The Rutgers men’s basketball team is faced with its toughest stretch of games of the season in the next week, with a trip to College Park, Maryland on Tuesday to take on No. 22 Maryland up next and a meeting with No. 15 Wisconsin Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
The task is made harder by the fact the Scarlet Knights (12-8, 1-6) have just two days to prepare for the top team in the Big Ten.
“It just lets us know that what we’ve been doing all year has been paying off,” said junior guard Nigel Johnson, after the team broke through and earned its first conference win of the season against Nebraska on Saturday. “To finally have it happen and have it happen in our home, it just lets us know that we could go on the road from here and go to the next place we gotta go and get a win at their place.”
Building on the momentum of getting the weight of a seven-game losing streak and a winless start to conference play off their back is easier said than done, especially going on the road with just two days of preparation. Rutgers suffered its worst losses of the season — by 28 at Michigan State and by 19 at Indiana — in similar circumstances.
If the Knights put up another sloppy performance in College Park like they did on their last road trip, when they turned the ball over 21 times and gave up 33 points off turnovers in Bloomington, things could get ugly.
“Going on the road is a double challenge,” Pikiell said before practice Friday, not the first and certainly not the last time he’ll acknowledge the difficulties of playing away from home in the Big Ten.
Winning against the level of competition the Knights face in their conference is always a tall task. Doing it in a gym that is not their own, miles away from their home in front of usually raucous crowds takes the difficulty up a couple notches.
“I told them the other day, I think you have to play 42 minutes on the road,” Pikiell said Jan. 11, three days after coming close but returning empty-handed from Iowa. “You gotta have a 10-point lead to win by 1.”
It doesn’t help that the Terrapins (17-2, 5-1) have been on a tear as of late.
They welcome the Knights to the Xfinity Center on the heels of a four-game winning streak, recovering from their only conference loss — which came against Nebraska, coincidentally enough — to earn wins in Ann Arbor, Champaign and Iowa City, with a win over Indiana in College Park sandwiched in between.
Melo Trimble led Maryland with 20 points against the Hawkeyes, pushing his team-high average to 17.6 points per game, good for sixth in the Big Ten.
Assuming he plays, as he reportedly sat out their most recent practice with an illness, shutting him down is a must for the Knights to have success. The good news for Rutgers is that Pikiell has just the guy for the job.
Corey Sanders, a name known across the conference for his productive freshman season on the offensive end of the floor, has added a new specialty to his game in his sophomore campaign — keeping the opposition’s top scorer below their average.
The guard held Iowa and Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok (21.6 points per game) to 18 points, Indiana’s James Blackmon (18.3) to 16 in Bloomington, Nebraska’s Tai Webster (18.1) to 14 in Piscataway and Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig (14.6) to 8 in Madison since the start of conference play.
“I just try to take my matchup and try to lock that person down because I know if I could limit that person, it’ll probably be an easier game for us,” Sanders said. “So I just try to go out with the mindset that I could lock that person down. It’s been working most of the time … so I feel like I just gotta keep doing a good job on whatever player Coach puts me on.”
The developed defensive prowess comes at a time where Sanders is finding his groove on offense.
The Lakeland, Florida native is looking more like the freshman who led all conference classmates in scoring, assists and steals per game last season.
He’s averaging 19 points per game over the last five contests, with the best performance of season coming in the form of his season-high 25 points, five rebounds, four assists, three blocks, one steal and a game-winner against Nebraska.
It was a crucial performance for the Knights — without it, they are still fighting for their first conference win of the year in Maryland — but it wasn't the only good outing.
Johnson hit all three of his attempts from beyond the arc, including a crucial shot to end a 9-2 run just when it seemed like the Cornhuskers were going to run away with the game.
Junior forward Deshawn Freeman contributed 10 points, none more crucial than the 2 points he earned from the free throw line that brought Rutgers within 1 point late and set up Sanders' go-ahead bucket.
Graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys chipped in another 10 points of his own with an efficient 4-for-4 clip, grabbing five rebounds, a block and a number of other shots he altered that didn't make the stat sheet.
The key to Rutgers getting its second (and third and fourth) Big Ten victory lies not in reaching that level of performance, though, but maintaining it.
“We’re consistently inconsistent,” Pikiell said when asked what he learned about his team a third of the way through conference play. “We just gotta get more consistent efforts out of everybody … every guy on the roster has to be more consistent.”
If the Knights can replicate what they did against Nebraska on a consistent basis, the victory over the Cornhuskers will be the first Big Ten win of many for Pikiell in Piscataway.