Big East Coast Bias: While the quality of wins may not be eye-popping, you are what your record says you are. Rutgers is 11-1. How did this happen?
Aaron Breitman: While you are correct their strength of schedule is really weak (350th), the fact that Rutgers took care of business and beat everyone they were supposed to beat is major progress for the program. Under previous coach Eddie Jordan, they lost to St. Peters, St. Francis (PA), Drexel, William & Mary, and Fairleigh Dickinson. Coming into the season, I thought games against Stony Brook, Fordham, and DePaul could have gone either way, but they beat all three teams. This program was so far behind that baby steps like this must occur on their quest for respectability, so this was no minor accomplishment.
While Rutgers struggled at times against weaker competition, their ability to defend and rebound were key to them finding ways to win. They were awful in both areas last season and new head coach Steve Pikiell has made them the backbone for this program moving forward. Rutgers is currently 1st in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, 3rd in rebounding margin, and 8th in rebounds per game. It should be noted in their lone loss this season to Miami, they were dominated on the boards, so it will be interesting to see how they hold up against the Hall and in conference play. The players are also playing team basketball and have a balanced scoring attack, with five players averaging 9+ points per game.
BECB: Corey Sanders' numbers are down a bit from his strong season last year. Is this cause for concern, or moreso that he has more help now so he doesn't have to do quite as much?
AB: While his scoring and shooting percentages are down, all of his other stats are equal or slightly better than last season. His willingness to buy in and be more a true point guard and distributor on offense has been a major key to the 11-1 start. Like you said, he does have more options around him now, as Deshawn Freeman’s return from a season ending injury and the addition of transfers Nigel Johnson and CJ Gettys have given Rutgers a lot more offensive firepower. He is taking 3.5 less shots a game, while cutting down on turnovers per game as well. His focus on defense is much improved too, as Pikiell has challenged him with being dominant on that end of the floor. As the competition ramps up, I do expect him to look to score a bit more, which Rutgers will need. However, he has done a fantastic job of getting his teammates involved and has played pretty unselfishly this season so far.
BECB: Mike Williams was Rutgers' leading scorer last season against Seton Hall. Williams has been a pretty constant double-digit scoring threat for most of the season. Do you see him having the same success this year against the Pirates?
AB: In my opinion, he has been the MVP for this team up to this point. After starting his first two years, he has embraced his new role in coming off the bench and has been a major weapon for Rutgers. He has been their most consistent three-point shooter, after struggling much of the past two seasons behind the arc. However, he has contributed in so many more ways and brings consistent energy to this team every minute he is on the floor. Williams has rebounded really well for a guard and his defense, always a strong suit, has been even better this season. His development is a great example for Pikiell and his coaching staff to point to with recruits, as his improvement has been significant under their guidance. Being the only regular that is local on the team (NYC) and the fact he is the only one on the roster to have played in both blowouts the past two seasons against Seton Hall, I expect him to be ready and have a big game on Friday. I think his ability to counter Myles Powell off the bench for the Hall is a key matchup in this one.
BECB: Aside from Sanders and Williams, who is another Scarlet Knights player you see playing a big role in this game?
AB: Deshawn Freeman is the best interior player on the team and has averaged close to a double-double this season (12.7 points & 9.3 rebounds). Rutgers needs him to show up in a big way in this game to have a legitimate shot at winning. Freeman is currently 16th in country in offensive rebounding percentage, but struggled mightily on the boards against Miami, so he needs to do be more effective against the Hall. He is only 6’7”, but can knife his way through traffic to the rim and is a crafty scorer down low. That being said, he has missed a bunch of shots near the rim this season and can sometimes be a bit out of control. If he can be effective in the paint and continue to rebound at a high rate, it will be a major plus for Rutgers. Also, if he can get Angel Delgado in foul trouble, that would be huge as well.
BECB: I asked you this prior to the DePaul/Rutgers game, but now with a few more games to go off of, what's been the biggest difference between Steve Pikiell and Eddie Jordan?
AB: Defense and toughness. Pikiell has gotten the entire roster to buy in on making defense their foundation of success. Rebounding is all about effort and toughness, which is something that has been focused on as well. Rutgers is not a good shooting team, but if they maintain those two traits, it will give them a fighting chance most nights. Last season, Eddie infamously preached that teaching rebounding isn’t in his package as a coach and Rutgers' version of defense was at a lower level than a recreation league team. The emphasis on defense and being tough by the coaching staff has been the foundation of their success and a mantra they adopted in “knight and day”. As Pikiell said after the Fordham win on Sunday, “if you defend and rebound, good things happen.” A lot of other positive changes have occurred within the program, including a renewed focus on strength and conditioning, as well as preparation. Also, in-game coaching adjustments have been excellent and it's clear Pikiell can flat out coach. But all the positives on the court are rooted in the players buying into the importance of defending and rebounding.
BECB: The Prudential Center has announced this game is a sellout. How important is that for basketball in the state of New Jersey?
AB: Great question. It’s a huge game for the state and there is a lot of buzz for this one. Representation from New Jersey schools in the NCAA tournament over the past decade has been sparse, but Seton Hall is looking like they have a great shot at returning this season. Monmouth has been very good the past few years and Princeton is the favorite in the Ivy League. Those two teams played a thriller this past Tuesday and only got people more primed for Rutgers-Seton Hall. Rutgers has been so bad the past three seasons, but their emergence and the quality of their new coaching staff has a lot of people in basketball circles around New Jersey very excited. We reviewed the previous coaching matchups in this rivalry from the past two decades here, and I really think Pikiell v. Willard will be a great head to head series for years to come. Chapter 1 will hopefully live up to the hype!
BECB: Finally, what's your prediction?
AB: I’m hopeful for a very tight, competitive game throughout, but am fearful Seton Hall will dominate inside. Delgado scares the living daylights out of me and I’m concerned Ish Sanogo will neutralize Freeman in the paint. One player I haven’t mentioned that is very important for Rutgers is Candido Sa, who comes off the bench. He is much more athletic than CJ Gettys and if he can contribute down low in this game, it will really help. Obviously, Rutgers needs to prevent big runs from the Hall and not fall behind by double digits. They are not a strong three-point shooting team, so assuming they won’t be able to dominate the paint like they have against better competition, it will be tough to comeback from such a large deficit. I am interested to see if Rutgers employs a "Hack a Hall" philosophy, being that they are such a poor free throw shooting team. Ultimately, I think the game is a battle and Rutgers represents well, but falls short in the end. Seton Hall 67 Rutgers 61.