The Scarlet Knights surged to a six-game winning streak in nonconference play, their best mark since 2001. But the next trick for Fred Hill's crew is to translate that into Big East play, where the competition is a lot tougher.
It'll have to do so without one of its best players.
Gregory Echenique was originally expected to miss a month with an eye injury, but now the sophomore is out for the season and will seek a medical redshirt.
In his absence, Hill has turned to a veteran who began the season with his minutes in jeopardy but has stepped up his level of play in Echenique's absence.
Ndiaye has always been a shot-blocker first and foremost, and he currently leads the NCAA in that category. But he's done even more in the first four games without his running mate in the frontcourt, with three double-doubles over that span.
There's no question that Echenique will be missed, and his presence in the paint makes him arguably the player the team could least afford to lose. But Ndiaye is playing well enough that thus far, the Scarlet Knights haven't missed a beat with him on the sidelines.
It also means more of a role for freshmen Dane Miller and Austin Johnson off the bench, as well as seven-footer Brian Okam. There's not much margin for error, but the pieces are in place for this team to continue to match up well with opponents on the inside.
--Rutgers' trip to Chapel Hill on Dec. 28 marked the team's first game outside the state of New Jersey this season. Nine of the team's first 11 games were at home; the other two were at the Legends Classic in Atlantic City.
--The Scarlet Knights entered mid-December ranked third in the NCAA in blocked shots. A lot of that has to do with Hamady Ndiaye, who leads the country at 5.3 rejections per game.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE
Rutgers has dug itself a hole in Big East play early in the season in recent years, and the frontloaded schedule in 2009-10 doesn't make changing that any easier. The team's first four Big East games are at home against a Cincinnati squad that was ranked in December, road games at West Virginia and Providence, and a home date with Syracuse. If it can win one or two of those games, that will be a sign of optimism for what lies ahead.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everybody's growing, and that's what we need." -- Rutgers coach Fred Hill told the Newark Star-Ledger, on his team's performance in nonconference play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: By an objective measure, this hasn't been a great nonconference season for the Scarlet Knights, with a home loss to Vermont and a neutral-site win over UMass the big surprises. But given the team's lack of success in recent years, a 9-2 mark heading into the last week of the year is nothing to scoff about, especially when it includes a six-game winning streak.
Rutgers 80, Rider 70 (OT)
Rutgers 71, NJIT 62
Rutgers 66, St. Peter's 42
North Carolina 81, Rutgers 67
vs. Cincinnati, Saturday, Jan. 2
at West Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 6
at Providence, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Syracuse, Wednesday, Jan. 13
IN FOCUS: Rutgers gets the Big East opener at home, but it will be a challenge to knock off the big and strong Cincinnati squad. The Bearcats have been one of the surprises of the conference, with freshman Lance Stephenson, the developing sophomore forward Yancy Gates and standout senior Deonta Vaughn. It's a game where the loss of Greg Echenique will be particularly noticeable underneath.
--Senior center Hamady Ndiaye is first in the country in blocked shots, and set a career high with 10 rejections against St. Peter's. He also added 15 points for his third double-double in the past four games.
--Sophomore Mike Rosario was looking forward to the Dec. 28 game against North Carolina. When the two teams met a year ago, he led the team with 26 points and knocked down four 3-pointers. This time he had 22 points on 10-of-21 shooting two rebounds.
--Sophomore center Gregory Echenique had two surgeries on his left eye in December, with the first procedure coming Dec. 9 and a follow-up on Dec. 17. He will miss the remainder of the year, but since he played in only seven games there is a chance he will receive a medical redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility.