Woof. That did not go as expected. After building momentum during the last two game of the non-conference season, Penn State fell to Northwestern 87-77 to open Big Ten play. With so many solid teams on the conference schedule, the Lions can’t afford to lose many more home games if they hope to qualify for postseason play.
The good news is that on New Year’s Day, the Lions have a chance to even their record with a road game against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are 11-3, but they have played one of the weakest schedules in the country. In fact, their only win over a team that ranks in the KenPom top 200 came against No. 173 DePaul back in November. Our Nittany Lions aren’t exactly a powerhouse, but they do have four wins out of their eight that rank higher.
Does that we should expect Penn State to cruise to a win on Sunday? No, not really. We’re still a long way from being able to do that against a good mid-major team, let alone a Big Ten opponent on the road. Still, the Lions have been better than Rutgers so far, so a bounce-back win would be nice to see. If they can’t get this one, we could be in for a very long Big Ten season.
That sentiment can be echoed by none other than Aaron Breitman, managing editor of Rutgers’s SB Nation site, On the Banks. To get a better feel for the Knights, we asked Aaron some questions about his team.
Black Shoe Diaries: How do Rutgers fans feel about the team's soft non-conference schedule? Are they just happy to get the wins after last year's 7-25 record, or are they skeptical of the team being ready for Big Ten play?
On the Banks: The fan base understands the logic behind the light schedule in non-conference play, based on how few wins were achieved by this team the past few years. With a new head coach and half of the roster full of newcomers, it made sense to start soft, so this team could learn to play together. There is disappointment among longtime fans, myself included, that Rutgers failed to play Princeton again this season, but it’s been that way for a few years now. Former head coach Eddie Jordan stopped the series that has been played 120 times three years ago, because he didn’t want to lose to them anymore, after doing so in his first season. There is hope new head coach Steve Pikiell will resume the century-old rivalry soon.
One issue with the non-conference schedule is that some fans have developed unrealistic and even unfair expectations for this season. Year one of Pikiell as head coach is about him building the foundation for the program and improving the culture within it. He has done a great job with both already, but some fans see the gaudy record and have started dreaming of the NIT, or even worse, the NCAA Tournament. I predicted 14 wins before this season started, which would double last year’s victory total and something that seems attainable, while also significant. If they were able to overachieve and actually finish with a winning record, it would be a vast improvement for a program that has had 10 straight losing seasons. Basically, some fans need to be more patient and understand winning Big Ten games is far more difficult than what the calendar brought in November and early December.
BSD: One thing that stands out about Rutgers's statistical footprint is its outstanding offensive rebounding, led by junior forward Deshawn Freeman. What is it about Freeman that makes him so good at grabbing his team's misses?
OTB: He is strong, works hard, and is crafty near the rim. He was leading the Big Ten with 3.6 offensive rebounds per game heading into conference play this week. A big reason why he was selected as the lone team captain is his effort, his willingness to buy in to the coaches’ plans for the team, and his ability to rebound, something that Pikiell has stressed since he arrived last spring. The concern coming into conference play is that Freeman has struggled on the glass against good teams. Other than the second half against Seton Hall, when he grabbed seven rebounds, he has pulled down just 11 boards in five halves against the Hall, Miami, and Wisconsin. He is undersized at 6’7” and while he has dominated against smaller, less physical teams, Freeman has to prove himself against the trees of the Big Ten. I think he can do it, but he is still learning after missing conference play last season due to injury in his first year playing above the JUCO level.
BSD: After leading the Knights in scoring with 15.9 points per game as a freshman, Corey Sanders has seen his productivity drop off considerably this year. He's scoring just 10.2 points per game and his field goal percentage is down as well. What's causing the sophomore slump, and can Sanders pull out of it during Big Ten play?
OTB: I wouldn’t call it a slump, as much as an adjustment in his role with this year’s team. Last season, after Freeman was lost for the year in December with an injury, Corey Sanders pretty much put the team on his back and looked to score first, second, and third. Pikiell wanted him to become a more complete player and lead this team as a true point guard, first and foremost. He has done a pretty good job sticking to that plan and has worked hard to get his teammates involved on offense. His strength is attacking the rim and he has still been effective in doing so, but was less aggressive in the early part of the season. Now that the competition has increased, he has looked to drive to the rim and create more often. Sanders has struggled mightily with his jump shot, especially from behind the arc, but his shot selection has improved from last season.
