Perhaps the Scarlet Knights left something down in Florida when they traveled down to play the Gators. It does seem to make one wonder. After all, Rutgers opened up with three straight wins this year, and while one can point out that the opponents were merely Tennessee Tech, North Dakota St, and North Carolina Central, when you're a team that won just 10 games the year before (and one of the losses was at home to Jackson St), it's easy to find positives in any victory. Moreover, Rutgers unveiled several much-anticipated new faces this year - Corey Chandler, Mike Coburn, and Earl Pettis - and each has given indications in the early going that their futures at RU are indeed bright.
All the positives were looking undeniably so against Florida, at least for the first 14 minutes. When JR Inman made a layup with 5:52 left in the first half, his bucket tied the score at 31 apiece. That the young but extremely talented Gators would go on a 17-2 run to close out the first half, and continue that run to win going away by 25 was neither particularly surprising nor upsetting. In many ways it was a great learning experience for RU's young players, and they hung tough long enough for RU fans to reflect on the positives much more so than the negatives.
That the wheels would come off against Florida when they did was no surprise. That they've continued to stay off and have rolled even further away from the vehicle since then is absolutely shocking. The Dartmouth game could be explained and rationalized fairly easily; the Knights came home from their first road test, a draining experience that must have expended all their energies, to take on an uninspiring perennial Ivy League also-ran just three days later. The victory was most certainly lackluster, but a victory it was, and that's all that anyone will remember. The outcome of RU's next game will be one that will be remembered for a very long time.
St Peter's: What Went Wrong
Fred Hill said before the season began that his biggest concern this year is the depth on the team. There simply isn't much of it. Before the game began, the RU faithful were made aware that they would be playing this game without Courtney Nelson, who dislocated his shoulder while home on Thanksgiving break. Combine that with Justin Sofman's injury, and the Knights entered the game with just eight scholarship players. Then during the game, sophomore Hamdy Ndiaye began suffering from leg cramps, which limited perhaps RU's most-rapidly improving player to just 14 minutes of action. Thus it became crystal clear during this game that Rutgers simply cannot afford the combination of injuries and extremely poor play, and still pull out a victory against an inspired opponent - regardless of how supposedly inferior they're supposed to be.
Nelson's injury forced Rutgers to give extended minutes to two freshmen, Corey Chandler and Mike Coburn. Chandler rebounded from his Dartmouth debacle to score a team-leading 16 points, but that came on just 7-15 shooting from the field, including 0-4 from three. He did come up with a team-high six steals, but his overall hustle and effort were uneven. For example, Hill yanked him just 13 seconds into the second half after he failed to box out on a rebound and then didn't go hard after the ensuing loose ball. Coburn, meanwhile, shot an abysmal 1-10 from the field and had 4 turnovers. That his making 6 of 8 free throws is noteworthy can tell one all they need to know about RU's difficulties scoring points lately.
JR Inman pulled down a team leading 13 rebounds, but shot just 4-12, and continues to struggle to put in a consistently solid scoring effort throughout an entire game. However, whatever problems Inman has had pale in comparison to the woes Jaron Griffin has been going through. Against St Peter's, Griffin, in 33 minutes of action, scored five points (on 2-10 shooting), grabbed one rebound, and had no assists and no steals. For the year he has made just 19 out of 59 shots (32%), and just slightly over half of those attempts have been from beyond the arc, where his percentage is even worse: 7 out of 30 (23%). He is second on the team in minutes played, and has had four games where he has not had to shoot a single free throw. Perhaps it would be good if he could get to the line more often, as he has made 8 out the 9 FT's he's shot.
Considering Griffin's struggles, it's rather curious that Earl Pettis did not see a single minute of action against St Peter's. Assistant Coach Darren Savino commented after the game that RU right now is "lost" offensively, so whatever struggles Pettis may be having adjusting to the college game, it's difficult to imagine his potential play being a serious detriment to the team's success. With Pettis a DNP against St Pete's and Sofman out, RU was able to utilize just one half of a promising recruiting class. Sofman was recruited primarily for his marksmanship, and considering RU's shooting woes on the year (141-342 for 41%, 25-97 from three for 25.7%, and 91-141, 64% at the charity stripe), a prompt and healthy return on his part might just help RU. Getting Courtney Nelson back ASAP is also a necessity - as of course is maintaining the entire health of the team.
Up next for RU is a visit from the Princeton Tigers. Traditionally Princeton
has been anything but an elixir for Rutgers, and although the Tigers have fallen
greatly the last several years, with the way RU has played the last several
games, they will need to be as sharp and as focused as possible come Saturday.
RU may very well rebound down the road and beat some teams they are "not
supposed to", but as we've now seen, they also can just as easily lose
to the teams they're "not supposed to".