Time to learn for, and about, Rutgers

Rutgers is off to its best start in coach Fred Hill's four-year tenure, and its six-game winning streak is the longest since early in the 2001 seaso. But, what does it mean? The Scarlet Knights are inexperienced, so the games helped them gain continuity with one another. Now, though, comes an enormous step up in competition, beginning with today's clash at North Carolina.

The six-game winning streak is Rutgers' best since early in the 2001 season, and the 9-2 mark is the best start in coach Fred Hill's four years.

Certainly, the Scarlet Knights are improved, but to what extent remains to be seen.

Momentum was built from a soft non-conference schedule, but that changes in a big way today when the Scarlet Knights visit No. 10 North Carolina for an 8:30 p.m. tip-off.

After that Rutgers moves into Big East play, beginning with Cincinnati (Jan. 2), West Virginia (Jan. 6), Providence (Jan. 9) and Syracuse (Jan. 13).

It is Rutgers' first road game, and their second high-profile opponent of the season. In the first instance, it didn't end well as the Scarlet Knights played an inspired first half against Florida but still trailed by five points at the break and fell 73-58.

But many questions will begin to be answered against the Tar Heels, and on the top of the list is whether the Scarlet Knights can survive against big, physical teams without injured center Greg Echenique, who is out for the season after undergoing eye surgery.

Senior Hamady Ndiaye leads the nation in blocked shots with 5.73 per game, but there is a big difference between playing Princeton, Colgate, Monmouth, Rider, NJIT and St. Peter's than North Carolina and the Big East.

Can Ndiaye stay out of foul trouble and handle the rigors of the Big East? It is one thing to play well one night, but can he sustain it, and not get worn down, when he is going to be counted on for 30 minutes a night against some of the best big men in the country.

If Ndiaye is saddled with foul problems, it means freshman Brian Okam may be needed to play in key situations, or Austin Johnson will be moved to the middle as Rutgers goes small.

The loss of Echenique also brings more rebounding concerns.

Hill was counting on Echenique to grab double digit rebounds per game, and with that gone it means Ndiaye, Jonathan Mitchell and Dane Miller must rebound with more ferocity.

Can the Scarlet Knights defend?

The offense is improved, and playing an up-tempo style fits into the personality of the team markedly better. Whether it is Mike Coburn or James Beatty (ok, especially Beatty) running the offense, pushing the ball is the best way.

However, it also means the Scarlet Knights will have to be strong in transitional defense, and that will get tested against the Tar Heels. If Rutgers experiences moments of lackadaisical defensive play, North Carolina (9-3) will run wild.

The Tar Heels average 86 points per game, and shoot 50.5 percent from the field, led by Deon Thompson, who is averaging 16.1 points per game. Ed Davis averages 15 points, and 9.5 rebounds per game.

All of Rutgers strengths and warts won't be known when the North Carolina game ends, but it will provide a blue print for the next few crucial weeks.

That is when it will be determined whether the Scarlet Knights are improved enough not to be a pushover in the Big East, and if they can content for an NIT berth.

Scarlet Report Top Stories