The Huskers head over to New Jersey this Saturday to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in Big Ten Play. The Knights started the season off with a 11-1 record but have gone on a 7 game losing streak. We asked our fellow SB Nation site On The Banks to give us an idea of what the Huskers will be up against on Saturday.
Corn Nation: Last year was a rough year for the team that saw the dismissal of head coach and Rutgers alum Eddie Jordan. What happened that lead to his dismissal? Oh boy, how much time do you have?
Aaron Breitman: In a word, everything went wrong, as they were one of the worst high major teams of all-time last season. Injuries certainly left the team thin, but roster management and the lack of talent brought in during Jordan's tenure led to a complete implosion last season. In addition, the team was abysmal defensively and all hope was lost by early January. Jordan is the best point guard in program history and by all accounts, a fantastic person, but his coaching stint was not successful. Change was needed and with Pat Hobbs hired mid-season as the new athletic director, it was only a matter of time until Rutgers moved on from Jordan.
CN: What are your thoughts on new head coach Steve Pikiell? Can he take Rutgers basketball to the next level?
AB: Pikiell is a proven program builder, as he worked as an assistant at George Washington and built Stony Brook into a perennial power in the America East conference. He also was the point guard at UConn at the start of Jim Calhoun turning them into a powerhouse, so he has a deep understanding of what it will take to turn Rutgers around. Every new coach attempts to change the culture when taking over a new team and he has done a great job in improving the strength and conditioning program, something that was an area Rutgers was severely lacking in.He has proven early on this season that he can coach. Rutgers is vastly improved on defense and with rebounding, two major weaknesses in recent history. The team is playing with great effort and the players have bought into the system, although they are still learning how to play within it. Pikiell also assembled a top notch staff with assistants Karl Hobbs, Jay Young, and Brandin Knight. They have been relentless on the recruiting trail, building relationships and already picking up a 4-star big man in the class of 2018. I'm not sure what the ceiling is with Pikiell at Rutgers yet, but as with any program, how well he can recruit and develop players will ultimately determine that. I do think he can elevate Rutgers to a middle of the pack program in the Big Ten, although it's going to take time. This program redefined rock bottom the past few years, so having a competent coach that has the team playing hard in year one has already made this a successful season. Hopefully, they can break through with a few wins in conference play this year to signal even more progress.
CN: What were the expectations of Rutgers fans going into this season? Was there a lot of hope or was this looked upon as a rebuilding year?
AB: Based on where Pikiell was starting from with this program, the only reasonable expectation was to hope for Rutgers to look like a real basketball team on the court. That's how low the bar was last season and although they've struggled in conference play so far, they have been much more competitive. There are some talented players on the roster, but depth is still lacking. After just 7 wins last season, tangible progress on the court and a minimum of 10 wins seemed like a realistic expectation. I did predict 14 wins overall and think there is a good shot of that happening. Any expectations higher than that from fans, and there are some, is unfair and not realistic based on what Pikiell inherited.
CN: Rutgers started the season off with an 11-1 record. They are currently surfing a 7 game losing streak. What has happened over the last month?
AB: The competition increased dramatically and the limitations of the roster reared it's ugly head. While the defense and rebounding has continued to be strengths, Rutgers has been very poor on the offensive end. They are not a good shooting team and rely on offensive rebounds for second chance points, which makes it much harder to produce consistently against the better teams they face in the Big Ten. Quite simply, there is not enough high major talent on the current roster and it is showing, especially against the elite teams of the conference. Rutgers has also had an incredibly difficult schedule in the early going, as they've already had road games at Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Indiana. The Nebraska game is just their third at home since mid-December, so that has certainly played a factor. Ultimately, this team is still learning how to win against better competition and adjusting to a completely new system under Pikiell. Growing pains are to be expected and consistency is an issue.
CN: Corey Sanders has been one of Rutgers go to guys this season and is averaging 11.7 points per game. Who else should Husker fans know about on Saturday?
AB: Aside from Sanders, Rutgers needs big games from forward Deshawn Freeman and guard Mike Williams. Freeman is leading the Big Ten in offensive rebounds per game and has registered eight double-doubles this season. He is our best low post player and Rutgers feeds off his energy when he is clicking. Williams was the team's best performer through the first 15 games, but he has been sick the past couple of weeks and his production fell off dramatically. He is their best threat from three-point range and he is a great rebounder for a guard. He also does a lot of the little things on the court that don't show up on the box score. If he can get back on track Saturday, it will be a major positive for Rutgers.
CN: Okay, final question. What do you think will happen against the Huskers and what will the final score be?
AB: I think this will be a defensive battle and a game that goes down to the wire. Both teams are strong on the offensive glass, so I think whoever can grab the edge in that area will be key to the outcome. I also think Rutgers is the better team defensively. They have struggled to put together a complete effort for 40 minutes so far, but I think Saturday could be the game they finally come through. Having 5 days off between games should help them regroup and reset themselves. Pikiell also has been shined with his ability to prepare and game plan, so I expect Rutgers to be ready to go. With Nebraska coming off a tough loss Wednesday night and having to travel, I think the basketball gods will finally be smiling on Rutgers, at least for one day. Rutgers 67 Nebraska 62.