Rutgers Basketball is cruising past Maine in exchange for the COVID layoff


PISCATAWAY – Little did Steve Pikiell know what to expect when his Rutgers basketball players stepped onto the pitch Thursday after a 17-day COVID hiatus, so was pleased with their 80-64 handling from Maine.

The head coach was certain, however, that his mask would be stuck on his face.

To send a message amid a surge in the pandemic, Pikiell trained the entire game with his mask on. He only took it off briefly to drink water and once or twice to speak to an officer. He first put it on during his post-game press conference – even though it was virtual.

“I’ve been wearing it all day,” he said. “I didn’t take it off.”

Steve Pikiell wears a mask during his press conference following the Rutgers Basketball win against Maine.

It was’nt easy. Last year, like most coaches, Pikiell wore a mask but often took it off during games. And he also trained in empty or mostly empty arenas. There were 2,500 fans in Jersey Mike’s Arena on Thursday and music was booming during the time-outs.

“It’s really hard to train with a mask,” he said. “Sometimes the players honestly don’t want to listen to you anyway. Now they have a good excuse: I can’t hear you, I didn’t move your lips, I didn’t know you were talking to me. I’ve heard pretty much everything. “

Although he wore a clear mask and was projected well enough to be heard in the stands, his players admitted that the words were difficult to understand at times.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Steve Pikiell trains against the Maine Black Bears

“He said we can name our own pieces now,” said Post Graduate Caretaker Geo Baker, “he expects us to do that anyway. Myself and Paul (Mulcahy) are two vet wardens and we have other vets. When you’re in the game, you may see something that someone exercising or watching may not see. “

It certainly wasn’t a barrier to Maine. The Scarlet Knights were smooth as silk on the offensive, helping 21 out of 27 buckets in a ball-sharing clinic.

“If we hear him, we’ll still be doing exactly what he says,” said Baker. “But it’s definitely difficult. You have to come over to him somehow if you really want to hear what he’s saying because you really can’t see anything he’s saying. “

If it was tough against Maine in a mostly empty arena, it will be impossible when Michigan visits on January 4th.

“When we hear him, we hear him; if we don’t, we don’t, ”said Mulcahy. “He does a really good job with the mask. For me it is sometimes frustrating, but he goes on and sweats. “

Why does Pikiell go so far? He wants to reassure the fans who have to wear masks in the arena that it’s okay.

“I think it’s really important,” he said. “The alternative is not to have fans in the stands. We have already done that. Our employees and our players don’t want to go back to that. We want people to come and watch this basketball team. They earn it. They sacrificed, and now they have lived like this for two years.

“It’s really difficult to train with a mask, but it’s worth it if we can keep people in the stands. Hopefully we did a good job with it and hopefully our fans, who are great, did a good job with it. “

What if the players don’t follow his instructions too often?

“I could just start writing things down now,” he said with a laugh. “I know they can all read.”

FIVE TAKEAWAYS

1. Happy return

The two Rutgers players Baker and Mulcahy, who then spoke to reporters, had managed to avoid infection with COVID. Both discussed the ramifications of the layoff.

“Everyone was just happy to be on the floor, happy to see some fans,” said Baker. “We’re happy to just win one basketball game right now. Winning college basketball is hard enough no matter who you play against. It gets even harder when you have 17 days off and only have one workout. We definitely felt it a little in our legs. “

The Post Graduate Guard moved up to fifth place on Rutgers’ career 3-point list at 198, overtaking Donnell Lumpkin and Jeff Greer. He said he went home for Christmas and had much-needed time to heal his injured hamstring.

“I looked at it like this wasn’t going to happen to me, it was going to happen to me,” said Baker. “I had to rest my hamstring and I definitely felt better today.”

Mulcahy, who scored 14 points, took all four of his 3 points, and added four boards and four assists, spent the break working on his shot and it showed.

“(Assistant coach) TJ Thompson and I started shooting again, which felt good,” he said. “I was blessed to go home and be with my family, which was really refreshing. Some of the guys didn’t have that opportunity.”

Some members of the team had to spend Christmas in quarantine. The first complete training session took place on Wednesday. The only player absent against Maine was the Ralph Gonzales-Agee postgraduate center, who was handling a family matter in California.

MORE: Mental health is an issue after RU players quarantined for Christmas

Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Geo Baker (0) dribbles while Maine Black Bears guard Ja'Shonte Wright-Mcleish (2) defends during the first half at Jersey Mike's Arena.

2. Great pace

It looks like this group learned the lesson from their staggering loss to Lafayette in November: if you’re sporting superior, use it. The Scarlet Knights squeezed the ball whenever the opportunity arose, outperforming Maine 18-3 on fast-break points. And the distribution of the ball during the break was excellent.

“I was nervous,” said Pikiell. “We didn’t play any games, we weren’t together at all. I want them to play together and I thought we really passed the ball. That was what pleased me the most.”

3. Cliff Omoruyi dominated

A Big Ten center should break a low major over one knee, and that’s exactly what Omoruyi did. The runner-up scored 14 points in the 7-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight boards. He was a force in transition, flushing out several lobs and showing confidence by taking (and taking) some out-of-color shots.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi (11) dunks against Maine Black Bears striker Ata Turgut (4) during the first half at Jersey Mike's Arena.

4. Eye-opening minutes

As you can expect given the circumstances, Pikiell put in 11 players. After the long break, it was important that everyone was running a little. But he drove his starters for over 30 minutes each, and no one on the bench gave him more than 10. Something to keep in mind when the Scarlet Knights play two more games in the next five days.

“I’m trying to give everyone a few minutes here, but I also wanted to make sure that we win this game,” said Pikiell when asked about the distribution.

5. Small crowd

This was one of the Pikiell-era smallest crowds, 2,500 tops, including just a few dozen college students. A mixture of the virus explosion and the postponement of the game to different day and weekday afternoon betting times was certainly taken into account.

In the future it will be interesting to see if the COVID logs reduce the number of visitors. It is worth noting that the wearing of masks was observed almost 100 percent.

What’s next

Rutgers (6-5 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) finished his non-conference slate against Central Connecticut State (3-10) Saturday at 5 p.m. The Big Ten Network recorded the game.

Pikiell has deep ties to the CCSU. He and current head coach Patrick Sellers were joint assistants there from 1999-2001. And his father worked there for 25 years.

“He’s done a lot of different jobs, but at the end of his career he was vice president (finance),” said Pikiell. “We kind of grew up on this campus, my nine brothers and sisters.”

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at [email protected]


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