We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during the season. This edition of our opponent Q&A series features a chat with Aaron Breitman, from On the Banks. We talk recruits, stars, and go old school to name the all time starting 5 for the Scarlet Knights.
The game tips at 7 PM on Tuesday night, and is part of the annual ACC - Big Ten Challenge.
Make sure you head over there to see our answers to their questions.
TN: What are the season expectations? It's been 26 years since the Scarlet Knights were in the dance. How close are they?
OTB: Reasonable expectations are for head coach Steve Pikiell to deliver the first winning season for the program in 12 years, as well as finish better than last place in the Big Ten for the first time in four tries. It's a necessary first step before fans can expect a postseason berth, whether it be NCAA or even NIT. Rutgers does have a strong veteran core with Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams, but I don't think this team has enough shooters or low post scoring options to make the postseason yet. With that being said, I do think Pikiell is doing all the right things and has the program on the rise. This team is a far better defensive and rebounding team than the program has had in years. The biggest issue is shooting. Pikiell is doing a great job on the recruiting trail and once he turns the roster over entirely with his players, I think things will really progress.
TN: Rutgers (like FSU) hasn't played anybody, but the opponent score totals certainly jump out. Three teams scored less than 40, and then there's a 47 and a 54. It looks like last year's defense was solid but not eye popping. Is this defense for real, and how are they getting it done?
OTB: Defense and rebounding have been the main focus on the court since Pikiell arrived at Rutgers. Two years ago the program was one of the worst in the country in both areas, but improved greatly in Pikiell's first season. This year they've been even better so far and I think a big reason is another offseason of development in this system. They're also more athletic with the additions of freshmen Geo Baker and Mamadou Doucoure, both of whom are starting.
Overall, this team has better chemistry and are locked in on the defensive end earlier on than last year. Defensive rebounding was an issue a year ago and they've corrected that so far this season. They'll need to be more consistent against better competition, but the team is quickly becoming a tough defensive team that has fully bought in on that end of the floor.
TN: You have a relatively unheralded freshman in Geo Baker leading the team in minutes. What are the strengths and weaknesses of his game, and how has he meshed with the veterans like Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman? Aside from Baker, who should FSU fans be worried about?
Baker was a 3-star recruit, but fell under the radar of most high major programs from playing on the prep circuit in New England. He plays with the poise of a veteran and is already becoming the best shooter on the team. His ability to play either guard spot and take pressure off of Sanders, who can now play some off the ball, has been invaluable. Baker is also probably the best passer on the team and has good floor vision. He still needs to bulk up over time, but he has brought stability to this team from day one. He has struggled to find consistency from behind the arc, but has the potential to catch fire, as he made 7 of 10 from three just two games ago.
Another guard to watch for is senior captain Mike Williams, who comes off the bench, but will likely be on the floor at the end of the game. He is the best rebounding guard in the Big Ten (averaged 5.1 boards last season) and does all the little things that don't show up in the box score. He is also effective at knifing his way to the rim through traffic and is a good free throw shooter. Williams is a great on ball defender and I wouldn't even be surprised to see him cover Mann some in this game, despite the height difference (Williams is 6'2").
Issa Thiam is a 6'10" wing who can also shoot the three, but has shown a lot of improvement this season scoring inside the arc and with rebounding. He is also an underrated defender and is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential at the start of his sophomore year.
Eugene Omoruyi is also a sophomore who is much improved and provides an energy boost for this team off the bench. He brings an edge to this team and has stuffed the stat sheet in the early part this season. He is ultra athletic and can defend multiple positions.
TN: What is the recipe for beating Rutgers? What do they do well on offense?
Limiting them in transition, eliminating lanes to drive in the halfcourt and forcing them into jump shots and three-pointers. This team struggles shooting the basketball, making just 44% of its two-point attempts and 28% of its three-point attempts. While Rutgers is greatly improved with defensive rebounding so far, they haven't matched up with a high major team yet, so we don't really know how much better they are in that area. Rutgers isn't the most talented team, but they battle and play hard, so a visiting opponent has to be ready to play in front of what can be a legitimate homecourt advantage at the RAC. Rutgers has a tendency to start slow out of the gate, so if the opposing team is clicking offensively right from the tip, it will likely put them into an immediate hole. Pushing the pace and relentlessly attacking the rim will cause eventual breakdowns on the defensive end, but no one has had the depth and talent to do it to them yet. Rutgers doesn't turn it over a lot, but they haven't faced much fullcourt pressure yet. Mixing in a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt can disrupt their offense, as I said, they struggle shooting the ball and will settle for long jumpers when they can't find room to penetrate
TN: All time starting five for Rutgers?
Well, I'd have to go way back for the most part, so hopefully we have some old school college basketball fans reading this. Rutgers was a good program in the sixties and seventies, culminating with the 1976 undefeated run to the Final Four, where they lost to Michigan and UCLA. Phil Sellers was the star on that Final Four team and is the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. Forward James Bailey is second in rebounding and third in scoring and blocked shots in program history, was a freshman on the Final Four team, and had the best NBA career of any of the three mentioned so far. For the backcourt, I'll start with shooting guard Bob Lloyd, who is 2nd all-time in scoring in program history, the first All-American in program history and led Rutgers to its best postseason finish at the time with third place in the 1967 NIT. I'll put combo guard Myles Mack at the point, which will be a controversial pick for old-time Rutgers fans, but the reality is he finished seventh all-time in scoring, fourth all-time in assists, and second in steals in program history. He also bridged the gap during an awful time for Rutgers during the Mike Rice scandal and stayed to lead the program when he didn't have to. Lastly, I'll go with another shooting guard in Quincy Douby from the mid-2000's, who is the only Rutgers player to make First Team All-Big East and lead the conference in scoring in two decades in the league. As a bonus, I'd pick forward Roy Hinson from the early eighties as the sixth man, who finished eleventh in scoring, fifth in rebounds, and second in blocks in his career before a lengthy run in the NBA.
TN: Finally, how about a prediction and how it will play out.
I think this will be a hard fought contest and one in which there is an interesting contrast of styles, featuring the high powered offense of Florida State and the grind it out, bare knuckle defense of Rutgers. I think playing at home will certainly help the Scarlet Knights in what is a golden opportunity to gain respect by winning this game. I think the fact that Rutgers is a great offensive rebounding team, which Florida State has struggled defending so far this season, will be a major difference maker in this game. Add in the fact that Florida State has struggled from the line as much as Rutgers has and the usual advantage that opponents have against them is voided out. It think it will be a battle the whole way with Rutgers dictating the pace, making this a slugfest and pulling out a 66-64 upset.