Two days before Christmas, the Rutgers men’s basketball team fell short of earning a signature win in an emotional rivalry game against Seton Hall.
Two days after Christmas, the Scarlet Knights have another chance of announcing themselves on the national stage with a challenge twice as hard as their last — at least according to the Associated Press.
This season's eighth edition of the weekly poll ranked the Pirates, which defeated the Knights 72-61 last Friday, as the 28th team in the nation. The same poll has Wisconsin at No. 14.
Rutgers (11-2) opens Big Ten play against the Badgers (11-2) Tuesday night at the Kohl Center in Madison, the third consecutive game away from the friendly confines of the Rutgers Athletic Center for the Knights.
With most of, if not all the 17,230 seats expected to be filled, it’s likely to be a raucous crowd similar to that of last year’s matchup, when the Badgers avenged the historic upset they suffered in Piscataway with an emphatic 22-point win.
But after experiencing the atmosphere it played in front of at the Prudential Center, the Knights shouldn’t be too shook by the noise.
“It definitely helps, especially going into Wisconsin,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders after facing the crowd of 10,481 at the Rock. “Wisconsin is the hardest place I played in last year so I just know it’s going to be tough to play on the road and we just gotta be able to keep our composure and execute when we gotta execute.”
Execution, or rather the lack of it in the second half, is what killed the Knights’ hopes of upsetting their Garden State rivals. After holding Seton Hall to 23 points in the first half, Rutgers allowed two big runs at both the start and the end of the second period that ultimately doomed it to its second loss on the season.
“We gotta get better, we gotta execute,” said head coach Steve Pikiell after the loss. “Our defense in the first half was fantastic. We gotta figure out how to play that for 40 minutes.”
Pirates forward Angel Delgado was the main catalyst in the second half spurt.
He scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half en route to winning the Joe Calabrese Trophy for most valuable player of the Garden State Hardwood Classic. He used his athleticism to bully Rutgers’ bigs down low, overwhelming senior center C.J. Gettys and junior forward Deshawn Freeman in the post.
He collected eight rebounds on either side of halftime, playing a major role in the Hall’s dominance on the glass.
It was the first time the Knights, who entered the contest with the second-weakest schedule in the country according to analytics website KenPom.com’s strength of schedule rankings, had faced a big with Delgado’s athleticism and talent and they struggled to contain him on either end of the floor.
On paper, Tuesday’s meeting with the Badgers presents an even larger task.
Wisconsin center Ethan Happ has improved greatly on his impressive freshman campaign early this season, averaging a hair under 13 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in just 23 minutes a night.
According to KenPom, he ranks sixth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, showing signs of his ability to dominate on the glass. With one of its biggest strengths coming in the form of offensive rebounding, Rutgers could see Happ eliminate that advantage similarly to how Delgado did with the Pirates.
He’ll be one of many talented bigs the Knights face on the gauntlet that is the Big Ten schedule. They’ll meet Purdue’s towering tandem of Caleb Swanigan (10 double-doubles in 13 games) and Isaac Haas, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, among many others.
But Pikiell isn’t thinking about any bigs but his.
“I don’t worry about other people,” he said. “I know our weaknesses, I know our strengths. We’re going to be really a tough team and we’re going to defend and we’re going to get better defensively. We got three more defenses we’re putting in place as we move into league play, so we are going to continue to get better.”
Though Happ presents the biggest headache to Pikiell as he approaches his first Big Ten conference game, the early candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year isn’t the only one. The Badgers return two experienced seniors in both the front and back courts in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, respectively. The pair took part in two separate runs to the Final Four, including a national championship game appearance two years ago.
In contrast, Rutgers usual 10-man rotation features five upperclassmen, four of which coming to Piscataway as transfers and just one of them a senior.
The youth is one of many aspects of the Knights that has people questioning whether their 11-2 record after non-conference play is legit or a fluke.
They impressed in their loss to Seton Hall, showing signs of competing with top talent, but it remains a small sample size.
Maneuvering through the consistent talent gap, lack of quality depth, experience and a go-to scoring option in crunch time will be the main obstacles for Pikiell to overcome as he trudges through an onslaught of opponents Rutgers has gone 3-33 against in its first two seasons as members of the conference.
Never one to back down a challenge, he doesn’t lack any confidence facing perhaps the greatest so far in his coaching career.
“I think we’re prepared for the Big Ten,” he said. “We’re going to have to go on the road, we’re going to have to go to some real tough places. We showed some good signs (against Seton Hall). People have a lot of questions about us, which is fine. I like this team, I like our whole roster.”