Rutgers welcomes No. 7 Michigan in expected 3rd sellout of season

The last time the Rutgers men’s basketball team hosted an AP top-10 team inside the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), it gave then-No. 9 Michigan State all it could handle in front of a sold-out crowd, but couldn’t finish the job.

Now, two months later, the Scarlet Knights (11-10, 4-7) are in an eerily similar situation as they get ready to face off against the other Big Ten powerhouse from Michigan, the No. 7 Wolverines (20-2, 9-2), tonight in front of yet another sold-out crowd. 

This time, though, Rutgers hopes for a different result.

“Michigan plays the right way. They can win a game on either end of the floor. They don't turn it over. And they do it every year, no matter who they lose. That consistency is the sign of a great program,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “It's going to be a great opportunity for us in front of a packed RAC.”

But the Knights aren't foreign to this type of game. In fact, just last year, Rutgers hosted the then-No. 4 Spartans in early December and two months later then-No. 3 Purdue. 

Despite dropping both contests, the Knights kept things close in both games, losing by a combined score of 6 points.

The last time Rutgers hosted a top-10 team and won was back in 2015 when the Knights stunned Wisconsin, 67-62. To put that in perspective, Rutgers' highly-touted freshmen were freshmen in high school.

But Pikiell is going to need his young players to rise to the occasion to have any shot at defeating Michigan, and he hopes the sold-out crowd inside the RAC can help lift them up.

“I love the RAC. I think it's an awesome home court,” he said. “We're a young team, so our young guys need that extra juice that the RAC gives them. We need it to be loud and a real tough place to play.”

The 8,000-seat arena has proven to be a weapon for the Knights so far this season, as 3 of their 4 conference wins have come at home including against then-No. 16 Ohio State, Nebraska and Indiana.

The sellout also marks the team’s third of the season, with the other two being against Maryland on Jan. 5 and against the Spartans on Nov. 30.

As for the Wolverines, Pikiell understands just how important their defensive prowess is — one that has earned them the second-best scoring defense in the country (57.0 points per game allowed).

“They never (give up turnovers), which helps their defense,” Pikiell said. “And they don’t foul, so you’re not getting to the free-throw line.”

On the other side, Pikiell has instilled a defensive philosophy the moment he set foot on campus, and Rutgers is tied for 57th in the nation in scoring defense as it allows a mere 66.6 points per game.

But the difference in this game will be who can best the other team’s defense and put points on the board. For Michigan, that goes hand-in-hand with its defense.

“I think their offense makes them elite defensively,” Pikiell said. “They’re on offense for an awful lot of the game, so they don’t have to play defense for as long as most teams do.”

The good news for the Knights is that the Wolverines rank 245th in scoring offense at 70.8 points per game. The bad news is Rutgers ranks even lower — 312th, to be exact, and scoring just 66.9 points per game.

That’s why the Knights will need the RAC as their secret weapon. But if Rutgers can pull out the win, it might not be so secret anymore.

“When the place is jumping, it's a harder place to play. The RAC can give us that extra juice,” Pikiell said.

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