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Rutgers heads to Madison Square Garden for Super Saturday

The Rutgers men’s basketball team will be traveling to New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday in a Big Ten matchup against Michigan. The game is a part of the conference’s annual Super Saturday event, with the wrestling teams facing each other earlier in the day.

The No. 25 Scarlet Knights (16-5, 7-3) will look to continue their storybook season with a win against the Wolverines (12-8, 3-6). Riding a two-game winning streak, Rutgers is trying to stack as many victories as possible in its quest for its first NCAA Tournament birth since 1991.

As for Michigan, the players have seen better days. They are 1-4 over their past five games, and their starting guard Zavier Simpson has been suspended for violating an undisclosed team rule. Simpson is a significant loss as he leads the nation with 8.3 assists per game. The team will be hard-pressed to spread the ball as well as it has without him. 

This will be the Knights’ first chance this season to prove themselves on a neutral court. They have been unstoppable at home, with a 15-0 record at the Rutgers Athletic Center. With that being said, they are only 1-5 away from the Banks. The Garden crowd will most likely have a mixture of both fanbases, so Rutgers probably will not have to deal with a completely hostile crowd. Still, though, the Knights need to prove that they can win away from home if they have any hope of making noise in the tournament.

Purdue head coach Matt Painter thinks Rutgers can do just that. 

Speaking at a press conference after the Boilermakers' (11-10, 4-6) loss to the Knights on Tuesday, he said, “They’ve got a chance not to just get to the tournament, but a chance to win games in the tournament. I think they’re going to be a real tough out in the NCAA Tournament.” 

The respect from other coaches in the conference is a sign of how different this season has been for Rutgers. With 13-straight losing seasons, the Knights have been an afterthought in college basketball for some time now. A win on Saturday would only increase their confidence ahead of a difficult stretch of games, including ones against No. 15 Maryland and No. 19 Illinois.

Additionally, Rutgers is only 0.5 games out of first place in the Big Ten. The Knights are currently sitting in third place behind the Fighting Illini and No. 14 Michigan State. A win against the Wolverines could possibly springboard Rutgers into first place, depending on other conference game results. 

In order to win, the Knights will need to stick to their bread and butter, defense and rebounding. The team’s effectiveness in both of these aspects this season is the main reason for its success thus far. Rutgers ranks second in the conference with points allowed per game (60.8), second in opponent field goal percentage (37.6%) and fourth in rebounding margin (+6.8 per game). 

In terms of scoring, the Knights simply need to do what they have been doing: Riding the hot hand. Last game, sophomore guard Caleb McConnell led the team with 16 points. In the win against Nebraska, graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah led with 20 points.

Sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr., as well as junior guards Geo Baker and Jacob Young, are all capable of having good shooting nights. The team’s depth on offense allows it to spread the ball around and not rely too much on any one player’s output, which gives it a good chance to win any game.

“These guys will be excited to play at the Garden, I'm very confident of that,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “The Garden's a special place. As everybody knows, it'll be a fun venue and we're playing a really good basketball team, a team that arguably the last few years has been the best program in our league. National Championship games, Final Fours. We'll have to be prepared. They'll be excited about the venue and hopefully we'll play well."

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

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