It's about that time again. Time for the most underrated basketball rivalry in the Big East (possibly the nation) to get underway again.
It's never been a matchup to decide anything significant in the Big East. But it's always an intense game for all involved.
Here's what you need to know about Rutgers heading in:
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (12-10, 3-8 Big East)
2011-12 record: 14-18 (6-12 Big East, t-11th place)
Rutgers had a weird year last season. They had wins over Florida, UConn, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, all at home. But they ended up with the worst offense in the Big East at season's end (combining several factors, the most glaring being a huge turnover rate and an avoidance of foul shooting).
This season, the dynamic sophomore duo of Eli Carter and Myles Mack return, and Mack is having a very good season. After posting decent, but not great, shooting percentages last season, his percentages this year are ridiculous, as he's leading all Big East guards with a .503/.462/.940 line of percentages. It shows an uptick in maturity (he's taking less bad shots), but also shows a whole lot of work put in in the offseason. He's also the team's top thief, with just under 2 steals per contest.
If Mack has shown a more mature game, Eli Carter has gone in the opposite direction, if anything. He is a very good scorer who can hit from almost anywhere, but after posting respectable percentages (.409/.353/.696) for a freshman leading scorer last season, his percentages from the field and from three have suffered this season (.384 from the field, .305 from deep). He's up to 89% from the free throw line, so he's not a bad shooter, per say. But after watching him a few times this season, his shot selection has been less than stellar. He's also turning the ball over 3 times a game. The sum total of the parts makes him a "volume shooter" in the worst sense, and considering that Rutgers' offense entirely depends on him and Mack, he's a guy you can point to as a reason for both the successes and the failures of Mike Rice's squad this season.
Apart from those two key guards, athletic Kansas State transfer Wally Judge anchors the back line defensively. The former McDonald's All-American isn't averaging the most blocks on the team, but does lead Rutgers in rebounding at 5.7 REB. He also ably finishes around the rim when the opportunity comes, usually off an offensive rebound or dump off pass. He's not exactly Gene Teague on the block (to put it lightly), and his free throw shooting is broken (47%), so that could be a factor.
Then you have Dane Miller and Jerome Seagears. Miller is the resident headcase on the team- when he plays well, and uses his toolsy game well, Rutgers tends to win. But more often than not this season, he's been a complete non-factor. He's the team leader in assists, while ranking second in rebounding and blocked shots, but for Miller, now a senior, much more was expected heading into the year. He remains a quality defender whether he's out on the perimeter (more so this year than years past) or down low at the 4 (reverse that).
Seagears is the team's best defender and a guy who can knock down a perimeter shot from time to time (see: ruining Seton Hall senior day last year.....). He played the role of point guard last season, leading the team in assists, but his production has dropped off a little, although he still can pass the ball (he has the best AST/TO ratio on the team at 51/31).
Austin Johnson (STILL there) and Kadeem Jack back up the post positions. Johnson is a solidly built post player who can give you a respectable effort down low each night. Jack didn't make an impact last season due to some health issues, but he's proven himself to be an athletic defender (leads the team in BLK) and a decent rebounder.
Mike Poole and Malick Kone are the other players averaging over 10 minutes per, with Poole struggling to shoot the ball from everywhere this year compared to last, and Kone finding consistent minutes as a wing defender a little hard to come by.
Seton Hall will win if:
- They contain Carter and Mack. This could be a tough task considering Carter's scoring ability and Mack's improved shot-making, but with the loss of Gil Biruta from last season, the Scarlet Knights don't have a single offensive post presence. It's all Carter and Mack, and if one of those two don't put up their average on a given night (Carter- 15.5, Mack- 12.7), it's really hard for Rutgers to score consistently, as no one else on the team is averaging even 8 PTS).
- Edwin and Cosby build off recent momentum. Edwin is hobbled with a tweaked ankle, but in the last couple games, he's played like the All-Big East talent that he is. Cosby returned to his two-guard position against UConn and lit things up from deep. The key to this game may be which defense contains the others' two high scorers better. With all the injuries the Pirates have had, and with Teague struggling to find some rhythm lately, that's basically what the Pirates are as well.
- They win the free throw battle. It killed them in the UConn game, and it's hurt multiple times this season. Rutgers as a team shoots 72%, 6% better than the Pirates, but they are led by Carter and Mack (of course) who are both excellent free throw shooters, and they take the most attempts to boot. If the Pirates can at least keep their percentage close to what Rutgers shoots in this sure-to-be-a-little-chippy ballgame, it will help their cause enormously.
Rutgers will win if:
- They find a third scorer in the game. It's been an issue all year long. While the Pirates at least have someone capable of filling that role (Teague), Rutgers does not. There are several candidates for this role, however, namely Poole, Seagears and Miller. Speaking of Miller....
- Good Dane Miller shows up. Miller always gets a kick out of going up against Fuquan Edwin, even in a summer league setting. He poses a matchup problem for the Pirates that Coach Willard already addressed in his postgame presser on Sunday, and if he can have a good game, it'll be great for Rutgers' chances.
- They press the Pirates and turn them over. Live ball turnovers always stink, but Rutgers, with their athletes, has the ability to turn those into transition points. Those will get the crowd at the RAC buzzing, and that is not what the Pirates want to happen at all.
Bottom line: expect the unexpected. Rutgers hasn't won a game against the Pirates at the RAC since 2007 (and they needed double OT in that one, too), so there's that, coupled in with the desperation factor from two long losing streaks. Each team would love nothing more than to plunge the other team's fans into a deeper state of misery. Time to play ball.
UPDATE, 5:48 PM: According to Brendan Prunty of the Newark Star Ledger, Brian Oliver and Brandon Mobley will suit up against Rutgers tonight.