Another job Pikiell has tasked him with is being dominant on the defensive end. Sanders has been pretty consistent on defense, but did not play well in his last game against Wisconsin. Something to watch against Penn State is how he responds after being benched for missing practice the day before the game due to a missed flight back from Christmas, as well as how he deals with a sprained ankle suffered late against Wisconsin. He is listed as day-to-day, as of now. His attitude and work ethic have been strong so far this season, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the first bit of adversity he has faced this year.
BSD: Junior shooting guard Mike Williams has seen his field goal percentages rise dramatically over last year's. What has made the Brooklyn native a more efficient shooter?
OTB: He is far and away the most improved player on this team. His willingness to accept a new role in coming off the bench, after starting the past two seasons, has been instrumental to the overall team buy-in with coach Pikiell. He is playing smarter — his shot selection is much improved — and he’s putting himself in the right spots on the floor to be successful. Williams is letting the offense come to him and he has hit big shot after big shot in what has felt like every key moment of this season so far. After coming to Rutgers with a reputation as a great shooter, he struggled badly entering this season, shooting just 29 percent from behind the arc. This season he averaging two makes per game from deep while shooting 40 percent, a massive improvement. He is the biggest threat from three-point range on the team and the unquestioned MVP so far this season.
BSD: The non-conference schedule may be one reason for Rutgers's 11-3 start, but we also can't deny the impact of transfer students Nigel Johnson (from Kansas State) and C.J. Gettys (from UNC-Wilmington). Both guys are flourishing in their new home. How have they helped the Knights already surpass last year's win total?
OTB: Nigel Johnson is a super athletic guard who plays with swagger. He has also done a great job playing the point when Sanders isn’t in the game, as Pikiell plays a 10-man rotation and substitutes often due to his demands of his players on defense. Gettys is a smart player and a good passer who has quickly become a fan favorite. I think he has done a good job of helping younger guys on the team and keeping things loose in the locker room, something that was missing the past two seasons when the losses piled up. While I think Nigel is crucial to the success of the team and adds much needed scoring and poise, I am concerned Gettys will struggle in conference play. He is slow and has had trouble in defending big, athletic players so far this season. He has had issues staying out of foul trouble his entire career, as well. Even so, you can’t teach size. He is an intelligent player and was a tremendous August pickup for this coaching staff.
BSD: I wasn't sure if Rutgers's great non-conference defense would hold up against Wisconsin, but the Badgers were held to 43 percent shooting and forced into 13 turnovers in the Big Ten opener. What's caused the defense to improve over last season's league-worst showing?
OTB: Coaching. Pikiell made defense and rebounding the focus from day one. His longtime assistant Jay Young, who came with him from Stony Brook, runs the defense and has done a tremendous job in improving the players’ fundamentals. They really did have to start from square one and learn defensive positioning on the floor, something that was not emphasized much before this season. Rutgers has done a great job as a unit in adjusting to where the ball is in the halfcourt and creating pressure on opposing ball handlers. They still allow for too many open looks on the perimeter, something that could cost them in league play. However, when they play with intensity and focus on the defensive end, they will cause fits for every opponent, even good teams. Just ask Seton Hall and Wisconsin. The key now is playing that way for a full 40 minutes.
BSD: Will Rutgers win on Sunday?
OTB: I think it will be a tight, close affair the entire way. Rutgers has struggled with turnovers against aggressive-minded teams, so that is a concern against Penn State, who are good with takeaways on the defensive end. I think both teams will be ready to go in an effort to bounce back from opening conference play with a loss. Wisconsin was a great defensive team that made it very difficult for Rutgers to ever get going, but I think they’ll find more space and be more effective scoring in the paint in this game. Ultimately, I think it comes down to Rutgers playing better defense than Penn State and they win in front of a spirited home crowd by the score of 61-58.
Thanks to Aaron for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Rutgers Basketball throughout the Big Ten season, check out On the Banks!