The fourth day of the third week of the season will see the Rutgers men’s basketball team take its second road trip and face its first real challenge of the year.
The Scarlet Knights have won their first six games, a start you have to go back to 1975 to find the last time it happened in Piscataway, but the opposition they’ve defeated — four mid-major teams, a Division II program at home and bottom-of-the-Big-East-barrell Depaul in their only road game so far — has simply not been at the same level expected of a Power Seven conference program.
A trip to the southeastern tip of Florida, where the jump in competition for Rutgers will be as drastic as the change in weather from New Jersey to the Sunshine State, will change that, as the Knights (6-0) take on Miami (4-2) Wednesday night in Coral Gables on ESPNU.
Head coach Steve Pikiell isn’t getting caught up in the name of the program, though.
“It’s the next game on the schedule, and I know you guys don’t want to hear that, but that’s what it is,” he said prior to practice on Monday. “Every game’s been a challenge — I know you guys don’t want to hear that either — but every game’s been a challenge.”
Entering the match-up fresh off its first two losses of the season over the weekend to a pair of ranked opponents in No. 19 Iowa State and No. 24 Florida, losing a third-straight game to the Rutgers would put a dent in the Hurricanes resume, who are looking to return to the NCAA Tournament and reach the Sweet Sixteen as they did last year.
Miami, like its next guests, continued to receive votes in the latest Associated Press Top-25 poll, raking in 44.
Prior to last weekend, the Hurricanes won each of their four games by double-digits, including a 14-point win over Stanford at the Watsco Center, the site of Wednesday’s matchup.
The 40th most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom, is led by junior point guard Ja’Quan Newton, who ranks 11th in the ACC in scoring with 17.2 points per game after scoring at least 13 points in all six games this season. The 24th tallest team in the country based on average height across the roster, they’ll present the biggest challenge yet to the best offensive rebounding team in the nation.
“We have to do a great job rebounding the ball. They’re very, very athletic,” Pikiell said of Miami. “We have to take care of the ball too, can’t turn it over. They’re a terrific transition team … they got fantastic attackers at the rim, their length is a problem, they have veteran guys. So there’s a lot of problems that they pose to us.”
Playing across from Newton in the opening possession will be the Rutgers’ sophomore point guard Corey Sanders, who will have an improvised homecoming Wednesday night. The Lakeland, Florida, native is expecting around 25 of his friends and family to make the four-hour drive down to Coral Gables, many of whom will watch him play for the Knights for the first time.
“I get to go home, so that’s a good thing, enjoy some good weather,” he said. “But it’s a business trip.”
Sanders, who was depended upon heavily for scoring last year in order for Rutgers to have a prayer in games, had a team-high 10 assists and career-high six steals in his team’s latest win against Hartford.
With a number of weapons at his disposal that he didn’t have last year, Sanders has had the freedom to play without the burden of being the only offensive option on the floor for his team. He led the Rutgers in scoring just once in its first six games, a recipe for disaster last season turned into success this year.
Now that the wealth of the attention from the opposing defense is spread among the five players on the floor rather than almost exclusively on Sanders, he could operate more as the facilitator that he sees himself as.
“It definitely does because teams can’t just key in me in the game plan,” he said of having more options on offense. “We got (junior guard) Nigel (Johnson), we got (junior forward) Deshawn (Freeman), we got (graduate transfer center) C.J. (Gettys), we got all these guys that get buckets for us so it makes it easier for me out on the court.”
The results have been positive, with early season success unheard of in the recent past of the Knights’ program. It’s easy to get excited over it considering Rutgers hasn’t reached a postseason tournament, or had a winning season, for that matter, in over a decade or gotten a vote in the Associated Press’ Top-25 poll since the third week in the 2004-05 season when they received two votes.
But those who have been around for the lowest of lows aren’t letting themselves reach the highest of highs, following Pikiell’s creed of maintaining their temperament somewhere in the middle, taking the marathon that is the college basketball season one game at a time.
“It’s surreal, (but) I can’t live in the moment forever,” said junior forward Mike Williams, who endured program-record losing streaks of 17 and 15 games in his first two years on the Banks, of being 6-0. “We have a mission — to go down to Miami, handle our business … go 1-0 and continue our winning streak.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.