NEWARK – A regular-season battle between the No. 11 and 12 teams in the Big East is about as meaningless as it gets in March.
But for the people on the sidelines and the fans in the seats tonight at the Prudential Center, Rutgers vs. Seton Hall for the final time in Big East play means everything.
Lost for words after a crushing Marquette loss on senior night, Rutgers coach Mike Rice had his fire back at yesterday’s practice. Beating Seton Hall tonight, he said, is exactly what his players need.
“We're going to throw everything at [our guys]," Rice said. “When you've not won as many games as you'd have liked, you're going to throw different motivation at them. In the end, I don't know if any of it is the reason why we're going to win or lose a game. They have to want to be better because they're a part of a team that's still trying and still cares. And ultimately want to do it because of pride.”
Rutgers (13-15, 4-13) has little to play for in tonight’s game other than pride and momentum. But for a team of high-school winners stuck in a five-game losing streak, winning a game should be enough.
Senior forward Austin Johnson, MVP of the first Seton Hall game, does not want his final season to end on a losing streak. Breaking a six-game skid against the Pirates last time, Johnson wants to make it two in a row against his bitter rival.
“There's one game left in the regular season," Johnson said. "We talked about opportunities and there's only one left in the regular season. There isn't much that he can say to motivate us besides playing like it's our last game, which it is. So we'll go out there and do that."
So while tonight’s game does not mean anything tangible, Rutgers found plenty of meaning in looking for its first sweep of Seton Hall in more than a decade.
“Does your team still have the passion and energy to want to win basketball games?” Rice said. “In this league, that's a big factor. With Seton Hall — maybe it’s not talked about with the students or it’s because both teams have struggled recently — but they know it’s a big game."
Inside the Numbers
4 -- Rutgers has four losses and has not won since losing leading scorer Elijah Carter for the season.
6 -- After making his first 25 free throws in Big East play, Mack has six misses, including the front end of a 1-and-1 against Marquette, in his last six games.
11 -- Rutgers blocked 11 shots against Seton Hall at the RAC, the most in Big East play since Hamady N’Diaye prowled the paint.
12 -- Rutgers has not swept Seton Hall in 12 years or finished ahead of the Pirates in the Big East standings in 11 years.
25 -- Rutgers has won just 25 percent of its games at Seton Hall, but is 3-2 at the Prudential Center over the last five years.
39 -- Last time against the Pirates, Dane Miller became the 39th player in school history to score 1,000 career points. With 13 points tonight, Miller would eclipse 100 career points against the Pirates.