The Rutgers Scarlet Knights have started off their 2018/2019 campaign by winning five of their first six games, including the Scarlet Knights’ biggest road win under head coach Steve Pikiell.
Rutgers became the first team to hold the Hurricanes under 78 points on Wednesday when the Scarlet Knights won big at Miami 57-54 as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The biggest question during the preseason for Rutgers was who was going to fill the Corey Sanders-sized hole in the Scarlet Knights lineup. Six games in, Geo Baker has been equal to the task.
Baker, the 6-4 sophomore guard, is averaging 15.3 points per game and has identical field goal and 3-point percentages, shooting .471 from the field and beyond the arc. Baker also leads the team with 31 assists and is second on the team having forced 20 turnovers on the year.
The Scarlet Knights are also appreciating the presence of Peter Kiss, a third-year sophomore who was forced to sit out last season after transferring from Quinnipiac. Kiss has been a breath of fresh air for Rutgers, averaging 9.7 points per game through six contests and is 10-24 from deep this season.
Perhaps the biggest key for the Scarlet Knights this season has been the improvement by Eugene Omoruyi this summer. Omoruyi had a decent sophomore season last year, but has completely transformed this season after stepping into the number five that Mike Williams left empty.
Omoruyi set new career highs on Wednesday in field goals made (12) and minutes (32) while also recording his first collegiate block and steals. As a whole this season, Omoruyi is averaging 15 points per game (better than every other Scarlet Knight other than Baker), 8.8 rebounds per game (the most for the Scarlet Knights), and has the highest 3-point line at 53 percent.
While the first two games on Rutgers’ schedule weren’t particularly nerve-wrecking (a 90-55 blowout to open the season against Fairleigh Dickinson and a 95-66 win against Drexel), the Scarlet Knights showed that this team can shoot, especially from beyond the arc.
Rutgers made 12 3-pointers against Fairleigh Dickinson and dropped the second-most 3-pointers in school history (14) two days later against Drexel. Those blowouts showed us that, unlike Pikiell teams of the past, the 2018/2019 Scarlet Knights can shoot. They also began to erase Pikiell’s preseason fears that this year’s squad could not defend up to the standard he’s become known for.
The momentum was paused when former Big East rival St. Johns visited. The Johnnies handed Rutgers’ a 84-55 loss in front of a packed RAC, during which Baker only recorded seven points while only two Scarlet Knights had double digit scoring figures (Issa Thiam with 13 and Omoruyi with 12). That Friday night was the only time in this young season that it appeared the old Scarlet Knights were back and that this season would but just like the last decade of Rutgers basketball.
Those fears were squashed within the opening minutes of the next game, when the Scarlet Knights held the Eastern Michigan Eagles to four points in the first half, tying an NCAA record for fewest points allowed in a half. While Rutgers would go on to allow 32 points in the second half, the easily took care of the Eagles, winning 63-36.
The Scarlet Knights got a signature win on the road on Friday on the road in Miami. In what is arguable the program’s biggest road win in seven years, Baker (16), Kiss (12) and Omoruyi (11) all had double-digit scoring figures. The 7-0 senior Shaq Doorson, who has also improved tremendously this year, lead the way with 10 boards.
Wednesday in Coral Gables was not perfect by any means for Scarlet Knights. This team still has an issue scoring, and the early season 3-pointers have not fallen as of late. Rutgers went 2-for-11 from deep against Miami, while only shooting 41 percent from the field. This team still struggles offensively, which is something that Pikiell that will need to address going forward. But the 2018/2019 edition of the Scarlet Knights still plays that tough defense that has become a trademark of Coach Pikiell.
The Scarlet Knights have a rough ahead of them. Wednesday night was the first of three games to be played in six days. No. 9 Michigan State will visit the RAC on the heels of an overtime loss at Louisville Tuesday night, before the Scarlet Knights head to Madison next Monday to take on the Wisconsin Badgers.
While the next week will be extremely difficult for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights finally have some momentum. Add that with the talent Coach Pikiell has assembled this year, it could be a good basketball season on the banks.
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