Caldwell Cougars @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights
TV/Time: 7:00 PM ET (ESPN+)
Rutgers has had one of their best stretches of recent memory by winning three straight, including knocking off Wisconsin and No. 22 Seton Hall. This isn’t unprecedented territory for the Scarlet Knights as they have been able to pull off upsets of ranked opponents in the past. However, those past teams have never been able to use those big wins to propel into any type of positive momentum. This year’s squad looks to buck that trend of disappointment following big wins.
The 19-point victory last Sunday against Lafayette College may be a sign of good things to come for Rutgers. They were able to get out to a 17-0 lead on their way to holding Lafayette to 13 total points in the first half. In the last month or so, the Scarlet Knights are starting to find their roles. Point guard Geo Baker has become an extra coach on the floor while his backup, Paul Mulcahy, is becoming more comfortable with the speed of the college game.
While Baker is the leading scorer for Rutgers, the X-factor so far has been the play of center Myles Johnson. Johnson has taken the sophomore leap that many were hoping for as he has increased his scoring output from 4.8 to 9.3 ppg while leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage (74.6%). He is also pulling down 8.6 rpg, compared to just 5.7 rpg last season. One area that Johnson can improve is his free throw shooting. He’s attempting a respectable 2.5 free throws per game, yet he’s shooting just 40% from the line. That number needs to improve if he hopes to avoid the hack-a-Shaq treatment when he touches the ball late in games.
It seems like Rutgers has found their identity early this season on the defensive end as they rank 21st in the nation in points allowed per game. They also have held opponents to 38.6% shooting which ranks top-50 nationally. This has helped Rutgers put themselves in Tournament conversation. Joe Lunardi recently listed the Scarlet Knights in his “Next Four Out”. If they can pick up a few big wins in the Big Ten slate, this team will be playing nationally relevant games in February and March.
As for Monday night’s matchup with Caldwell, the Cougars are led in scoring by 6’2” sophomore Anthony Cooper. Cooper is putting up 13.1 ppg but is heavily reliant on his three-point shot as 54 of his 108 shot attempts have been from behind the arc this year. Vaughn Covington is another playmaker in the backcourt for the Cougars. He scored 17 points in their last game, including the game-winner. Caldwell is generally a very efficient team on offense as they have a team field goal percentage of 42.3%. The Cougars guards may be able to test the Scarlet Knights’ backcourt defense but expect Rutgers to continue their roll into the new year.