After winning its first two games of the season at home without many complications, the Rutgers men’s basketball team will take its show on the road for the first time with head coach Steve Pikiell at the helm.
The Scarlet Knights (2-0) travel to Rosemont, Illinois, to take on Depaul (1-0) Thursday night in a nationally televised game at 8:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1. The contest is 1 of 8 between members of the Knights’ current conference, the Big Ten and its former conference, the Big East, as part of the second annual Gavitt Tipoff Games.
After becoming the first Rutgers head coach to begin his tenure on the Banks with two consecutive 20-plus point wins in program history and two wins of any kind since Bob Wenzel in 1988-89, Pikiell and his team will attempt to win a road game for the first time in what seems like was just as long ago.
The Knights went winless away from the friendly confines of the Rutgers Athletic Center last season and hasn’t won a road game since a 59-58 win over Monmouth in West Long Branch on Dec. 28, 2014.
“You gotta be different on the road, gotta be focused, gotta play excellent basketball. Not familiar with the rims, referees aren’t from your conferences so a lot of different things on the road,” Pikiell said. “We’ll do a lot of things different, but we’re on the road for the first time, that’s different in itself … gotta be twice as prepared to win … games on the road, that’s one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.”
The meeting in Illinois will serve as a pseudo-reunion for Pikiell’s alma mater.
In addition to the Knights’ head coach and assistant head coach Karl Hobbs, Blue Demon’s head coach Dave Leitao and assistant head coach Patrick Sellers have both coached at UConn, with the former coaching Pikiell in his four years as a point guard for the Huskies as an assistant to Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun.
Unlike the Huskies, who have gone through some bumps early on this year under Pikiell’s former teammate Kevin Ollie, losing their first two games at home to Wagner and Northeastern, both Rutgers and Depaul are on track to beating their abysmal win totals from last season.
As Pikiell works to become the first Knights head coach to win his first three games since Donald S. White in 1945-46, Leitao is attempting to return the Blue Demon to heights they haven’t reached since his first go-around in Rosemont. In the middle year of his tenure as head coach between 2002-04, he took Depaul to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 and the last time since in his middle season.
“He’s great, one of my dear friends,” Pikiell said of Leitao. “He’s one of the all-time great people. Been one of my mentors for a long time … Know lot of people, lot of the staff. An interesting collection of a lot of UConn people.”
Taking Rutgers to the Big Dance for the first time since 1991 after bringing his last school, Stony Brook, there for the first time in program history is one of Pikiell’s goals on the Banks. Given the slew of difficulties the Knights have faced in their Big Ten schedule — they’ve gone 3-33 in their first two seasons as members of the conference — it’s unlikely it will be in his first year, but the early signs are encouraging.
Though Rutgers started the final year of former head coach Eddie Jordan’s time in Piscataway last year similarly, winning the first two games by double-digit margins, the way in which they won looks different on the stat sheet and feels different when going through the eye test.
A year after defeating Howard and Division III foe Rutgers-Newark by a combined 25 points, the Knights doubled that margin of victory against Drexel and Division II opponent Molloy. They collected 56 rebounds against the Dragons, the most they’ve had in a single game since 1992.
Rutgers had six players reach double-digit point totals Sunday against Drexel, two of which coming off the bench to provide a spark after a sloppy, back-and-forth opening to the game.
Junior guard Nigel Johnson, a projected starter for most of the offseason before Pikiell named freshman Issa Thiam as the first option at shooting guard, scored a team-high 15 after coming off the bench. The Knights outscored the Dragons 32-11 in bench points, demonstrating the luxury of depth they have now that they didn’t last year.
“Bench production is the way you could either win or you could lose,” Johnson said. “Usually the team that has a better bench is the one that’s going to come out on top. So it’s definitely important, especially because nobody can play 40 minutes every game, so we’re definitely gonna need a bench to come in and relieve some of the other plays.”
Everything hasn’t been perfect — Pikiell mentioned foul trouble and turnovers as areas Rutgers needs to see improvement in — but the program is trending positively in the early stages of the Pikiell era.
With a relatively weak non-conference schedule — the Knights rank 321 of 351 teams in the country in strength of schedule — Rutgers has a real possibility of surpassing last season’s win total ahead of Big Ten play.
There’s a long way to go in the season after the first weekend, and winning a game against its first Power Five conference opponent in Depaul would be a big step in further building momentum moving forward.
“We’re feeling really good right now,” said sophomore forward Jonathan Laurent, who hit a career-high three shots from beyond the arc against Drexel. “There’s a lot of things that we gotta work on still, but as a team, we’re gelling together and I feel like the harder we practice and the more time we put into playing with each other, the better we’ll get. It’s going to be an exciting year for sure.”