The bench can be a punishment, but for a head coach that discusses his disinterest in starters as often as Steve Pikiell, it's simply reinforcements.
In Pikiell's first Big Ten tournament, the bench was his wildcard. Pikiell's bench, with Nigel Johnson's 21 points as the harbinger, scored more points against Ohio State than any team in action so far.
“It's great to know that when you check out of a game or somebody else checks out of a game, [the bench] is going to come in and pick up the pace, keep the same thing going,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders. “They bring us energy. When somebody is not playing right, we put somebody else in and they come in and pick up the energy. It's good to have a good rotation.”
While Johnson stole the show, the rest of the Rutgers rotation rose up alongside him. Rutgers got 48 percent of its scoring off the bench. Sophomore Jonathan Laurent and junior Candido Sa both played well over their Big Ten averages in minutes.
“We were going for it,” said Laurent, who shot 3-for-4 and grabbed four boards off the bench. “Go for it and don't wait for it. Attack. That's what we came out and did. We crash the glass and go for loose balls.”
Fouls became a problem for Rutgers inside, and Pikiell found solutions via Shaquille Doorson and Sa.
Both big men played critical minutes after CJ Gettys fouled twice in the first four minutes. They both saw action again in the final stretch after captain DeShawn Freeman fouled out.
“We are a hard-working, scrappy team,” Doorson said. “When you play us, you have to be ready to be physical. We go at it. … We'll stay focused and not get to carried away with the win. Just get at it and get focused on the next game with Northwestern.”
Doorson and Sa gave four points, four boards and a block in 20 minutes. Both Doorson and Sa saw stretches of inactivity in Pikiell's rotation. Sa's 11 minutes were his most extensive action since January.
“We show hustle every game,” Sa said. “We feel like we are a really hard-working team. It's starting to pay off.”
Rutgers needs even more out of its bench tonight on short rest. With the same five projected starters against Northwestern, the bench is hungry.
“My mindset going into the game is the same,” Laurent said. “I'm being aggressive and attacking the backboards and playing defense. If I have an open shot, I'm taking it. If I have an open lane, I'm driving it.”