Rutgers hosts Indiana for 1st matchup since last season's conference tournament
After losing to Northwestern at home nearly two weeks ago and mired in a three-game losing streak, the Rutgers men’s basketball team held a players-only meeting.
Since then, the Scarlet Knights (10-9, 3-6) have won two straight conference games for the first time since joining the Big Ten and look to make it three in a row on Wednesday night when they host Indiana inside the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
“I think ever since that team meeting, I think our whole mindset has just been on a whole different level,” said sophomore guard Geo Baker.
Wednesday’s matchup will be the first time the two teams meet since Rutgers, then the No. 14 seed, ended then the No. 6-seeded Hoosiers' (12-8, 3-6) season in a wild upset, bouncing them from last year’s Big Ten Tournament.
But, stuck in a six-game losing streak, Indiana is desperate for a win and memories from last year’s gut-punching loss should be fresh in its mind, adding more fuel to the fire.
But the Knights have fuel of their own. Riding a two-game winning streak, Rutgers is looking to keep the good times rolling and after getting a taste of victory, the Knights have no plans of giving it up so easily.
“It’s real important. Every game is important," said true freshman guard Montez Mathis. "We want to win every game so that game’s gonna be a real good game. Indiana’s a real good team and I’m just looking forward to playing against them."
Every game is important, especially playing in the Big Ten where eight teams are separated by just three games and five teams are tied with three conference wins apiece, including both Rutgers and the Hoosiers.
But as the conference improves, so have the Knights.
“I think it’s a product of playing in a good league," said head coach Steve Pikiell. “The league is a lot better this year. Our schedule is better, but we’re getting better too.”
Much of that improvement is thanks to the freshman class that has played heavy minutes this year and has already become a crucial part of the team. Freshmen like Mathis, guards Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell and center Myles Johnson have impressed in their first years playing college basketball.
But, the leadership from the veterans — the few that Rutgers has on the team — has also helped settle in this young squad.
“We’ve got a lot of guys contributing and that’s what we have to have,” Pikiell said.
Not only have players stepped up from last year to this year, but guys have even emerged as the season has gone on as well, from game to game, always improving, which is a testament to not only the players, but to the head coach as well.
This year’s team is different, it’s palpable. It seems that all the work and dedication is starting to come to fruition, that the frustration and heartache from the past has been worth it and that the future is bright.
“I think it shows how far we’ve come, especially over this year. I think we’ve gotten a lot better as a team," Baker said. "It’s an exciting position to be in and we’re gonna do our best."
And with a little more than half of their conference games remaining, the Knights have put themselves right in the thick of things.
More importantly, they believe they can keep it up and Wednesday night, they have a chance to reach four conference wins before the end of January, surpassing last year’s total.
“(It) just shows how different we are as a team from Rutgers (teams) in the past," Baker said. "That’s the biggest thing, just to show that the culture is changing, that we’re a winning program and none of us came here to lose games."
But first, Rutgers will have to get through Indiana, which is certainly not a team of slouches.
And despite their recent struggles, the Hoosiers will be fired up for the game which is why Pikiell is asking that the RAC be packed and loud, just as it's been all season.
“They play hard, they have matchup problems for us. They got a lot of good players so it’s gonna be a war,” Pikiell said. “I really hope that the RAC is jumping, the students, greek life, the riot squad — we need this to be great here.”
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