1. Through two games, the Scarlet Knights have been one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams after being one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams last year. Is this uptick a result of their opponents being low-major teams, or is it the sign of something sustainable for Rutgers this season?
The competition has not been strong, but I think it’s also due this team being much improved offensively. They just made the most three-pointers in a two game span in program history. Geo Baker and Issa Thiam both shot 36% from three-point range last season and have started 4 of 8 and 7 of 10 from deep, respectively. Eugene Omoruyi was 0 for 5 the entire last season and swore he made shooting behind the arc a major priority this offseason. He has started 6 of 7 from behind the arc.
Add in Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss, as well as freshmen Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis to the mix and Rutgers has more shooters around the perimeter than they’ve had in a very long time. Of course, they can’t keep up this pace (26 of 46 for 56.5%), but if they can make 6-10 three’s per contest, it would be a major improvement this season and keep them in a lot of games.
2. Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman are two notable departures for Rutgers from last year. They were also the Scarlet Knights’ two leading scorers. How will Rutgers look to overcome this?
Both players meant so much to the program the past three years and the way they played in the Big Ten Tournament run to end their Rutgers careers will not be soon forgotten. That being said, they were not efficient players on the offensive end and it was a problem at times. This year’s team has more balance and so far has shared the basketball much better. They had six players score in double figures in the opener and five in the second game.
Baker is the point guard this season and while he is better suited off the ball, he’s done a great job getting his teammates involved, dishing out 13 assists while only committing 5 turnovers. Plus, in speaking with the players before the season, they really want to win above all else and to a man have a team first approach. Through the first two games, they’ve moved the ball on offense and made shots better than any Rutgers team has in several years. If they can continue to have a balanced offense, they’ll be a much harder out in the Big Ten this season.
3. St. John’s is being talked up as the best college team in the New York/New Jersey area this season. Do you think that’s something Steve Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights have in the back of their mind as they prepare for this game?
Yes, I think Rutgers definitely looks at this game more importantly than St. John’s does. This team has a chip on its shoulder to prove all the doubters wrong this season and this is their first chance to make a statement. The game is at the RAC and should be a sellout. Last season’s charity exhibition was a closely contested battle and I expect the same this Friday, but this time it counts. While these two programs haven’t recruited many of the same players, it would certainly help the perception of Rutgers to beat the Johnnies to have in their favor in future recruiting battles.
4. Who wins and why?
There is no question that St. John’s has the more talented side and will have the two best players on the court in Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron. However, Rutgers has played together better through two games and will have a likely raucous home crowd behind them. Ultimately, I think it comes down to coaching and I’d give the edge to Steve Pikiell and Rutgers in that regard.
I expect Pikiell to throw multiple defensive looks at the Johnnies in an effort to force Mullin to make adjustments. Rutgers also has more size and length that they can use to their advantage to clog up the lanes. I also think rebounding will be a big factor and Rutgers can win that battle. St. John’s has the higher ceiling this season, but I think Rutgers is the better team at the moment or at least in this game. Rutgers 79 St. John’s 76