MINNEAPOLIS -- Surprise! The Rutgers men’s basketball team is one of the best in the Big Ten this season.
After going 16-76 in conference play in their first five years, the Scarlet Knights sit in second place in the league at 4-2 and 13-4 overall.
Rutgers is a program-first 12-0 at home heading into Sunday’s game against Minnesota (10-7, 4-3) at The RAC in Piscataway, N.J. The Gophers, meanwhile, are 0-5 in the road this season.
Minnesota has laid duds, primarily the 72-52 loss at Iowa on Dec. 9, but also had encouraging performances, including the 83-78 double-overtime defeat at Purdue on Jan. 2.
“You’ve got to be really, really tough, and you got to be really composed,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “You’ve got to make sure that if there is a run, which is going to happen in the building, that you can’t let a 6-0 run turn into a 10-0 run. You got to make sure you take care of the ball. You got to make sure you guard the 3-point line, all the things that get a building going. You got to make sure you contain.”
Minnesota will be on the road for three of the next four games through the end of January, with a home game against No. 15 Michigan State in the middle next Sunday.
Pitino is 6-3 versus Rutgers in his career, but his team lost to them on the road last season.
Pitino compared this Rutgers team to Nebraska in 2013-14, when his friend Tim Miles took the Cornhuskers to the NCAA tournament.
“You could tell the home crowd knows they have an impact, the players love playing there,” Pitino said. “Obviously they haven’t lost there. They are very, very big, tough and physical. And they embrace it.”
The Gophers will need to stay out of foul trouble, primarily Daniel Oturu and backup big Jarvis Omersa. Omersa has fouled out four times, including the 75-69 win over Penn State, and has had four fouls in two other games.
“He plays as hard as maybe any player in the Big Ten,” Pitino said. “… He’s doing a lot of good things, but it’s just a matter of being smarter. He’s a little undersized. We are asking him to play (center) a little bit, and that’s a challenge that may attribute to fouling.”
The Gophers have been able to ride the one-two offensive threats of Oturu and Marcus Carr to wins, but will likely need them and a third option to get a road win in a small, 8,000-seat venue with fans giving opposing players earfuls.
Gable Kalscheur leads the Big Ten with 42 made 3-pointers, but he went 0 for 7 against Penn State. After shooting 41 percent from deep as a freshman, he’s shooting 33 percent this year.
“It’s got nothing to do with his mechanics,” Pitino said. “It’s got nothing to do with his work ethic. He’s not taking bad shots. Just keep taking them. He’s too good of a shooter.”
As Rutgers went 7-13 in Big Ten play a year ago, Kalscheur had one of his best games in late February in New Jersey. He made all six of his 3-pointers and finished with 21 points.
If they get that production again, maybe the Gophers can curtail the suddenly daunting nature of playing at Rutgers. Yes, Rutgers.