After suffering its first three game losing streak of the year following the season ending knee injury for Mawot Mag, Rutgers lost its best defensive player and leader Caleb McConnell just minutes before tipoff against Wisconsin. It was a total team effort in beating the Badgers 58-57 on Saturday.
In talking to Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell on Monday, McConnell could miss Thursday’s game against Michigan as well.
“Our health is always a concern. Just trying to get Caleb back,” Pikiell said. “Right now he’s not doing anything. Trying to get him back. I don’t know about Caleb. I don’t know what will happen. Right now he would not play if there was a game today for sure. Maybe the next couple of days he’ll feel better but it doesn’t look good.”
If McConnell does miss any more time from the back spasms suffered during warmups against Wisconsin, it would be a unfortunate for both him and the team. Time is running out on his Rutgers career and there are only two home games left. McConnell previously had a back injury three years ago and was planning to redshirt the 2020-2021 season before returning after 8 games due to it being a free year eligibility wise with Covid-19. He also missed the first five games of this season due to a preseason knee injury. This doesn’t include the many minor injuries McConnell has played through during his career.
Defensively, Rutgers could be without their two best defenders if McConnell misses more time and with Mag out for the season. McConnell is as good a stopper as there is in college basketball due to his versatility in defending multiple positions. The Big Ten’s defending Defensive Player of the Year is leading the league with 2.5 steals in league play and just last week became the third player in program history to swipe 200 steals.
Overall this season, McConnell is averaging career highs with 9.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.5 steals and 33.5 minutes per game.
Pikiell discussed how well so many players stepped up in the win against Wisconsin and how McConnell’s absence impacted their style of play.
“We found out about McConnell about three minutes before tipoff. That’s going to change how you play,” Pikiell explained. “I think he’s the best defender in the country. So now Mawot and Caleb the best two on my team. You’re going to have to play a bit differently. I was real proud.”
As for the various players who stepped up, Pikiell pointed out a few.
“Oskar found out he was starting 60 seconds before tip off. He jumped right in,” Pikiell said. “He’s done a great job. That’s a kid who hadn’t played much now he’s starting. That he was ready and we were down a couple a player. Dean did a great job. I though Derek Simpson came in and gave us great minutes. Cliff had to wrestle all night long I could barely take him out. Cam Spencer. It was a great team win. It really was. You’re always going to have to play differently. Especially when you take out your two best defenders.”
One bit of good news is that point guard Paul Mulcahy is not limited after briefly leaving the first half before returning after suffering a stinger to his shoulder. He missed four games in November due to a shoulder injury.
“Paul was fine today but he’s always banged up. He goes through a lot through the course of a game,” explained Pikiell. “He goes through a lot through the course of a season. Paul’s always banged up but he’s always tough enough to figure it out.”
Rutgers has dealt with plenty of adversity this season. Injuries alone have been a factor with McConnell having missed six games so far, Mulcahy’s four missed games and Mag who is out for the season. Add in the controversial loss at Ohio State and the recent three game losing streak, this team team has already be through a lot.
“These guys have been great. They’ve been great all year. I like this group a lot,” emphasized Pikiell. “They practice the right way. They’re connected. Hit some obstacles. The road is not easy. Everyone in the league has a losing streak. We have got to get through it like everybody else.”
Despite ending the losing streak shorthanded against Wisconsin, there is a long way to go for Rutgers. With McConnell’s status uncertain and four regular season games remaining. it’s important to improve their NCAA Tournament resume as much as possible. While RU is No. 27 in KenPom and No. 29 in the NET rankings, which puts them in solid footing in the March Madness picture, winning two or more Big Ten regular season games would be helpful. They’re still contention for a double-bye and top four finish in the league, as well as a top half seed in the NCAA Tournament.
To continued to rise above the adversity that the team is dealing with, Pikiell discussed the need to have a balanced mindset to avoid getting too high or low game to game.
“In this league you better be like that. Last year we went through two three game losing streaks. The year before that I know we had a five game losing streak. I think you have to be able to grind through,” stated Pikiell.
He continued, “The league is so good. Nebraska is good. I know no one thinks that. The way they played against us, they’ll beat a lot of people. They turned around and beat Maryland. They’ve won four out of their last five. Not just them, the whole league is good. You have to be able to get through the tough times. Not always playing great. Obviously losing Mawot. He’s the first injury we’ve had, we’ve had sprained ankles, have had a couple games (missed), this is the first one in seven years he can’t play the rest of the season. Going through that during this stretch plus playing on the road. It’s a tough stretch. Real proud of our guys.”
With the home stretch of the season officially here, the Scarlet Knights continue to deal with injuries to key players. How they respond game to game remains to be seen. However, if there is one thing this program has taught Rutgers fans in recent seasons, its don’t ever give up on this team. Hopefully McConnell is back soon. Either way, Pikiell’s team will need to keep grinding and getting contributions from every player they can.
As for what Rutgers needs to do on Thursday against Michigan, with or without McConnell, Pikiell kept it simple.
“They kept fighting. Just play, that’s my thing.”
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