Rutgers hopes to curb 7-game losing streak with win at home over Northwestern
Williams, Omoruyi set to spark Knights bench
With four games remaining on the regular season schedule, the Rutgers men's basketball team essentially faces two options: it can cut its seven-game losing streak cold and get ready for the Big Ten Tournament, or it can stay the course and hope to find a second wind once the postseason comes along.
In order to go the former path, the Scarlet Knights (12-15, 2-12) will need to get past the Northwestern Wildcats (15-11, 6-7) at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) Tuesday night, in a game between Rutgers and the only team it has not seen all season in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats have roughly all of the same key pieces they had last year, but they are not the same historic Northwestern side that made it to the NCAA Tournament.
Sitting at 15-11, the starting foursome of Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are still led by fifth-year head coach Chris Collins, but the Knights have reason to believe that they can take one from the visitors on Tuesday.
That is, if their defense holds up, which took a while for Rutgers last time out against Nebraska.
"Eventually our defense kind of catches up," said head coach Steve Pikiell following the 67-55 loss to the Cornhuskers. "We were able to claw back into it, but you have to do more than that to win on the road in this league."
On the road or at home — because it has not mattered all that much during the Knights' losing streak — Rutgers comes across a Wildcats team that struggles almost as much as it does on offense.
Outside of Lindsey, McIntosh, Law and Pardon, there is not much offensive production, and the team as a whole ranks 12th in the conference with 70.4 points per game, just 4 points more than the Knights' average.
Rutgers has matched well this season with similar poorly shooting teams, and with the recent returns of senior guard Mike Williams and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, the Knights' defense may find the form that was lost in their absence.
Williams and Omoruyi, expected by many to miss the remainder of the season, checked in against Nebraska over the weekend and played meaningful minutes, offering boosts on both ends of the court.
"They had one day of practice, both of those guys," said Pikiell. "They bring us toughness, they bring us fight. Mike is a senior. We don't have a lot of veterans on this team, so it's good to have his presence. And Eugene competes. He gives us a lot in rebounding. It means a lot, it gives you some more options off the bench. We didn't have a lot of options without those two."
Omoruyi offered more than just rebounding on Saturday, although he did collect nine, with five coming on the offensive end. He finished the day with 11 points and had a major inside presence on defense, taking charges and inserting himself seamlessly back into the rotation.
Williams provides another option in the backcourt off the bench, which Rutgers had been missing greatly during his injury, with junior guard Corey Sanders and freshman guard Geo Baker shouldering most of the responsibility.
His defensive prowess will be needed in handling the guard combo of Lindsey and McIntosh Tuesday night, who combine for 26.9 points per game. McIntosh also comes into the contest with 5.2 assists per game, good for third in the Big Ten.
Omoruyi and Williams give the Knights the flexibility on defense to at least temper the play of Lindsey, McIntosh, Law and Pardon. Their returns could be what Rutgers needs to find momentum in the waning regular season.
Though they certainly did not shoot well Saturday against the Huskers, the Knights improved 9 percent from the field from its previous game, and if they steadily improve further, a win over Northwestern is not out of the question.
Against a team that has struggled just as much on offense, Rutgers faces its best opportunity to curb its seven-game losing streak Tuesday night. A strong defensive performance buoyed by Omoruyi and Williams, along with a serviceable shooting night, could be enough. At this point, enough is what the Knights need.
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