The Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball team has threatened to turn the corner a number of times, but things just keep going wrong for the team that hasn't been invited to the NCAA Tournament since joining the Big East. Players have transferred, coaches have had breakdowns, and then there are the untimely injuries — which afflicted the Rutgers team most recently, during a painful 75-69 loss at DePaul.
The Knights lost their leading scorer, Eli Carter, to a broken leg during that game and he can be counted out for the rest of the season. He had been averaging 14.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game on 38% shooting and, importantly, 86% from the charity stripe.
Carter was an immensely important player for Rutgers and without him, the 13-11 Knights have lost a lot of wind from their sails as they travel to Villanova tomorrow, looking to knock off the resurgent but inconsistent 'Cats.
For 'Nova, the NCAA tournament dream remains alive, perhaps surprisingly, after taking a 9-point victory from Connecticut in Hartford. The Wildcats are now considered likely to win 19 games in the regular season on KenPom.com, which would give them a good chance at moving to the right side of the tournament bubble. In fact, Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology has Villanova as one of the "Last Four In."
Winning a home game against Rutgers, however, is a must for a program vying for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Without Carter, the offensive focal point for Rutgers will turn to Myles Mack, who was just behind Carter for the team's scoring lead with 13.2 points per game. Mack is the best 3-point shooter for Rutgers at 45.1% and he connects on about half of his shots from the floor as well. Expect Wally Judge to step up as well, connecting on about 52% of his field goal attempts, the K-State transfer will be asked to battle with Mouph Yarou and Daniel Ochefu inside.
Mack collected 28 points in Rutgers' loss to DePaul, however, and he may be the team's best chance to put points on the board.
Even losing their top scorer, Rutgers' cupboard is not bare, but there may be a struggle to find those extra 14 points on Monday. The Scarlet Knights average just 59 points per game in Big East contests — next-to-last in the league.
Villanova needs to adjust on defense to try and slow down Mack. That would force Rutgers to try and run offense through their big men, who haven't been big-time scorers so far this season, and they will have to match up with Yarou and Ochefu to get shots underneath.
Will the UConn game be part of a run that sends the Wildcats back into the NCAA tournament picture? Faltering in games that you are supposed to win can't be a part of that run. Taking care of business on their home court is of undeniable importance for Villanova right now.