-18, 3-15) step into Madison Square Garden tonight, battling the Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-16, 4-14), which they might as well have not even played yet this season.
The last time these two teams met was Dec. 3 — each squad's first Big Ten matchup of the season.
After both teams lost in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, each side was one loss deep into the season, and Minnesota was ranked No. 12 in the country at the time. Suffice it to say, the 2017-2018 campaign has not gone the way either program had imagined.
But Rutgers can take solace in the fact that the 89-67 loss at the hands of the Gophers was against an entirely different team altogether.
"I'm excited about seeing the changes in our program and how much we've improved since the last time we played them," head coach Steve Pikiell said. "They were ranked when we played them. Hopefully we can play some good, consistent basketball on both ends of the floor. We've shown signs of being really good but haven't really strung it together yet. Maybe this is the time to do that."
Despite Minnesota not getting the results it wanted over the course of the season, two constants have been Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, who showcased their talents in that win over the Knights and have not let up since.
Both Murphy and Mason rank within the top 10 in the Big Ten in points per game, and Murphy can further neutralize one of Rutgers' greatest strengths in rebounding tonight.
The 6-foot-6-inch forward is far and away the best rebounder in the conference, collecting 11.4 per game — the next best rebounder averages only 8.9 — and he does so on the offensive end as well, taking in 4.1 per game. Murphy showed the Knights how he can control the boards the last time these two teams faced off when he collected 16 on the night.
And against a team like Rutgers, that has recently had trouble in defending the 3, Mason could prove massive for the Gophers. Mason averages 2.5 3-pointers per game, good for fourth in the conference, and he doubled that average in Minnesota's win over the Knights en route to a 26-point night.
"They have two of the best players in the league in Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, who is one of the best point guards in the conference," Pikiell said. "They cause many problems because they have good athletes and good length at every position. We haven't seen them in a long time. That's a team that's changed throughout the season. We know those two guys are huge keys for them."
Rutgers has been able to temper the play of star players in the past — like Ethan Happ and Angel Delgado (at least in scoring) — but in Murphy and Mason, they come up against two types of players whose versatility can hurt them on defense.
As it's been well documented this season, the Knights struggle on offense, and that can spill over into their defense, which cannot happen if they want to get past this Minnesota team.
Rutgers is going to need a shooting night like it had last time out against Illinois — a 43-percent effort — to be able to sniff the second round. The offense starts with junior guard Corey Sanders, but the team is going to need strong shooting performances on the outside to counteract Murphy's presence in the paint.
Driving to the rim is not going to be as easy as it usually is for Sanders, but the Knights come up against a poor 3-point defending team in the Gophers. Getting quality minutes out of Williams, sophomore forward Issa Thiam and a recently struggling freshman guard Geo Baker is going to prove the difference for Rutgers on offense.
That could even include senior guard Jake Dadika, who got his first career start last time out and saw the court for 25 minutes on Sunday versus Illinois.
Dadika, along with the other seniors on the team, knows the urgency that comes with a game like Wednesday's. He knows what it is like to win in the Big Ten Tournament, and he knows what it is like to lose. He even knows what it is like to lose to Minnesota in the first round, as the Knights did in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament.
He has seen all of the possible scenarios, and he believes he knows what it takes to get Rutgers to the one it is looking for.
"We just gotta get out there and play our hardest and go on a little run," Dadika said. "Get some wins here and there and see what we can do. Just go after every team we're playing. Can't sit back, we gotta go out there and attack. Last chance at it, last stab, just go on a run."
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