Rutgers basketball is in somewhat of a renaissance this season. Under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights play an exciting brand of basketball that has its fan base re-energized. Despite winning only seven games last year, the Scarlet Knights tallied 11 wins over the course of it’s non-conference schedule.
That’s where it gets tricky.
The 11 wins were a constant talking point for Rutgers fans and naysayers, as nearly all of those 11 wins came against underwhelming competition. Were the Scarlet Knights truly improved? Or was their record just a byproduct of their weak non-conference schedule?
Their first conference game against Wisconsin was supposed to be the measuring stick. Could they actually hang with the best team in the Big Ten conference?
Everyone was ready, patiently waiting for the 6:30 P.M tip off.
Then, as the Scarlet Knights took the floor, someone was missing.
Where was No. 3? Rutgers best player, their point guard, the potential lottery pick? We soon found out. Corey Sanders would not be starting for Rutgers in their first Big Ten game.
ESPN announcers acted swiftly, passing along the information that everyone needed to hear. Steve Pikiell was disciplining his star point guard. As it turns out, Corey Sanders missed his flight back from Christmas break and was absent from practice the day before the game.
The announcers on ESPN2 said Corey Sanders is not starting due to missed flight back to campus which caused him to miss practice yesterday.— On the Banks (@OTB_SBNation) December 28, 2016
It would be understandable for fans being upset with Pikiell, especially if you have seen Rutgers play against good competition.
He is their offense.
When you watch the Scarlet Knights play, it’s obvious that Sanders isn’t only the best player on Rutgers, but often times the best player on the court.
Yet, as Wisconsin jumped out to an early lead over Rutgers, there he sat.
Still on the bench.
Finally, after 10 minutes had passed, Pikiell motioned for Sanders to enter.
It was too late, the game was basically over from the opening tip. Outside of Rutgers cutting the lead to eight points in the second half, it was never a truly competitive matchup between the two Big Ten foes.
Message Sent, Loud And Clear
This wasn’t something that was kept behind closed doors, it was tangible discipline on national television. Above all, he was sending a message to his team. No matter what your status is or who you are, the rules will be enforced for everyone.
You could make the argument that Steve Pikiell is in charge of the biggest rebuild in all of college basketball. No team in a power conference has had futility like Rutgers. Outside of the Northwestern Wildcats (who have never made an NCAA Tournament) Rutgers has the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any team in the Big Ten, Big East, Big-12, Pac-12, or the SEC.
Yeah, so it’s been awhile.
As soon as Pikiell arrived, he began to lay the groundwork for a complete change in culture. This team has already shown that it plays harder than it did under Eddie Jordan and now he wants them to behave better, too.
As for Corey Sanders, hopefully he can clean his act up going forward. Granted, he is a talented player, but this isn’t the first time he’s gotten in trouble for off-court issues. Last season, Sanders was disciplined for violating team rules and sat out four games.
During the Wisconsin game, Sanders ended up rolling his ankle late in the second half. He didn’t return to action once he left, but it was reported that it was only a sprained ankle.
According to Rutgers beat writer Ryan Dunleavy, Corey Sanders is day to day with his injury.
One thing that has stuck out so far, is the Scarlet Knights lack of ball handlers and guys who can create their own shots. Rutgers plays Penn State at home on Sunday; a must win game if they want to be taken seriously in the Big Ten. If Corey Sanders cannot play, it’s going to be another struggle to stay competitive.