Rutgers entered the rankings at No. 24 last week but promptly dropped two straight Big Ten road games.
The Scarlet Knights will try to regain their footing when they host Nebraska on Tuesday night in Piscataway, N.J.
Rutgers (16-9, 8-6 Big Ten) followed up Tuesday’s 66-60 setback at No. 18 Indiana with a 69-60 defeat Saturday at Illinois. The Scarlet Knights led the Illini by as many as eight points in the first half but went more than 10 minutes without scoring in the second half.
“Obviously you don’t want to go any stretch (without scoring), but our defense could have still helped us, and I’m just really disappointed,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said.
“We got to make sure if we’re not making baskets, that we’re not giving them any baskets. So we’ve been in that spot many times this year. If we can’t score, they can’t score, and that’s what we didn’t do. Especially in the last nine minutes of this game,” Pikiell said.
Nebraska (12-14, 5-10) comes in having won two of three, most recently a 73-63 overtime home victory against Wisconsin on Saturday in which it trailed by 17 early in the second half.
“They could have folded when we got down 17, but they just kept coming,” Cornhuskers coach Fred Hoiberg said. “That’s what you like to see out of your team. We kind of got that identity back.”
Rutgers will be playing its third game since losing 6-foot-7 junior forward Mawot Mag to a season-ending injury. Pikiell said after the Indiana loss it would take “a couple of weeks” for the Knights to get used to playing without Mag.
Nebraska has had a little longer to settle into a post-injury rotation, as it has been without wing Juwan Gary and guard Emmanuel Bandoumel for six games. At the same time, the Cornhuskers have seen former starter Blaise Keita finally starting to get back to his old self, playing 23 minutes off the bench against the Badgers and pulling down 11 rebounds.
“I’m so proud of him,” Hoiberg said of Keita, who started the season’s first five games but has dealt with multiple injuries. “He’s gone through a lot this year.”
The Knights lead the Big Ten in scoring and field-goal defense, allowing 63.1 points on 40.3 percent shooting in conference games, but have struggled offensively.
Nebraska is near the bottom in most league defensive categories, so this could be a chance for Rutgers to top 70 points for the first time since Feb. 1.
Nebraska will be hoping for another big offensive performance from Keisei Tominaga, who has scored 76 points over the past three games thanks to 14-for-29 shooting from 3-point range.
Tominaga is second on the team in scoring with 12 points per game. Derrick Walker leads the Cornhuskers with 13.5 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Clifford Omoruyi leads the Scarlet Knights in scoring (13.5) and rebounding (9.8). Cam Spencer adds 12.4 points per game.
Rutgers needs a victory to stay in the hunt for a double bye, which goes to the top four teams heading into next month’s Big Ten Tournament.
–Field Level Media