by John Fanta
PISCATAWAY –– With 13 minutes on the clock inside The RAC on Black Friday, Steve Pikiell threw his arms up in the air. He could taste blood in the water, and wanted to put a sixth win away.
In response, the 6,000-plus dressed in red and black delivered, willing Rutgers to three dunks in the ensuing two minutes and a 9-2 run in total. It all but locked up what turned out to be an 82-57 Scarlet Knights win, driven by scrappy defense and 34 fast break points. That identity is what Rutgers must take on to be successful. And while the Scarlet Knights know that, there’s also a focus on that identity that stands out to junior star Geo Baker.
“There’s a different mindset this time around,” said Baker after his 17-point performance led RU to the victory. “In the past, we have not done a good enough job keeping everybody on the same page. We would have team meetings, but they would come after losses to bring us together. We’re a step ahead right now.”
The Scarlet Knights have one goal in mind right now: hold teams to 55 points or less. In four of the last five games, RU has held their opponents to 58 or less.
“You have to enjoy playing defense, and we do,” added Baker. “If you don’t want it, you’re not going to have success on that end.”
Sophomore forward Caleb McConnell (10 points, four rebounds) relishes adding a toughness factor to the group.
“Whatever ‘Coach Pike’ needs me to do, I’m ready for,” said McConnell. “We really put an emphasis on our D. As for the offensive end, it’s all about passing up the good shot for a great one.”
Speaking of the offense, which had four in double-figures, attacking the tin has to be the top priority for the Scarlet Knights. While Baker can stroke it, he is tasked with a lot for this group, one that doesn’t possess a great catch-and-shoot weapon.
On Friday, it was just a 3-for-13 performance from deep against the Minutemen.
“We have to be an elite defensive team,” said Pikiell. “Today we were really locked in. Our defense was outstanding.”
That defense held UMass to 36 percent shooting and created 22 points off 19 Minutemen turnovers.
The most telling number? 54 – what the Scarlet Knights finished in points in the paint.
The questions are simple – Can Rutgers stay committed to attacking the paint, and how will they handle teams who pack it in defensively against them?
We’ll start to know more Tuesday, when the Scarlet Knights visit a 6-2 Pittsburgh team that has a Kenpom Top 15 win over Florida State as well as others coming over Kansas State and Northwestern.
Baker didn’t mince words.
“We know we haven’t beaten anyone great yet,” he said.
“But, I know one thing: we will be ready.”