The last time the Rutgers men’s basketball team faced Nebraska, it saw both its season and an era come to an end.
An 89-72 loss to the Cornhuskers in the first round of last season’s Big Ten Tournament marked the end of Eddie Jordan’s three-year return to Piscataway as the head coach of his alma mater, where he shone as a leader in the Scarlet Knights’ greatest ever season in 1976.
Fast forward 325 days, the Knights host Nebraska Saturday at noon at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the same venue they suffered a 90-56 blowout to the Cornhuskers a little more than a year ago in what was the fourth loss of a program-record 17 game skid.
A lot has changed in that year. Rutgers has a new coaching staff, a new style of play and far less injuries than they did in either of the last two matchups.
It has shown improvement in numerous categories, most of which are on the defensive end, including rebounding (+7.7 per game from last season), defensive field goal percentage (-6) and opposing points per game (-15).
Whereas most games last season were lost early and by embarrassing margins, this season’s losses in conference have come down to the final five minutes, with the exception of their games against Michigan State and Indiana.
Known for his scoring prowess last season, Corey Sanders has been the poster boy for the shift in focus to defense.
Tasked with guarding the opponent’s leading scorer, the sophomore guard has routinely held them to below their season averages, including keeping the Big Ten’s top scorer Peter Jok to 18 points — five below his average coming into the game — in what was the closest Rutgers came to its first conference win.
On a 7-game skid entering Saturday, it’s those changes that are keeping the Knights optimistic that the first conference win will come and it won’t come alone.
“We’re right there,” said junior guard and recently named co-captain Mike Williams. “Last year, these games we’re losing, we’d lose by 30, 40 points. Right now, when we play, we’re down by 9 and it kind of gets away from us. We just gotta play for a full 40 minutes. If we do that, I feel like we coulda had a few games this year.”
But the improvement on the defensive end of the floor has not translated into success on the other side.
The Knights have been smarter with their shot selection, taking the right shots when they get open looks. But the lack of sharpshooters on the roster means that those opportunities, which have actually increased since last season, have not translated into points.
The numbers back up the eye test — they rank dead-last in the Big Ten at every part of the court, from the foul line to beyond the arc.
Shooting can only improve so much, especially over the course of a season. Playing in a conference filled with top-tier opponents leaves no breathing room to spend time on shooting.
Instead, Rutgers is working on fixing the issues that have plagued them the most in Big Ten play — turning the ball over — ahead of facing a team that ranks top in the conference in forcing opponents to do just that.
“When we watch them on tape, most of them are mental,” said Sanders on his team’s turnovers. “There may be a few fatigue turnovers but for the most part, most of them are mental. We’re just being careless with the ball … (pick-six turnovers) those are free points we’re giving away.”
Coming into Saturday’s contest off their longest lull in the schedule since the season tipped off, the Knights will be recharged mentally and physically, spending much of the break recovering from knocks picked up in a 3-game stretch over five days.
This helps Corey Sanders on both ends of the floor.
It allowed him to review film and see where he could continue his defensive development as he prepares to split his time defensively between Nebraska guards and leading scorers Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr.
He’s returned to his old self on offense, averaging a 2015/16-esque 17.5 points in the last four contests, but his focus is on reducing his turnovers.
Do that and it’ll be a big step towards getting first-year head coach Steve Pikiell his first Big Ten win and further pushing the progress this team has seen since it walked off the floor at Bankers LIfe Fieldhouse 325 days ago.
“We’re getting better. We’ll keep fighting and we’ll keep defending and we’ll keep rebounding hopefully and one of these days we’ll really take care of the basketball and get some good shots up," Pikiell said. "We’ve been in every game — I feel comfortable saying that even though the final score doesn’t indicate it sometimes ... if we could make some timely shots and not turn the ball over … we can make it a little bit more interesting.”