Is Rutgers Better?

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers returns to the court tonight (7 p.m.) to host South Florida, and looking for its second Big East win and looking to build momentum for Saturday's clash at rival Seton Hall. There is no doubt the Scarlet Knights play a much more aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball this season, but it begs the question: "Is Rutgers Better?"

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Getting better.

That is the catch phrase for Rutgers as it moves into the heart of Big East play, and what the Scarlet Knights believe as they host South Florida today (7 p.m.) at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Those who watched the Scarlet Knights (10-7, 1-4 Big East) know this team plays harder, is better at defending, more conscientious in rebounding and more purposeful on offense.

"There's 13 games left, and a lot of people are stepping up and we're getting better as a team," Rutgers sophomore wing Dane Miller said. "Defensively, besides some of the (time) getting out of position and rebounding, we're a good defensive team. Defense wins games. We're going to keep playing defense, and help that turn into offense."

Rutgers is getting better as the season progresses, but are the Scarlet Knights better now than when Fred Hill was the coach?

Consider Rutgers lost its best scorer, shooter and passer from a year ago when Mike Rosario transferred to Florida, and was left without a true center on the roster when Greg Echinique left last January and 7-footer Brian Okam transferred after the season.

Still, Rutgers takes much better shots offensively and looks to have purpose on most possessions, its defensive intensity is better, there is markedly more accountability, and the overall effort is much higher than the past few seasons.

It is happening without a true center on the roster, and with three freshmen – center Gilvydas Biruta, wing Mike Poole and guard Austin Carroll, who is out with a knee injury –logging minutes.

So, what does it mean?

"We have a small margin of error with this team, being undermanned and undersized," Rutgers power forward Jonathan Mitchell said. "One or two mistakes are costly with us."

Even if it is not showing on the scoreboard lately, Rutgers is more competitive, and has progressed slightly, from a statistical sense, since last year despite the shortage on talent (which should be alleviated by first-year coach Mike Rice signing a top 10 class).

Defensively, Rutgers allowed 71.7 points per game last season, and is allowing 63.8 this season. It is a jump from 13th to fifth in the league. Its field goal defense was .429 last season (11th), and is .396 (6th) now.

Last season opponents shot .336 (10th) from 3-point range, and this year they are shooting .337 (10th) while the rebounding margin last year was minus-3 (15th) to plus-1 (14th) now.

Offensively, the numbers are staggeringly similar.

Rutgers averaged 67.5 points per game (13th) last season, and 67.6 (14th) this season. The Scarlet Knights shot .424 (14th) from the floor a year ago compared to .444 (10th). The 3-point field goal shooting rose from .332 (11th) to .337 (10th).

True, there is plenty of time to play in the Big East, but the statistics come after a grueling start to the conference schedule that included Villanova and Connecticut away and Georgetown and Marquette at home.

Rutgers still has home games with Pittsburgh, Villanova, Louisville and West Virginia and a trip to Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Syracuse remaining, but it also plays South Florida (7-12, 1-5), Seton Hall (8-11, 2-5) twice, St. John's (11-6, 4-3), DePaul (6-12, 0-6) and Providence (11-8, 0-6).

"We're getting better," Biruta said, "but we have to get even better to get those wins in the Big East."

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