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Early season Rutgers notes through 2 games

The Rutgers men's basketball team is two games into head coach Steve Pikiell's fourth season on the Banks. The Scarlet Knights (2-0) started the season with two wins over mid-major conference schools, showcasing their new talent in both games.

While Rutgers squandered a 16-point lead against Bryant this past Thursday, the team managed to come away with a 73-71 victory in front of a packed Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) of 5,692, the most amount of people to see the scarlet and white play in its first game of the season.

Three days later, the Knights did a complete 180 from keeping things close and continued to distance themselves from Niagara on Sunday, downing the Purple Eagles (0-2) by approximately 50 points to earn another home win in Piscataway.

With Rutgers hosting Drexel on Wednesday, here are some early season takeaways from the opening two games of the Knights' slate:

Minutes Distribution

A big strength for Pikiell is his ability to craft a multitude of different rotations, especially with the addition of newcomers like graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah playing either inside or outside the paint, who is close to replacing former forward Eugene Omoruyi. 

The first two games saw the same starting lineup eerily similar to last season.  The regular trio of guards junior Geo Baker and sophomores Ron Harper Jr., who played more wing than forward, and Montez Mathis, accompanied by sophomore center Johnson, who switched over from power forward to center were out for the opening tip.

Sophomore guard Caleb McConnell, who averaged 15.5 minutes last season and started toward the end of this past calendar year, also cracked the first rotation.

Pikiell's familiarity and confidence in his returning starters played lengthy minutes the past two games, with Baker leading the way. The junior captain is averaging 30 minutes between the two games and is expected to be a true point guard this season. 

Pikiell has also utilized Yeboah in different rotations, as was the expectation heading into the season. Yeboah's comfortability with Pikiell dates back to the pair's overlapped time at Stony Brook. During the 2015-16 season, Pikiell's final year on Long Island, the forward redshirted his first collegiate year, but still managed to take in Pikiell's practices.

Reunited with Pikiell back on the Banks, Yeboah is the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 12 points per game along while playing 20.5 minutes. Not including the first two game's starters, Yeboah's minutes rank second on the team behind junior guard and Texas transfer Jacob Young's 21.5 minutes on the court.

Like any coach, Pikiell understands how overloading minutes can fatigue players. But, players on the bench like true freshman guard Paul Mulcahy and Young contribute points in their minutes played. Mulcahy, a skilled passer, dished out a game-high six assists against Niagara. In his first collegiate game last week, he compiled 8 points on a 3-of-5 shooting night.

“All these guys do a great job and (I'm) just very thankful," Pikiell said following the win over the Bulldogs (1-2). "I think our bench is really, really good. We can bring some guys off that can do some things."

Free-Throw Struggles

Rutgers had difficulties from the free-throw line last season, shooting 63.7% last season. This storyline continued into tipoff against Bryant.

The Knights did not even hit 60% of their free throws against the Bulldogs of the Northeast Conference, going 18-of-32 from the charity stripe. That's 56.3% on shots awarded after defensive fouls called against Bryant.

In the first contest of the season, Harper Jr. went 4-of-11 from the free-throw line, amassing 11 points as a starter. Many Rutgers players made 1 of their only 2 attempts from the charity stripe, including Mathis, Johnson and Baker. 

Mulcahy was the lone Knight against the Bulldogs to make his free throws, while Yeboah went 5-of-6 to contribute from the line.

New Rebound Crashers

Last season, Rutgers relied on bigs like alumnus Shaquille Doorson and Johnson to grab rebounds in the paint. While Johnson has slid into the center spot, averaging approximately six rebounds so far, new faces have emerged.

Harper Jr. has played more of a wing role and has made his presence known, defensively. He grabbed a game-high eight rebounds against the Eagles. Last year, as a true freshman, he averaged approximately three rebounds, seeing the hardwood in a shooting guard role.

But, with more guards, forwards and centers on the roster, Pikiell can switch Harper Jr. and Yeboah in bigger lineups. Yeboah had six rebounds against Niagara, after he only had two against Bryant.

"I just liked how we shared the ball," Pikiell said on Sunday. "When we settled in, we reversed it and we got good looks and so everybody was involved and that's how we need to play."

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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