There's no place like home — a saying spread across the country around the holidays and one that the Rutgers men's basketball team can relate to eight games into the season.
The Rutgers Athletics Center has been good to the Scarlet Knights (7-1). In six wins they've had at the RAC in as many games, they’ve outscored opponents by a combined margin of 82 points. Aside from a last-second win over Hartford, Rutgers has won every home game by double-digits, averaging a margin of victory of 13.6 points.
And while most of the success comes from a combination of opponents ranking in the bottom half of KenPom’s ratings — Drexel, ranked 251, was the highest rated team the Knights have faced — Rutgers shows flashes of improvement along with its increased depth and support the team has gotten from its fans has played a part as well.
"Great crowd tonight,” said head coach Steve Pikiell after the Knights latest win, a 72-58 victory over Morgan State Saturday that saw the biggest home crowd of the season (5,) make the trip to the RAC. “We appreciate the students. They brought great energy.”
Showing appreciation for the support his team has garnered in his opening remarks postgame has become a tradition for first-year coach Pikiell. He called that meeting against the Hawks, which required a 20-5 run in the final five minutes to steal the 77-75 win, a “great college game.”
He said “the place was rocking” at the end of the game as the Knights crawled back and got the win, but the fact they had to claw back reveals they are falling behind early in games that they’re expected to dominate.
Division II Malloy was the only team they’ve dominated from start to finish, the game coming in its season opener.
They entered the half tied with the Hawks, up two over the Dragons, five over the Purple Eagles and six over the Bears. Rutgers has been outrebounded, outshot and frankly outplayed in the opening frame of multiple games against low-major programs.
C.J. Gettys, a center who transferred to the Banks this summer after four years at mid-major UNC-Wilmington, is one of the few Knights with perspective from the other side. Having taken trips to Georgetown, Iowa and Iowa State in his time as a Seahawk, he knows what’s going through the minds of the players on the other side of the court.
“Anytime you’re a low-major school like that and you go into a big conference school, of course you’re going to play. You don’t need any other motivation to play as hard as you can,” he said. “You have to go in (to their gyms) with a chip on your shoulder and play with a lot of energy. That’s your fighting chance.”
On the flip side, it can be argued Rutgers has allowed opponents to start fast with slugglish starts of its own. Coming off its first loss of the season to Miami, the Knights were slow to start against Morgan State, trailing through most of the first 12 minutes and finishing the first half down in rebounding margin, 23-22, despite being the top offensive rebounding team in the nation, according to KenPom.
“I definitely felt a little sluggish,” Freeman said of the first half following the win over the Bears. “We gotta do better in the first half.”
Central Connecticut State (2-4), the 337th ranked team on KenPom, is the latest opponent coming into the RAC with its sights set on taking advantage of a slow start from Rutgers to upset its Big Ten opponent.
The Blue Devils are coached by Donyell Marshall, who was rumored to be joining PIkiell’s staff at Rutgers as an assistant before he took the head coaching job in New Britain. Both played under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun at UConn, with Marshall joining the Huskies as a freshman in the same year Pikiell began his coaching career as an assistant under Calhoun in Storrs.
After opening the season with a 15-point win over the same Hartford team that took the Knights down to the wire, CCSU has lost 3 of its last 4 games, including a 24-point beatdown at the hands of Seton Hall.
Returning to the RAC for the second straight season, the Blue Devils look to be in better shape than they were in a year ago when they suffered a 75-59 loss to fall to 0-8. Though they’ll be without Brandon Peel, who led them in points, rebounds, assists and steals in the game, they do returns the player who had the most impact behind them.
Guard Austin Nehls, who tied Peel with a team-high 12 points against Rutgers last year, leads the Blue Devils in scoring with 14.2 points per game and ranks 10th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Senior forward Tafari Whittingham, who did not play last year, leads them in rebounding with 6.3 boards per game and is the most often used player by Marshall, utilized in 24-28 percent of CCSU’s possessions according to KenPom.
The tandem will be key for the Blue Devils pushing for one of the biggest upsets in program history. With a number of power seven conference programs losing to low-major programs — Gettys mentioned Delaware State’s upset of Big East program St. Johns as an example — already this season, it wouldn’t even be the biggest of the year.
To avoid joining programs like the Johnnies, No. 9 Indiana and the alma mater of the game’s two head coaches, storming out of the gate should be high on the Knights’ agenda.
“If you look around the college basketball world … anybody can beat anybody anytime,” Gettys said. “You just have to respect your opponent because you never know what you’re going to get.”