After cruising through a soft non-conference schedule en route to an 11-2 record, the Rutgers men’s basketball team opened Big Ten play with one of the biggest challenges it will face in head coach Steve Pikiell’s first season in Piscataway — a trip to Madison to take on No. 14 Wisconsin.
Much to the Scarlet Knights’ credit, they didn’t shy away from the challenge, stepping up to the plate on the defensive end early on, holding the Badgers to 33 points in a first half in which they forced multiple shot clock violations.
But the deficiencies on offense Rutgers masked with aggressive offensive rebounding against vastly inferior opposition emerged at the Kohl Center just as they did at the Prudential Center four days prior and in Miami a month ago.
The Knights shot just 32 percent, missing 13 of their first 14 shots, and turned the ball over 15 times, including 12 times in the first half and five in the first 5 minutes.
The Badgers used the initial sloppiness to take a quick 8-0 lead, with 6 of those early points coming on the fastbreak off of 3 steals. They led from the moment they scored their first bucket two minutes in until the final horn sounded on a comfortable 72-52 win over Rutgers at the Kohl Center Tuesday night.
“I didn’t like the way we started the game,” Pikiell told Rutgers IMG Network’s Jerry Recco and Joe Boylan after the game. “We had a zillion turnovers in the first half for no reason other than our ourselves. You’re playing the best team in our league on the road, four seniors, just have to play better than that … They’re one of the best teams in the country, they don’t need us to help them.””
Nigel Hayes, picked as the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year by the media, led Wisconsin (12-2) with a game-high 20 points with six rebounds on the night. Junior Mike Williams led the charge for Rutgers (11-3) in Madison for the second consecutive year, contributing a team-high 18 points and seven rebounds in his first start of the season.
He got the nod over sophomore Corey Sanders, who was kept out of the first five in the starting line-up by Pikiell for the first time after missing his flight back from Florida following a short Christmas break. Sanders wouldn't come on for the first 10 minutes of the contest, with walk-on Jake Dadika seeing the court before him.
Williams twice led the Knights on runs which reduced double-digit deficits to manageable single-digit holes, using half of his four three-points at the end of either stretch. The first came when Rutgers was down 19-6 as it scored 10 of the next 13 points to reduce the deficit to 6.
It would be the closest the Knights came to catching the Badgers.
Wisconsin would take its 15-point halftime lead and balloon it to a game-high 21 point advantage five minutes into the second half. What followed was a testament to the transformation the Knights have seen in their approach to trailing heavily.
Where as last season’s team, which lost 10 of its 19 conference games by more than 20 points, would allow the deficit to pile up, this team fought back, going on an 18-6 run to reduce the deficit to nine points at the under-8 media timeout.
The run was sparked by timely three-point shooting — an area Rutgers has struggle mightily in — from Williams, who finished 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, and junior guard Nigel Johnson, who was the only other Knight to finish in double-digits with 11 points on the night.
“We saw a stretch there where we clawed our way back into this game, just couldn’t make it any closer," Pikiell told Boylan. "We couldn’t just finish any of those lay-ups off. That would’ve made it real interesting down the stretch ... I thought we out-coached that team in the second half. (Our players) grinded, they were tougher, they hung in there, they took shots, they didn’t play like they were scared and I will take that team and we'll be fine with that team moving forward."
Down 13 with five to go, Rutgers was dealt its biggest blow of the night. Coming down from a shot attempt, Sanders landed awkwardly on the foot of Vitto Brown, seemingly twisting his ankle and needing the help of two trainers to walk off the court. He would not put any weight on his right leg as he limped off.
"I don't know,” Pikiell said when asked of Sanders’ status by Rutgers IMG Radio Network’s Jerry Recco. “He's got a bag of ice on his ankle, so we'll figure that out later."
From there, the Badgers added to a lead a deflated group of Knights were unlikely going to threaten, closing the game on a 13-6 run to close out their conference opening win.
Rutgers returns to action on New Years Day against Penn State at the Rutgers Athletic Center, where it remains undefeated through the 8 games it played there in non-conference play.
Whether Sanders will be in uniform on the court or in street clothes on the sidelines is the biggest question entering the game.