The Red Storm play their final game at home before next week's Maui Invitational on Thursday - a home tilt in the Gavitt Games, where they will face local foe and former Big East squad Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights have moved on to the Big Ten, where their football makes them an asset to the league's eastern expansion. But basketball continues to struggle, going 10-22 last season despite a victory over the NCAA Tournament runners-up Wisconsin - so things aren't so different as they were in the Big East. (You may have heard us talk about it on the podcast). With coach Eddie Jordan in his third year, having taken over after Mike Rice's practice habits were made public via video, the hope is that the corner is being turned. Jordan is getting decent recruits, finding players who play his style, and is getting used to the quirks of coaching college players.
We spoke to Aaron, who covers college basketball for the Rutgers site On the Banks, for some intel on what's new with Rutgers. (Our answers are on OTB.)
Q: With so many changes for the Scarlet Knights, are the perceptions of the program changing; does it feel to fans like there is a light at the end of the long dark drought-filled tunnel?
Aaron, OTB: I would say we aren't at the end of the tunnel, but a little bit of daylight is starting to appear. We sure hope that we are getting closer to a full on, bright light at the end, but how long it will take is the great unknown. We know for sure this team is the most talented, exciting and balanced of Eddie Jordan's tenure so far. This season the expectation is simple, the team must show they are making progress. I am optimistic they can advance a little bit quicker than expected this season and hovering around .500 would be a big step. Without a doubt, better days are ahead.
Q: Speaking of those changes, what is it that Corey Sanders and DeShawn Freeman bring to the program? And why do they improve on what players like Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack brought last year?
Aaron, OTB: Sanders and Freeman bring energy, talent and hope. More importantly, they are better fits for the current offense in place. Sanders is a pass first point guard and although he has only played one game, his impact on the way the team operated on offense was immense. He spread the ball around, kept the offense moving and was constantly making entry passes into the post, breaking down the zone. Myles Mack was one of the best players in Rutgers history, but he wasn't a true point guard. Sanders has the ability to execute the gameplan and be an extension of Eddie on the court.
Freeman has proven quickly that he is a skilled interior scorer, able to attack the rim under control but with authority and finish on a consistent basis. The bonus is he is really a point forward, as he is a skilled passer and unselfish in distributing the ball to his teammates, rare for a true scorer. The inside out combination of Sanders and Freeman will be the key to the offense. While Kadeem Jack had some great moments, was a great teammate and had a solid career, Freeman's ceiling already seems higher. The Rutgers revival will go as far as Sanders and Freeman can take them.
Q: How has the style of play changed? Is the defense better? Is the offense better? And what is it that St. John's needs to look out for on both ends of the court?
Aaron, OTB: Eddie scrapped his beloved Princeton offense for a more up tempo and open style of offense. It's a motion offense based on perimeter players working the ball inside out, setting up the shooters on the outside and creating high percentage shots in the paint. Guard penetration is key as well. Eddie is also encouraging his shooters to take a good look at anytime, regardless of the shot clock. He wants players like D.J. Foreman and freshman Jonathan Laurent to be aggressive and attack the rim. They have the athletes to run and I think Eddie made a great adjustment in catering the offense to his personnel. Early signs have been encouraging.
The defense has been a mixed bag so far with the team allowing too much penetration in the paint. They have been a step slow at times and fouling way too much. Eddie has mixed up their looks in both games so far, implementing a fullcourt press and 2-3 zone at times. As a team, they are not where they need to be and tomorrow will prove to be a great test for them. They cannot afford to get in foul trouble, especially with their lack of frontcourt depth.
Q: What encouraging signs / warning signs did you see in the first two games?
Aaron, OTB: Encouraging signs have been the improvement of second year players Mike Williams and D.J. Foreman mixing with newcomers Sanders and Freeman. The talent level has definitely jumped up a notch and after struggling to score much of last season, it's obvious this team is more balanced. Last year is was Mack and Jack and no one else. This season any of those four players could lead the team in scoring on any given night.
Warning signs in big red flags waving from the bench are turnovers and poor three-point shooting. Rutgers committed 20 turnovers in both games so far, which will they can't afford to do against better competition who will make them pay for it. The team is 7-32 from three-point range. There was a lot of talk in the preseason about how they expect to be better in that area, after being one of the worst teams in the country last season, but so far nothing has changed. It's still early and this team is still figuring things out on offense, but the number of open threes they have missed so far is concerning.
Q: So… Does this count as a rivalry game? The two schools are close to each other and were often rivals for staying out of the bottom four of the Big East but…
Aaron, OTB: I consider it a rivalry because of our proximity in location, our Big East ties and now engaged in what will be an ongoing battle in recruiting. Eddie and Mullin are currently targeting four top recruits in the class of 2017 and I expect them to go head to head for years to come. Personally, I wish St. John's and Rutgers signed a deal for a long term series to play each other every season. If both teams improve significantly in the next couple years, a Rutgers v. St. John's game in the Garden would be a raucous affair! We can only hope!
Q: Who does St. John's need to shut down to defeat Rutgers?
Aaron, OTB: Mussini needs to outplay Sanders and limit his entry passes into the post. They need to break the press on a consistent basis and get the Rutgers bigs in foul trouble. St. John's need to continue to force Rutgers into shooting poorly from three-point range by getting a hand up on our long range shooters. They need keep Rutgers from slashing through the paint and getting good looks near the rim. Don't allow easy buckets and force Rutgers to make their foul shots.
Q: Your prediction for the game?
Aaron, OTB: I think this will be a close battle with the lead flipping back and forth throughout the game. Sanders against Mussini is the match-up to watch and likely determine which team will win. I actually think with both point guards looking to push it, this game will be a little more up and down then in years past. I think both teams will be excited to play and it could be a little sloppy, at least initially. I fear the game will become a free throw battle in the second half, so whichever team that capitalizes will have the upper hand.
Ultimately, I think former New York City high school star Mike Williams drains a big three late in the game for Rutgers, sealing the victory 71-66.