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Rutgers stars raise questions about their game

Photo: Andrew Mills/NJ Advance Media

Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball coach Steve Pikiell declined to have his players talk to the media on Zoom after Rutgers’ 68-59 loss to Maryland on Sunday afternoon at Rutgers Athletic Center.

He did them a disservice by not being accountable and answering questions on what went wrong. He basically went out of his way to shield them. It’s surprising from a coach who demands accountability to the team’s success.

Maybe he didn’t want them to deal with the nagging questions about why his stars such as Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker come up small in big games like Sunday.

This take is not an emotional reaction. It’s based on watching them perform against elite Big Ten teams such as Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State this season. Add Maryland to that list now.

In a tight game against Maryland yesterday, Rutgers’ three stars couldn’t come up with a much-needed shot at any point of the game. Not when the Scarlet Knights went on a five-minute dry spell in the first half that set the tone for Maryland to take the lead and not relinquish it. Not when they cut the lead to six points late in the game. Their stars wilted against Maryland’s tenacious defense.

Baker finished with 12 points, but it was not impactful from what the stats indicate. Harper Jr. scored six points on 1 of 6 shooting. Mathis came off the bench with only nine points.

No offense to Jacob Young, game-leading scorer with 19 points, but he can’t be the team’s best player in a game of this magnitude. Something is wrong if that’s the case since he is a player that comes off the bench.

Rutgers stars played enough Big Ten games to know how to play these types of games. They shouldn’t be struggling in this stage.

As March comes along, stars raise their game. Maybe it could just be those guys are just not good enough to be one. Sunday’s game certainly should make Pikiell and Rutgers fans feel that way.

The bar has been raised at Rutgers. It’s not just about being respectable anymore. It’s about beating these teams. It’s not like Maryland is Michigan or Ohio State. Maryland is a mirror image of Rutgers. Both teams rely on defense and timely shooting to win games.

One would figure out Maryland since both teams play with the same identity. Instead, Maryland beat Rutgers at its own game.

For Rutgers to look sloppy at this time of the year, it should raise questions whether or not its stars are equipped to handle the pressure. It doesn’t get any easier. Rutgers plays Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota to finish the season.

The Scarlet Knights need to win two games to guarantee a spot in the tournament. Nebraska should be a cinch since they stink. Indiana is good enough to win at the RAC, and Minnesota is a tough place for Rutgers to win on the road, so that can be tricky.

If the Knights can’t beat the Hoosiers at home, the pressure will be ramped 10 times more than it is right now.

It’s on their best players to perform when it matters. Rutgers will need its best game from its stars the next three games.

Can they deliver? That’s another question that will be answered in the next three games and the Big Ten Tournament coming up.

Their performances put them on notice, and they know it. Pikiell no doubt will remind them of that based on him acknowledging his team did not play well. He blamed himself for this loss, but behind the scenes, he is going to put pressure on the players to do better than they have shown.

No one said this was going to be easy. It’s the Big Ten. Every game serves as a war of attrition. Only the strong survive.

Rutgers showed it can win grind-it-out games this season and last season. It reflects the image of a Pikiell-coached team.

Now more than ever, the Scarlet Knights need to show it by wins and strong performance from their stars.

It’s easy to perform well in January. It’s a different ballgame when February and March come around where the elite teams get better and up-and-coming teams become pretenders.

It’s on Harper, Mathis and Baker to make sure Rutgers is the former, not the latter.


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