When the Rutgers men’s basketball team stormed out to its best start since the greatest season in program history and earned its first Associated Press Top-25 vote in over a decade, head coach Steve Pikiell told his players not to get too high on themselves.
Upon losing their first game of the season in Coral Gables against Miami, he told the Scarlet Knights in the locker room not to get too low.
The philosophy the experienced head coach brings to Piscataway, a measured approach to a long season he’s likened to a marathon — take it one game at a time, not letting the previous affect the next.
“No one cares about the last game, they care about this game,” he said prior to practice on Tuesday. “Just trying to get them to think one day at a time because it’s a long season, a marathon. Don’t want to be too high, don’t want to be too low.”
With that mindset, Rutgers returned to work Thursday to prepare for its next contest, a matchup with Morgan State at the Rutgers Athletic Center this Saturday night.
The Knights have turned the RAC into a fortress early on in the season, winning all five of their games there by an average margin of victory of 11.6 points. It would’ve been even higher had it not been for one outlier, the 77-75 contest against Hartford in the most recent battle in Piscataway.
With a crowd of 4,028 behind them, Rutgers fought back from a 13-point deficit with five minutes remaining to defeat the Hawks 77-75. The Knights finished the game on a 20-5 run ending with a game-winning layup by graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys with seven seconds on the clock.
“The crowd was really giving us a lot of energy. We fed into it,” Gettys said after the game. “I’m glad to walk out of here with a win and I appreciate everyone that was in the crowd cheering us on.”
With a home crowd behind them, Rutgers will be facing a more manageble side Saturday than the Hurricane team it fell to 73-61 Wednesday night in Coral Gables.
Morgan State ranks 333 of 351 Division I teams on KenPom.com. It’s only two wins came against Division II Wilmington (Del.) and Campbell, a Big South program ranked 11 spots above the Bears at 322.
The Bears depend heavily on junior point guard Tiwian Kendley, who handles the ball on more than a third of their possession, according to KenPom. He leads the team in scoring with 19.7 points per game.
None of it — the record or the stats — matters to Pikiell, who tells his players to ignore records, both theirs and the opponents. He said he’s a big film guy, building his assessment of opponents from watching them play rather than looking at the numbers without context.
Playing with a record in mind leads to performances like the one they had against Hartford, said sophomore guard Corey Sanders.
The goal is in playing with humility, said junior guard Mike Williams.
“We gotta go out there and play like we’re down,” he said. “Like we’re the underdogs.”
So when the Bears come to town, they won’t be a 2-5 team in the bottom 25 of Division I basketball entering a gym that the home team has yet to lose in this season.
To the Knights, who would equal last season’s win total if they win on Saturday, but Morgan State presents as difficult a challenge as Miami presented three days earlier.
“You gotta play hungry,” Pikiell said. “Every game is a different challenge.”