Myles Mack and Rutgers are next test for Manhattan, who return to Madison Square Garden for first time in nearly six years. (Photo courtesy of Rutgers University)
A 60-38 victory over Marist that could best be described as typical Manhattan basketball is what the Jaspers' most recent impression before Sunday's matchup with Rutgers inside Madison Square Garden.
The meeting with the Scarlet Knights serves as Manhattan's first visit to the Garden since January 2009, when they lost to Iona on the undercard of a Big East battle between St. John's and, oddly enough, Rutgers. The Jaspers are also competing in the Holiday Festival for the first time since 2003, when head coach Steve Masiello was an assistant under Bobby Gonzalez, who guided the program to back-to-back Holiday Festival championships during his seven-year tenure in Riverdale, and would have won a third straight had it not been for Penn beating the buzzer.
At 5-4, Rutgers has been a mixed bag, to say the least. Wins over Vanderbilt and Clemson have been countered by a loss to Saint Peter's and their infamous 26-point showing against Virginia in the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic. Regardless, Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack form a potent two-headed scoring punch in Piscataway, combining to average 26 points per game while Junior Etou and freshman guard Mike Williams have served as valuable supporting cast members.
To bring the Scarlet Knights into the limelight even further, we enlist the latest guest analyst into our pregame question and answer session. A critically acclaimed author and teacher by trade, Dave White adds to his versatility by covering the highs and lows of Rutgers basketball for On The Banks, one of the best sources of Rutgers news out there. From a site who has spent a similar amount of time around another program in the area that has fallen on hard times, we appreciate Dave's efforts even more, such as this revealing look at what to expect from Manhattan's next opponent Sunday afternoon:
Jaden Daly: What would be the best description for: a) Rutgers' 5-4 start right now, and b) how it lines up with preseason expectations?
Dave White: a) The record is interesting. There have been disasters, losing to Saint Peter's and getting blown out by Seton Hall. And impressive moments: Beating Vandy and Clemson and hanging with Virginia (don't look at the final score, watch the game, Rutgers hung in there). So, the best description is interesting... or weird. Both words are better than "bad." This team isn't world beaters, and they've struggled a lot at times, but there have also been glorious, wonderful, brief signs of light.
b) The record lines up with preseason expectations. Who they beat to get to that record... that doesn't.
JD: With Bishop Daniels still out, who becomes the second option behind Myles Mack, and who has stepped up most since Daniels' injury?
DW: Rumor has it, Daniels will be back on Sunday (depending on how his practice went on Thursday--I haven't seen an update yet). Mike Williams, the freshman guard out of Brooklyn, has been impressive. He's played confident and smart, and been a surprising defensive stalwart. If he can keep up this level of play, and Daniels comes back soon, it might give Rutgers a bit of confidence about their guard play beyond Myles Mack.
As for second option behind Mack, it was never going to be Daniels. Both Kadeem Jack and Junior Etou have the talent and potential to be the top scorer on any given night. Jack especially--he was considered to be a possible NBA draft pick before the season began.
JD: Against a Manhattan team that has had its own offensive struggles, is the Scarlet Knights' offensive inconsistency a greater concern?
DW: Rutgers' biggest problem is believing in itself and its system. When they run their offense, they get baskets and the plays are a thing of beauty to watch. The problem is when they get rattled (like what Seton Hall did to them), they go away from that offense and fall into one on one play. That's what the concern is. This team seems to get rattled easily and then the offense stops working.
JD: Overall, what can we expect from Rutgers against Manhattan, and how realistic are their chances of walking out of Madison Square Garden with a win?
DW: I'd say beating Manhattan is a 50/50 option. It really depends. Rutgers is going to try and be patient and run their sets. They'll get out on the fast break if they have the opportunity, but recently they haven't had that chance. If Mack has room to run the offense, they'll be fine and in the game, but if the Jaspers are able to press and frustrate Mack, it could be a long day. I haven't watched Manhattan enough this year to know how well they'll press.
JD: On that note, will this team win a game in the Big Ten? All everyone keeps talking about is how much better everyone else in the conference is.
DW: Yes. This team will win a game in the Big Ten. No one goes 0-for the conference season. Even when DePaul went 0-18 in the Big East a few years ago, they won a game in the Big East Tournament. There are 18 games, someone will come in sleeping, and Mack or Jack will go crazy and Rutgers will win. The key is: Can they get more than 5 wins in conference?
JD: Finally, on somewhat of the same topic, what exactly would constitute a successful, or respectable, season in Piscataway this year?
DW: 9-4 in the out of conference and somewhere beyond 5-13 would be the way to look for improvement. An upset would help, something Eddie Jordan can hang his hat on. I was also hoping for fewer weird, out-of-nowhere losses, but Saint Peter's took that out of the equation. Get to 12 or 13 wins, and be competitive. You want to see hope for the future. You want the team to be fun. They won't be playing in any postseason tournaments, they're not deep or talented enough, but their two best players are seniors. That counts for something, so Rutgers needs to make that count.