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Rutgers heads home for contest with Northwestern

The Rutgers men’s basketball team will be back at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on Sunday for the first time in nearly two weeks to host Northwestern. The Scarlet Knights (16-7, 7-5) are in desperate need of a win after two consecutive losses that dropped them out of the AP Top 25 Poll rankings. Luckily for them, the Wildcats (6-15, 1-10) are last place in the Big Ten and are only 1-6 away from home. They have also lost six consecutive games.

On paper, this matchup heavily favors Rutgers. It sports the best home record in the nation at 15-0, which includes wins against ranked teams such as No. 22 Seton Hall and No. 20 Penn State. Theoretically, the Knights should have no trouble handling Northwestern at the RAC. 

With that being said, there are no easy games in the Big Ten. As head coach Steve Pikiell said after the loss to Michigan, “this is the best league in the country and the challenges that come are numerous.” After all, Rutgers was nearly upset by Nebraska at the RAC on Jan. 25. The Cornhuskers are 13th in the conference, one spot ahead of the Wildcats. 

In that game, the Knights narrowly avoided overtime with junior guard Geo Baker’s game-winning three-pointer shot at the buzzer. Although they got lucky with the result, it's necessary to note that they were almost beaten by the bottom of the Big Ten barrel in their own house. Rutgers should keep this game as a reminder to not write off any team it faces.

Sunday’s matchup provides a chance for the team to get back on track after its losses to the Wolverines and No. 9 Maryland. Some players are especially in need of a good outing, including junior guard Jacob Young. He was suspended for the Terrapins game due to a DWI arrest, and it would serve him well to put the incident behind him with a good performance on Sunday — that is, if Pikiell allows him to play.

“I’ll make that decision later on. These are all learning experiences. When you deal with young adults, they’re capable of making bad decisions," Pikiell said after the Maryland loss. "He obviously did. I’m disappointed. I love him. But you’ve got to make great decisions, and young adults sometimes don’t. We’ll move forward, it will be a good learning experience for us and then we’ll move on.”

Another player that could use a good day is Baker. Outside of the Nebraska game-winning shot, the co-team captain has been struggling since coming back after missing time for fracturing his thumb. 

In the seven games since returning, he has shot 10-of-45 from the floor, good for 22%. As one of the veteran leaders of the team, it is vital that he returns to his pre-injury form sooner rather than later. Combined with the team’s rebounding and defending prowess, his scoring could be the icing on the cake for a NCAA Tournament run.

Speaking of rebounding and defending, the Knights need to continue their performance in both areas to assert their dominance over Northwestern. Led by sophomore center Myles Johnson (eight rebounds per game), Rutgers has been crashing the boards at an intense rate this year. It had 51 rebounds against Michigan, a team record for Big Ten games. 

If the Knights can repeat this effort while making approximately 40% of their field goals, the team might be looking at a blowout win.

One thing is for sure: The fans at the sold-out RAC will be loud. The environment at the "Trapezoid of Terror" has been difficult to overcome for each opposing team this year, and that home support will not be wavering anytime soon.

"We're undefeated at home. Obviously the RAC has been a huge advantage” Pikiell said. “The students are awesome. The Riot Squad, the cheerleaders, the dance team, the band. And then our community. They come out. It makes a huge difference.

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

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