Zielonka: Rutgers roared out of its COVID pause, but road remains its greatest obstacle
The Scarlet Knights never looked better than their emergence from a 2 ½-week break. But there’s Rutgers at home, and then there’s Rutgers on the road.
After scoring 49 points in the second half alone in Saturday’s 93-65 blowout win over Nebraska, Rutgers only managed the same amount in 40 minutes of a 66-49 loss at Penn State Tuesday.
The reason for the stark difference there, the crashing back to earth, is evident if you’ve followed Scarlet Knights basketball in recent years. There’s Rutgers at home, and then there’s Rutgers on the road. The two teams couldn’t be any different.
In Piscataway on Saturday, I saw the Scarlet Knights at their best. I’ll grant you that they were playing a Big Ten doormat in the Cornhuskers, whose coach was beyond disappointed in their effort. But on Rutgers’ side of things, it was everything a fan would want to see: Ron Harper Jr. scoring from all over the place, Geo Baker and Paul Mulcahy making great passes to facilitate the offense, Caleb McConnell playing unrelenting defense.
Rutgers tallied 23 assists in that game, its fourth straight game since the COVID-19 pause of notching at least 20. Mulcahy’s eight tied a career high.
Then you had Aundre Hyatt (13 points, six rebounds) and Dean Reiber (10 points, four rebounds) come off the bench and post their best games of the season. I asked Hyatt how he’s liking the Big Ten so far after transferring from LSU.
“It’s definitely a lot more bigs,” he said. “It’s a lot more big-oriented. I feel like it’s a good fit for me and being a part of this team. I’m excited about Big Ten play. We’ve got a lot to show.”
Rutgers didn’t show much of anything three days later. Penn State is the furthest the team has had to travel away from campus in five weeks, and its identity got lost somewhere around the Pennsylvania state border.
The assist streak ended; the Scarlet Knights finished with just 10 helpers. Steve Pikiell said that they stopped sharing the ball, though I would add that the assist total would’ve been higher had more shots actually fallen – they made just 19 of 56 overall.
“I thought we were settling for some stuff that we don’t normally settle for,” Pikiell said of Rutgers’ sudden propensity for mid-range jump shots.
And while center Cliff Omoruyi had a better night on paper – 12 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks – on the whole, Penn State outrebounded and outmuscled Rutgers. Omoruyi doesn’t have help down low, with this starting lineup that runs Harper and three guards on the outside.
I’d always been concerned that Omoruyi would have trouble with the Hunter Dickinsons of the world in this league. But he outrebounded Dickinson in Rutgers’ win over Michigan, which, of course, was played at the building they used to call the RAC.
Now Rutgers is 0-5 on the road, with a trip to dreadful Maryland coming Saturday, and 9-1 at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Last year’s difference was almost as pronounced: 10-4 at home, 4-6 away. And famously, in 2019-20, before the pandemic ruined the Scarlet Knights’ dance plans: 18-1 at home, 2-8 away.
“This is the best league in the country. It’s hard to win on the road,” Pikiell said. “This team is ready to win games, at home and on the road, but you can’t play like today. And again, it’s on me.”
Before Tuesday night, what impressed me most about Rutgers was how it looked so much more cohesive directly after its 2 ½-week pause that kept many players cooped up inside in quarantine – unable to practice, barely able to keep up with conditioning. This team went from losing at home to Lafayette in November to rattling off four straight wins, including Michigan, as though the COVID break was a giant reset button that did everyone some good.
Reiber conveyed how Pikiell, Harper and Baker led Rutgers out of the pause.
“He (Pikiell) is pretty persistent,” Reiber said. “He always says the same stuff to try to get us to do it over and over again. I would say it’s more of the leaders on our team making sure we have the right goals in mind. The right scouting report, paying attention to all of that stuff, the little details.”
Things can fall apart after an ugly start to a season, no matter who you are or what sport you play. The same goes for impromptu interruptions to the schedule when everything in athletics is so regimented. Credit where it’s due to Pikiell, his staff and his captains for giving Rutgers a fresh start right as the Big Ten season began to heat up.
Now they just need to figure it out on the road, too.
Thanks for reading. Columns are weird – I feel like I forgot how to write in my own voice last year, and I want to mix up the content strategy in this space a bit more, so expect different kinds of stories later in January. I’ll be back on the trail Saturday afternoon when Princeton hosts Brown, which KenPom.com likes as the third-best team in the Ivy. Now let’s quickly clean the glass to send you into hump day:
Just to wrap up the Rutgers home/away disparity, I looked at the rest of the schedule. Four of their final five home games are against the cream of the crop in the Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin, all of them currently ranked. Say Rutgers went 4-0 in those games. Would that be enough quality wins to solidify its tournament resume? Honestly, it might not be if they continue to lose on the road. The Knights’ remaining road games include a decent Minnesota team, Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue, the latter of whom will want revenge in the worst way.
People were discussing Tony Stubblefield as the Big East’s coach of the year after DePaul topped Louisville, and rightfully so, I guess. But an 0-5 start in the Big East has put DePaul back in a familiar place, and Seton Hall gets to pay a visit Thursday. If I’m Hall, I’m more worried about what happens Saturday when they skip up from Chicago to Milwaukee to play Marquette on one day’s rest. The Golden Eagles have pulled off three straight wins and scored 87 or more points in each, the most impressive being a 32-point stomping of Providence last week.
He wasn’t conference player of the week, but Bryce Aiken made the “Big East Honor Roll” for averaging 17 points and seven assists over Seton Hall’s two wins last week.
Both Monmouth coach King Rice and Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway are wary of how their players will fare Friday night after both programs emerge from lengthy COVID pauses. According to this great piece by Stephen Edelson, the programs had a combined 22 players test positive. Saint Peter’s had 10, meaning Monmouth had 12 – which is most of the program. “How safe is it after they’ve been in isolation that long and then they have a few days and we’re going to have a game?” Rice told the paper. “That sounds good for TV. That sounds good for getting your games in. That’s the worst thing for mental health.”