The last time Corey Sanders stepped on a court in 2016, he was assisted by two team trainers as he limped towards the locker room of the Kohl Center midway through the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s loss to No. 14 Wisconsin.
The sophomore guard didn’t plant his right leg once in the walk back, adding more to the alarm raised by those who witnessed him twist his ankle after falling awkwardly on the foot of Vitto Brown as he came down from a shot attempt.
Worries of long-term injury were kept in 2016, though, as head coach Steve Pikiell confirmed the injury was a mild sprain in a conference call with reporters days later.
With that, the Scarlet Knights (11-2, 0-1) expect Sanders to be available and, barring an unexpected setback or coaching decision, on the court at the Rutgers Athletic Center as they open 2017 with their first home conference game of the season against Penn State (8-6, 0-1) — and they'll certainly need him.
It’s the first of 17 games remaining in the regular season for the Knights. Taking a quick glance at the slate, most — including analytical website kenpom.com — believe the battle with the Nittany Lions is the most winnable of the bunch.
Both programs field young rosters as they attempt to claw out of the basement of the conference, but Pikiell won’t go as far as to call the contest a measuring stick for his program.
“This is a really talented Penn State team,” he said. “This will be a real good test for us, as are all the games we play in the league, but especially a home contest like this and I think we’re well-prepared. … They do have some youth, but it’s talented youth. Hopefully we’re up for the task.”
Though on the same path, the programs have taken different approaches in their scheduling in non-conference play. As the Knights earned their best record since 1975-76 against the second-worst schedule in the country according to KenPom, the Nittany Lions faced national title contenders No. 5 Duke and sure-fire tournament teams Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Pikiell believes he and his team pulled things out of the schedule they played, no matter the talent level.
“The different challenges each game posed, whether it be teams pressing us, teams playing zone, teams playing us man-to-man posed a lot of problems for us and a lot of different challenges as I was figuring my team out and they were learning the new style of play so I think it was really good, our non-conference schedule,” Pikiell said. “It prepared us and obviously now we’re playing terrific teams and I think we’ve seen it all.”
Penn State won’t do anything out of the ordinary on New Year’s Day at the RAC, but the way it goes about its offense will be unlike anything Rutgers has faced this season.
The Nittany Lions play at a tempo that ranks in the top-20 nationally, their possessions lasting an average of 14.8 seconds, their adjusted tempo on KenPom ranking 31st in the country.
What the Knights do, though, won’t look any different than it did days prior in Madison.
“We want to run no matter who we play, so I don’t think that’ll ever change,” Pikiell said. “We obviously have to do a good job of getting back and do a great job in transition. But we’re going to play the way we play, which is terrific defense, whether it’s a short shot clock or a long shot clock … It doesn’t matter if we play Penn State or Wisconsin, we’re trying to get up and down the floor.”
If Pikiell could change anything, it would be stretching the moments his team plays at the level he expects from one half to the entire game. Playing solid basketball for 20 minutes at a time was good enough to defeat the Morgan State’s and the Central Connecticut State’s of the world, but when facing teams in the Big Ten, universally considered to be a top-3 conference, that won’t cut it.
After failing to do so against the Badgers, they’ll get a clean slate against the Nittany Lions on the first day of a new year and the second game of the gauntlet they’ll be facing for years to come.
“We’ve strung together some good halves ... but now we’re playing teams where you have to play well in both halves,” Pikiell said. “And it’s not just on the defensive end, it’s also on the offensive end. I think we’ve come a long way in the defensive end as a program, and I think we’ve come a long way from the start of the season on the offensive end of the floor too, but … you gotta play 40 good minutes and we haven’t been able to pull that together yet but we gotta keep striving to do that.”