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Rutgers men's basketball looks to continue its early success

Sophomore guard Paul Mulcahy, junior guard Montez Mathis and junior center Myles Johnson combined for 42 points against Sacred Heart. – Photo by Kelly Carmack / Photo Editor

The Rutgers men’s basketball team has started its season with three victories. The No. 24 Scarlet Knights (3-0, 0-0) won each game by double-digit margins and will look to build on their strong start against Syracuse Tuesday in the annual Big Ten/Atlantic Coast Conference Challenge. Here are some key goals for the program as it looks to continue its early success.

Play more games – keep the momentum rolling

With eight days between their last game and the next, head men's basketball coach Steve Pikiell is pressing to fit in another game before his team faces the Orange (1-0, 0-0). The spaced-out schedule and lack of preseason games have forced Pikiell to implement new rotations.

Though the core group of student-athletes remains the same, more games give Pikiell more opportunities to test different lineup combinations and allow his student-athletes to gain more experience playing with each other. 

“Probably pretty good if we can figure it out and do it at the right time,” Pikiell said on the chances of scheduling another game before Syracuse. “Our guys are safe, we’ve been doing a real good job of keeping it that (way), so all the decisions will be based on that.”

Let the stars shine

Multiple student-athletes have taken significant leaps for Rutgers this season. Senior guard Jacob Young has taken steps to become a better passer and scorer in transition this season, finishing last Friday against Fairleigh Dickinson with a career-best 24 points and seven assists.

Junior guard and forward Ron Harper Jr. has taken similar strides. Last Friday, he led all Knights in scoring with a career-high 30 points, shooting 5-of-9 from the three-point line.

Junior guard Montez Mathis is another student-athlete to look out for, as he’s averaging 16 points on 52 percent shooting. Mathis remains one of Rutgers’ best defenders, bringing energy to the perimeter with a total of six steals.

The key for the Knights will be to combine each of these student-athletes’ talents into one cohesive unit.

Allow the young recruits to step up and grow

Four-star recruit and freshman center Cliff Omoruyi has shined so far, posting a double-double in his debut and stat line of 7 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in the win against Hofstra.

Rutgers will be without All-Big Ten senior guard Geo Baker for the foreseeable future, as the star captain is out with an injured ankle. In his absence, sophomore guard Paul Mulcahy has stepped up to fill his shoes. Both he and Omoruyi will look to build on their solid starts.

“As coach Pike preaches to us, once one man goes down, the next man has to be ready,” Young said. “I see the guys coming off the bench playing behind (Baker) that want the opportunity, and they’re going to play hard, as we do in practice every day. They’re taking advantage of it.”

Take advantage of the break to go all-out in the next games

The Knights succeeded despite playing three games in five days, but will face new challenges in the coming weeks that will call for constant aggression and high-impact basketball. To combat these time crunches, the team must use their breaks to recuperate, practice for difficult conference match-ups and mentally prepare for the battles to come.

“A lot of people said we have gone from hunter to the hunted, but we still have something to prove,” Harper Jr. said. “We’re still trying to take care of business every time we step in between those lines, and it’s personal. We got something taken away from us that we worked our whole lives for, so we’re just working even harder to get that back.”

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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