INDIANAPOLIS — Will three times be the charm for Rutgers?
That depends on whether the Scarlet Knights can build on the momentum from the regular-season finale — a win at Minnesota that, according to the near-consensus of bracketologists, punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s going to be obstacles,’’ Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “But everybody knows (the other teams) so well. We just played Indiana recently. We’ll try to add a few things but there’s not a lot of time to perfect anything new. So you have to play good basketball.’’
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Here are three keys for the seventh-seeded Rutgers (14-10, 10-10 Big Ten) to knock off 10th-seeded Indiana (12-14, 7-12) in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday (6:30 p.m., BTN) here at Lucas Oil Stadium:
Play like there’s nothing to lose: Rutgers dropped four of six games before responding with a 77-70 overtime triumph Minnesota last Saturday.
Pikiell didn’t use it as an excuse, but he conceded his players might’ve felt the pressure of needing to win in order to snap the program’s 30-year NCAA Tournament drought.
That shouldn’t be an issue now that Rutgers seemingly played its way into the big dance. With the weight of needing to win off their shoulders, the Scarlet Knights should be able to play like they have nothing to lose in a conference tournament that was taken away from them a year ago at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You have to go into a tournament loose and ready to play,’’ Pikiell said. “We’ve had some games this year where we’ve played great. Hopefully we’ve learned from a lot of lessons that we’ve had.’’
Make your freebies: In Big Ten games this season, Indiana ranks 12th in the 14-team conference with a .676 free throw percentage. Rutgers is one spot worse, converting at a 63.1 % clip at the charity stripe.
The Scarlet Knights ended the regular season ranking 192nd nationally with 16.5 free-throw attempts per game. The more alarming stat when it comes to their tournament chances is this: a 62.4 percent free throw conversion rate that ranks 331 out of 340 Division I teams nationally.
Get used to the unfamiliar environment: Both coaches talked about the difficulty of playing in a football stadium like the one the Indianapolis Colts play their games in, a building with a 70,000-seat capacity that will only include 8,000 fans due to the restrictions on seating capacity.
It’s going to be cavernous. It’s also going to present a different backdrop behind the rims, a challenge that typically affects outside shooting.
“Depth perception … playing in domes sometimes offensive (players) can make a bigger deal out of it than it is shooting the ball,’’ Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “But when the ball is tipped I think it’ll feel somewhat normal because all of us have played in empty arenas all year.’’
Pikiell referenced the challenge of dealing with the “depth perception’’ as well. Neither team will have the advantage of a shoot-around beforehand, so the Scarlet Knights coach said the key is to take advantage of the hour on the court before tipoff.
“We don’t play in these types of arenas,’’ he said. “It’s very different. With no opportunity to be in the gym beforehand you get no feel for it.’’
X-factor: Indiana has had few answers for Myles Johnson this season.
Rutgers’ 6-11, 255-pound redshirt junior center is coming off a double-double effort against the Hoosiers three weeks ago, a 10-point, 10-rebound performance that included seven blocked shots.
The fact that Johnson has averaged 9 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks and is shooting 69.2 % in two games against his Indiana squad isn’t lost on Archie Miller.
“He’s protecting the rim and the paint, to me, a lot more than in years past,’’ the Indiana coach said. “If you keep a guy like him in between the rim and his man that’s where he is at his greatest strength. He has incredible hands. He also has incredible reach. He can reach across people’s bodies to get rebounds, offensive rebounds, blocking shots across the lane, he’s got a unique ability with great hands, shot-blocking ability, he’s physical, he’s very mobile. I think he’s one of the best interior defenders in our conference — right up there at the top.’’
Why Rutgers will win: The Scarlet Knights are simply better. Look, their two wins over the Hoosiers this season — a 74-70 win in Bloomington, Ind., on Jan. 24, and a 74-63 triumph in Piscataway on Feb. 24 — were no fluke.
Rutgers has owned Indiana over the past few years, winning five of the last six matchups.
Geo Baker and Ron Harper each turned in solid performances against the Hoosiers this season, with Baker averaging 19.5 points and 7.5 assists and Harper averaging a double-double (17.5 points, 10 rebounds).
Look for more heroics in this one.
Prediction: Rutgers 68, Indiana 64
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Keith Sargeant may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.