Nigel Johnson came up short in competition for a starting guard spot in his first Rutgers season, but the bench may be exactly where he belongs.
The Kansas State transfer out of Northern Virginia was Rutgers' most valuable player in week one of the college basketball season, and he did it off the bench. In Sunday's confident, 87-66, drubbing of Drexel, Johnson briefly flirted with a triple double.
“He's the coach, he knows how to win,” said Johnson, who finished with 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds. “He took his team last year to the tournament and we're trying to do the same thing here. Whatever he needs me to do to feel like we're going to win, that's what I'm going to do for him.”
The lack of a bench buried Rutgers last season. Through a 2-0 start on opening weekend, the Rutgers bench was its greatest asset.
Two days after Steve Pikiell's bench scored 43 points in a win over Molloy, it repeated against Drexel with 32 more.
“Everybody helped,” said junior college transfer Candido Sa after 11 points and six rebounds. “We work on rebounds every day and we're getting better. It's one of our biggest focuses.”
Speaking of weaknesses transformed into strengths, Rutgers out-rebouonded Drexel by 27.
Pikiell made it clear that you don't start if you don't rebound in his system. DeShawn Freeman and CJ Gettys showed why as the leaders of a 56-29 rebound advantage.
For comparison, Rutgers was a 35-rebound per game team in Eddie Jordan's final season.
“I like those, those are great numbers,” Pikiell said. “We missed a lot on the offensive end, so we've got to look at it both ways but we're emphasizing that. We've got some big guys and they kind of went at it. Shaq [Doorson] had a great practice yesterday. He came back. He didn't play much in that opener and he was ready to go today. … Our post guys did a really good job of kind of controlling the offensive end and the glass.”
Back-to-back comfortable wins came in spite of slow start for point guard Corey Sanders. The sophomore shot 18 percent in 24 minutes to go along with four turnovers and three fouls. With other guards Johnson and Mike Williams off to stronger starts, Rutgers turns its attention to DePaul Thursday in Chicago.
“Winning is fun,” Pikiell said. “We're going to try to keep that going. We've got to stay focused. We had a great shootaround today. They were locked in. We have to do the little things. We're not the most talented team in the world, so we've got to be locked in. We've got to be great with our scouting reports. We've got to be well prepared. They've got to understand who they're guarding and we've got to continue to have great practices.”