The Huskers start the conference basketball season at home against the mighty Scarlet Knights of Rutgers University. To help our readers get a better idea of what the Huskers are up against we reached out to our SB Nation brethren at On the Banks.
Today we interviewed site manager Aaron Brietman. Aaron gives us some insight on how good this Rutgers team is and why this might be one of the best seasons they’ve had in quite some time.
Corn Nation: First question. Give us a description of Rutgers basketball. How is the fan base? Do they show up? Any fun traditions? Or, anything of note Husker fans who will go to the game should know about?
Aaron Breitman: After an almost three decade drought since the last NCAA Tournament appearance and 14 years since the last winning season, there is legitimate hope that both streaks may end this March. Long suffering is an accurate way of describing the fan base, but Steve Pikiell has made believers out of many in his 3+ years on the job. Rutgers finished the season before he arrived 279th in the KenPom rankings. Today they are 51st, which is the best ranking the program has ever had. This is spite of the fact that last season’s leading scorer and rebounder, Eugene Omoruyi, surprisingly transferred to Oregon over the summer.
Pikiell has built the team around rebounding and defense, while steadily improving the talent on the roster year over year. Offense has been a struggle throughout Pikiell’s tenure and have been a poor shooting team for years, but this season Rutgers is much improved from two-point range (54.4%, 43rd nationally). It’s a perimeter oriented team that is best suited attacking the basket rather than shoot 25+ three-point attempts per game. The RAC was one of the toughest places to play in college basketball in the 90’s and is soon becoming that way once again.
CN: What were the expectations from the fans and media of this team coming into the season?
AB: The expectations from the media and fans were for Steve Pikiell to lead Rutgers to its first winning season since 2006 and hopefully make the postseason for the first time since then as well. Realistically, the fans were hoping for an NIT appearance. Now after back to back wins over Wisconsin and Seton Hall, despite disappointing losses to St. Bonaventure and Pitt, Rutgers has been included in many bracketology projections for the NCAA Tournament. This would also be the first time Rutgers has been considered a bubble team for the NCAA’s since that same 2006 season.
CN: Right now the Scarlet Knights are sitting at 10-3 on the season. A few cupcakes, but they have had their upsets. The two big ones were to Wisconsin and then #22 ranked Seaton Hall. Is this Rutgers team going to shake up the Big Ten now that conference is under way?
AB: The conference appears to be as wide open as its been in a long time and there is great opportunity for Rutgers to make a big jump up the standings this season. That being said, they have to prove they can and winning at the RAC is a must. They had five sellouts last season, but lost them all, despite being very close games. This season, they are already 1-0 in sellout contests after jumping out to an improbable 14-0 lead over rival Seton Hall, who were ranked at the time and beat then no. 7 Maryland in the next game. RU showed flashes in conference play last season and had a chance to finish in 9th place as late as the last week of the regular season, before losing the last three games. If this group can continue to defend and rebound at an elite level throughout conference play, they’ll be a tough out for any Big Ten team.
CN: Who are some of the players Nebraska fans should keep an eye on? Who will give the Huskers a hard time?
AB: Four sophomore players make up the core of the roster that have helped move this program in the right direction. Ron Harper Jr. only had two high major offers out of high school, Rutgers and Nebraska. He ended up having a breakout senior campaign and would have garnered more offers, but Harper Jr. had already signed with Rutgers. He is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, but hasn’t reached his full potential at this point in his sophomore season. If he can become more consistent, he will be a star in the league and I think he ultimately will. Myles Johnson is by far the best big man on the team and is close to averaging a double-double per game. Montez Mathis is a former four-star recruit who is a great on-ball defender along the perimeter and can be an effective slasher to the rim. Caleb McConnell is the most interesting one of the group, as he is a bit unassuming on the court at times, but does all the little things and is a winning player. Junior Geo Baker and grad transfer Akwasi Yeboah have played well this season and are so important to the success of this team come March. Any of these six players could lead Rutgers in scoring in any given night.
CN: So, what are the chances that Rutgers makes the NCAA Tournament? Right now, their NET ranking is 36. What does Rutgers need to do to in the conference slate to make this happen?
AB: At this point in the season with resuming Big Ten play, it’s fair to say their chances are as good as any. It’s all about what they can accomplish moving forward to have a legitimate chance. The non-conference schedule will be a hurdle they have to overcome, as it was not a strong one (308th). Protecting homecourt and winning road games against teams like Nebraska in the bottom half of the conference is an absolute must if dreams of going dancing ultimately come true this season. They also need a signature Big Ten win and with Maryland playing at the RAC in the final home game of the regular season, it seems a prime opportunity to notch one.
CN: What do you think will happen in Lincoln on Friday night? Final score?
AB: Just know that every Rutgers fan is equal parts excited and hopeful for this game, as well as equal parts scared to death and nervous about this team playing well on the road. Rutgers has gone 4-43 on the road since joining the Big Ten, but three of those wins came last season, including at no. 22 Iowa. This game has all the makings of a classic letdown, as hope is at a high during the Pikiell era and this is a game Rutgers needs to win to keep the positive momentum moving forward. That being said, Rutgers should be able to control the glass and they’ve been much better defending the perimeter of late. Those two factors should keep Nebraska at bay just enough. I think it will be close most of the way, but Rutgers proves to be the better team on the night with a 68-62 victory.
Thanks again to Aaron and everyone else at On The Banks. We suggest that you head on over to their site and check out more Rutgers basketball before tipoff.