Rutgers is ranked for the first time in 40 years, and its first game in the AP Top 25 did not go well.
The 24th-ranked Scarlet Knights hope their second game as a ranked team goes better when they host Nebraska on Saturday afternoon and attempt to improve on a 13-0 home record.
Rutgers (14-5, 5-3 Big Ten), which last made the NCAA Tournament in 1991, entered the poll for the first time since ending the 1978-79 season as the 18th-ranked team when it finished 22-8 while playing in the Eastern 8 Conference, the unofficial name of the Atlantic 10 conference. The Scarlet Knights entered the poll with eight wins in nine games and holding eight straight opponents to shoot 36.1 percent or less starting with their 68-48 win over No. 10 Seton Hall on Dec. 14 before Wednesday’s 85-80 loss at Iowa.
On Wednesday, the Scarlet Knights struggled to contain Luka Garza. Garza totaled 28 points and 13 rebounds as Iowa led by nine points three times in the second half before Rutgers came back and briefly held a 77-76 lead with about 2 1/2 minutes to go.
Rutgers allowed its most points of the season and more than 70 points for the fifth time.
“We never quit, we keep grinding and I’m proud of our guys for that,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said on his postgame radio interview after the Scarlet Knights allowed 52.7 percent shooting. “I liked our fight. We weren’t great today but we keep plugging, keep getting better. … I loved our heart and I loved how hard we played.”
Ron Harper Jr. scored a career-high 29 points Wednesday to raise his scoring average from 11.8 points to 12.7.
“He has games like that, practices like that,” Pikiell said of Harper. “He’s a three-way scorer, he can score in the post, he can handle it, he can shoot threes. He had a really good night.”
Nebraska (7-12, 2-6) is on a season-high four-game losing streak and has allowed at least 80 points in its last three games to Ohio State, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The Cornhuskers are allowing 75.2 points per game and 43.3 percent shooting, figures that are last in the Big 10 through Wednesday.
The Cornhuskers allow teams to shoot 30.9 percent from 3-point range but are allowing 41.4 percent (46 of 111) during their losing streak. In Tuesday’s 82-68 loss at Wisconsin, Nebraska allowed the Badgers to shoot 52.9 percent (18 of 34) from behind the arc.
“I’ll go back obviously and look at the film and see how we can improve,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said on his postgame radio interview. “I thought our double teams, rotations for the most part were pretty solid. We just had a couple (of) miscommunications early where they hit some of those shots.”
Cam Mack, who leads the Cornhuskers at 13 points per game, scored 14 points Tuesday and is shooting 32.7 percent (19 of 58) during the skid. Dachon Burke is second at 12.2 points and scored 20 points on 10 of 14 shooting Tuesday.
One of Rutgers’ 14 wins was a 79-62 victory Jan. 3 at Nebraska. In the last meeting, Rutgers held a 52-24 edge on points in the paint, a 48-31 rebounding margin and scored 12 second-chance points.
–Field Level Media