The Rutgers men’s basketball team spent most of its conference schedule last season getting bullied by bigger, stronger teams down low.
Gutted by injuries and lacking both depth and height, the Scarlet Knights were forced to use shooting guards as power forwards and small forwards as undersized centers. The results weren’t pretty.
Sunday, the Knights had a chance to reverse the role against an undersized Drexel team in each team’s second game of the season.
Rutgers used last year’s poison as this year’s antidote in its season opener against Molloy and it worked like a charm once again on Sunday against the Dragons, propelling the Knights to a comfortable 87-66 win to move to 2-0 on the season.
Drexel has just three players 6-foot-8 and taller, and it showed on the stat sheet. Rutgers dominated the visitors on the glass, outrebounding them 56-29 much to the satisfaction of first-year head coach Steve Pikiell.
“I like those,” he said when asked about the rebounding stats on the final box score. “Great numbers … we’ve been emphasizing that and we got some big guys and they kinda went at it.”
Among those big guys is 7-foot-1 graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys, a name not many of the 4,026 fans in attendance knew coming into the RAC, but one they certainly remembered on their way out.
After a slow start from both teams saw the home team hold a slim 15-11 advantage at the under-12 media timeout, Gettys took matters into his own hands. The Columbus, Ohio, native rallied off 7 straight points in the paint and on the free throw line on offense, throwing in 1 of his 2 blocks on the night on the other end.
By the time he hit the second bucket of his second home game for Rutgers, he was already getting the loudest applause of the season from the home crowd.
It may have helped that he played the role of ringleader, waving his hands up as he tracked back on defense.
“In a game like this, you just gotta get the crowd involved. People are here for a reason, they wanna see a good game, they want a good game, so why not get them involved?” Gettys said. “That gets us going as well, so don’t just look at it as me getting the crowd hype, but me getting my teammates hyped as well.”
Rutgers would take the crack Gettys gave it with his own personal run and blow the game open with a 13-0 run to end the first half, giving it a 41-26 halftime lead and plenty of breathing room to go along with it.
Nearly half the run was accounted for on the free throw line by fellow transfer Nigel Johnson. Expected to be a starter alongside sophomore guard Corey Sanders entering this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, the junior guard has instead turned into an impact player off the bench in the first two games this season.
Using his vantage point on the sidelines in the hectic opening minutes of the game, Johnson said he tried to slow the game down to reduce the turnovers and get to the line.
“I noticed when I went in, the other team was in foul trouble, so I used that to our advantage,” he said. “I just attacked more and I kept getting bumped and getting fouled, so I think that was good to get to the line and get some easy points.”
Johnson finished tied for the team’s top scorer on the night with forward Jonathan Laurent, each contributing 15 points.
The 6-foot-6 forward was one of the players chosen to fill a role of a position outside his comfort zone last season, playing significant minutes at center when he spent most of his playing career as a small forward.
Laurent has reaped the rewards of playing on a far healthier and deeper roster so far this season, taking advantage of being back at his natural position by reaching a new career-high in 3-pointers in a game with a perfect 3-for-3 clip from downtown.
“It’s a good feeling developing my outside game, which I didn’t have a chance to do last year because I was playing inside,” Laurent said. “It’s a new part (of my game) that you’re going to see.”
The Knights would coast through the second half, holding a double-digit lead that never dipped below 13 and peaked at 25 points with a minute remaining.
The win brings Pikiell to 2-0, the best start for a debuting head coach on the Banks since Bob Wenzel in 1988-89, and was filled with plenty of positives to pick from.
Sanders, one of the few bright spots on a dismal year last season, struggled with foul trouble early and ended the night with just 11 points on 2-for-11 shooting, yet Rutgers still managed to win by 21.
Junior captain Deshawn Freeman factored in his second consecutive double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He was 1 of 5 Knights to finish the night with double-digit point totals.
But there won't be many nights in which Rutgers is the bigger, stronger, more talented team once its non-conference schedule closes and Big Ten play comes around.
That's why even on a night where his team trailed for just 12 seconds and thoroughly outplayed its visitors, Pikiell wasn't completely satisfied.
“Great team win,” Pikiell said, before the proverbial but. “Another step, (but) we got a long way to go. Too many turnovers, too many fouls in the first half, but we’ll continue to get better and continue moving this forward.”