Hawkeyes must solve stingy Rutgers defense in Big Ten road game

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Iowa has never lost to Rutgers in men’s basketball.

But the Hawkeyes have never seen a Scarlet Knights team as intent on putting a stranglehold on opponents as this year’s squad.

Scoring, not defending, will be the primary challenge for Iowa (10-9, 1-5 Big Ten Conference) when it steps into the RAC for a 6 p.m. tipoff Wednesday (BTN).

Tyler Cook is coming off a 21-point, 13-rebound effort at Illinois. Look for the Hawkeyes to put the ball in the hands of their sophomore forward early and often again when they visit Rutgers on Wednesday.

Iowa hasn’t won a game this season when it failed to score at least 80 points. Rutgers (11-8, 1-5) leads the Big Ten by allowing only 62.1 points per contest and ranks third in yielding just a 38.7 field-goal percentage.

“They really play hard,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday. “They do have size and length, and they’ve got some quickness and some athletic power. And they’re committed to it.”

Iowa is 5-0 all-time against Rutgers, including an 83-63 victory here a year ago that was a breakthrough moment for a young team. Playing without senior guard Peter Jok that night, the Hawkeyes bolted to an early lead and built a margin as high as 28 points to earn their first road win of that season.

“We jumped them last year primarily with our 3-point shooting. We made a ton of 3s early, and that’s a game-changer for anybody,” McCaffery said.

The Hawkeyes sank 11 3s in that game, five of them from point guard Jordan Bohannon. They also assisted on 24 of 30 baskets and generated 15 steals.

That’s the kind of effort it’s going to take again against a Scarlet Knights team that has shown improvement under second-year coach Steve Pikiell. Rutgers has victories over Seton Hall and Wisconsin, plus an overtime loss at Michigan State. The team is second in the Big Ten in turnover margin at plus-4.5.

Senior forward Deshawn Freeman leads the way, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in steals per game (1.5) and 10th in rebounding (7.2). He also averages 11.5 points. He had a double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds in this matchup a year ago.

Junior guard Corey Sanders is the Scarlet Knights’ top offensive threat, at 14.2 points per game.

“He’s really fast and he’s a tremendous finisher. He’s got a phenomenal pull-up game. He’s capable from 3, but better attacking you,” McCaffery said of Sanders. “He’s also a guy that, when he gets going, then he becomes almost unstoppable. You’ve got to really focus on him.”

Rutgers is playing without senior guard and team captain Mike Williams, however. The Scarlet Knights’ top reserve injured his leg in practice Saturday, and Rutgers promptly got blown out at home 68-46 by Ohio State on Sunday. Williams scored 16 points in Rutgers’ home loss to Iowa last January.

Look for Iowa, coming off a 104-97 overtime victory Thursday at Illinois, to go back to what worked best late in that game — post players Tyler Cook (21 points) and Luka Garza (19) attacking inside. Both showed the ability to score off the dribble or on the block, and their combined effectiveness makes it difficult for opponents to double-team either one of them.

“They’ve proven that they’re a really good defensive team. You’ve got to be able to score in a variety of ways, but for us we’ve got to be able to establish the low post,” McCaffery said.

“You know you’re going to get an incredible fight, especially there.”