At the start of what is believed to be an unprecedented week against the elite of college basketball, Rutgers had problems keeping up offensively. The Scarlet Knights likely will struggle to do any better Wednesday in their Big East opener against third-ranked Pittsburgh, one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
Rutgers (9-4) enters the middle of its three-game gauntlet run against the top three teams in the nation - believed to be the first time in college basketball this has occurred - after a 97-75 loss at No. 1 North Carolina on Sunday.
The brutal stretch ends Saturday at No. 2 Connecticut, which will have had four days to stew after losing at home to No. 11 Georgetown on Monday.
Freshman guard Mike Rosario hit four 3-pointers and finished with 26 points Sunday for the Scarlet Knights, whose 47.5 shooting percentage was the best for any opponent against the Tar Heels.
Rosario also was pleasantly surprised when North Carolina coach Roy Williams singled him out for praise late in the game.
“My options were other options (after high school), so coming from him, telling me that was great and basically gave me motivation to keep working hard and keep doing everything hard,” said Rosario, who leads Big East freshmen in scoring at 17.5 points per game.
Rosario has scored in double figures in 11 games and is averaging 25.0 points in his last two, but fellow freshman Gregory Echenique will try to bounce back after being limited to six points and five rebounds Sunday. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Echenique is among the Division I freshmen leaders with 119 rebounds and 34 blocks, and is tied with Anthony Farmer for second on the Scarlet Knights in scoring at 9.5 points per game.
Where Rutgers was able to find occasional holes against the trapping defense of North Carolina, those opportunities likely will not present themselves often against Pittsburgh (12-0), which relies on a physical, halfcourt defense that wears down opponents. The Panthers are among the national leaders in defensive field goal percentage (36.2) and scoring defense (57.1 ppg).
That defense shined down the stretch of Pittsburgh’s 56-48 victory at Florida State on Dec. 21, closing out the Seminoles with an 8-0 run over the final 2:33. Sam Young triggered the game-breaking spurt with a tip-in as the Panthers continued their best start since going 15-0 in 2005-06 despite shooting a season-low 33.3 percent.
“We knew we had to get stops to win the game,” said freshman guard Jermaine Dixon, who had two layups in the final 43 seconds. “We got some steals, got some stops, got some easy layups.”
While Dixon and backcourt partner Levance Fields, who is 15 points shy of 1,000, will try to keep Rosario in check, 6-7, 265-pound sophomore DeJuan Blair likely will match up with Echenique in the low post. Blair leads the Big East with 13.0 rebounds per game and averages 14.7 points while shooting 63.3 percent.
Young, third in the Big East in scoring at 20.1 points per game, has struggled in his two games against Rutgers, averaging 11.5 points on 28 percent shooting (7-for-25).
The Scarlet Knights lead the all-time series 23-20 and snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Panthers with a 77-64 upset at Pittsburgh on Jan. 26 as Young had 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting.
Pittsburgh, though, has won four straight at the Rutgers Athletic Center.