Rutgers (5-3) completes the pre-conference portion of its schedule this week with a Midwest road trip to visit undefeated Kansas State (8-0) and defending Mountain West champion Air Force (6-4). Rutgers Head Coach Gary Waters assembled for the Scarlet Knights one of the more challenging non-conference schedules in recent years. The 2003 schedule is not loaded with northeastern mid-majors (or bottom majors). While the lineup does not include any super-heavyweights, the schedule contained plenty of legitimate opponents. Both at home and on the road. Posing exactly the sort of challenge a growing program needs to take the next step. Rutgers has been nearly invincible at the RAC under Waters. However, the Scarlet Knights have been road kill outside of Piscataway. The non-conference schedule appears designed to challenge the Scarlet Knights with tough but winnable games. Not just at the RAC but on the road, too.
In mid-November, I felt that the non-conference schedule contained one certain loss – Charlotte – and six certain wins – St. Mary's, Penn State, Rhode Island, Norfolk State, Farleigh Dickinson, and Arkansas-Monticello. I felt the other four opponents – Wisconsin, Princeton, Kansas State, and Air Force – were swing games that Rutgers could reasonably win or lose. I predicted an 8-2 record through December, including losses to Charlotte and Kansas State, and a 14-13 overall record.
Rutgers enters the last week of December with a 5-3 record. After opening the season with the most significant victory of the Waters era – at Charlotte – the Scarlet Knights endured, two games later, its worst defeat under Waters – a loss to woeful Penn State at the RAC. Rutgers followed the Penn State loss with a desultory home loss to Wisconsin and a lackluster road loss at Princeton. Suddenly, Rutgers did not look nearly so invincible at the RAC – the key to the season. Nor did Rutgers appear appreciably improved on the road. The guard play has been inconsistent. Poor judgment and shot selection continues to be an ongoing problem in the backcourt. Newcomer PF Ollie Bailey is having the best freshmen season on the Banks since perhaps his namesake, Jammin' James, patrolled the Barn in 1975-76. However, the rest of the frontcourt has been inadequate. Waters is essentially relying upon SG Ricky Shields, SG Quincy Douby, and Bailey to carry the load. They need more help.
Kansas State is a mirror image to Rutgers. The Wildcats are a mediocre team that is tough at home but struggles away from Manhattan. The Wildcats finished the 2003-04 season with a 14-14 record after a first round loss to Iowa State – whom Rutgers subsequently beat in the NIT semifinals – in the first round of the Big XII tournament. While the Wildcats' 8-0 record may appear imposing on first impression, a deeper look reveals a schedule that is a "Who's Who Are They?" All but one game has been played in Manhattan. All but two opponents have been mid-majors. The Wildcats have beaten mediocre Washington State at home and Wyoming in Casper, Wyoming (a not quite neutral site). Rutgers has faced a tougher schedule and has been tested on the road. This game still constitutes a swing game that the Scarlet Knights could reasonably win.
Air Force is a mirror image to Princeton. Current Princeton Head Coach – and former Air Force Head Coach – Joe Scott brought the Princeton offense with him to Air Force four years ago. The Falcons finished the 2003-04 season with a 22-7 record as the Mountain West Conference regular season champions. Air Force lost to North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Air Force has stumbled out of the gate under new Head Coach Chris Mooney, another former Princeton assistant. The Falcons have lost to heavyweights Marquette and #3 Georgia Tech but have also succumbed to Milwaukee-Wisconsin – home of former Scarlet Knight Jason McCoy – and Lamar. An early season win over Mississippi on a neutral court is the only significant win. Air Force travels to Iowa tonight before returning home to host Rutgers. While Air Force has faced a tougher schedule than has Kansas State, the Falcons have shown the same inconsistency that has plagued Rutgers this season. As with Kansas State, this game still constitutes a swing game that the Scarlet Knights could reasonably win.
So, Rutgers enters the final week of December two games behind the pace needed to secure another post-season berth. Two road wins can restore the post-season trajectory by improving Rutgers' prospects in road games at Georgetown, St. Johns, and West Virginia. However, two losses likely will doom Waters to a losing season in his fourth year. At a crucial time in the evolution of the Big East with Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette about to join the conference. This week will be a litmus test for Waters and his young team. Which way will the season break?
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