Photo credit - Rutgers Athletics

“I haven’t beat Rutgers” — The reality of ascending the Big Ten ladder starts Saturday

“I haven’t beat Rutgers since I’ve been here.”

Say what now?

It was a bit startling to hear Trayce Jackson-Davis say those words on Wednesday evening just after Indiana’s 77-65 win over North Carolina.

From an IU basketball standpoint, Rutgers was a welcome addition to the Big Ten when they joined in 2014.  The Hoosiers were in between two outright Big Ten titles in four years, and the Scarlet Knights hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991.

Rutgers looked like an easy win or two on the Big Ten slate each year, and that’s exactly what they became for Indiana.  The Hoosiers won their first five meeting in the series, including a 65-43 manhandling of the Scarlet Knights in February of 2018 at the RAC in Piscataway.

But just four weeks and 40 miles later, everything changed.

Blame Corey Sanders.  Or Archie Miller, if you prefer.

After Indiana built a 16-point lead early on Rutgers at Madison Square Garden in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament, it was reasonable to believe the Hoosiers would cruise once again.  But Sanders went off for 28 points, hitting 12-of-20 shots with three assists — and Rutgers has dominated the series ever since.

Credit – Rutgers Athletics

Beginning with that 2018 Big Ten Tournament game, Rutgers has won seven of the last eight over IU.

It isn’t just Jackson-Davis.  No one on Indiana’s roster except Race Thompson has ever defeated Rutgers anywhere, and not even Thompson can claim a win on the Scarlet Knights’ home court.  Then redshirt freshman Thompson played 11 minutes in an 89-73 win over Rutgers in 2019 — IU’s last win in the series.  That was Juwan Morgan’s senior day.  It’s been that long.

Included in Indiana’s recent run of futility in the series is a three-game sweep by the Scarlet Knights in 2021 — at home, away and the season ending loss at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.  The third loss in 2021 put the final nail in the Miller era coffin at IU.  He was fired four days later.

But the Mike Woodson era picked up where Miller left off, at least as it relates to Rutgers.

Ron Harper, Jr. devastated the Hoosiers last March with a three at buzzer over the outstretched arm of Thompson on his own senior night.  Harper celebrated on the Branch McCracken court by gesturing to his crotch to indicate he wasn’t afraid of the big moment, or something.

Since then, Harper’s teammate Geo Baker proclaimed publicly “nobody’s scared of Indiana” as the Hoosiers entered this season as the consensus Big Ten favorite.

Rutgers’ 2018 win over Indiana was the beginning of a revival of sorts under head coach Steve Pikiell, who took over there in 2016.  The tough-mindedness the Scarlet Knights displayed at the Garden that night has been the cornerstone of three straight winning seasons and two straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

While Rutgers has finished sixth or better in the Big Ten each of the last three years, IU hasn’t been better than sixth since 2016, also the last time they finished with a winning record in the conference.

But both Harper and Baker have moved on, and it appears, at least on paper, that Indiana might finally have a chance to flip the script on what has become a surprisingly lopsided series.  Even the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center) is now named after a sub shop and thus somehow also seems a little less intimidating.

It’s probably true coming into this season — nobody was scared of Indiana.  But it’s also true — nobody at Indiana is taking Rutgers lightly.

Losing seven of eight, Baker’s words, Harper’s actions after he sunk the game winner — they all have Indiana laser focused on winning at the Jersey Mike’s Arena on Saturday (4 p.m. Eastern, BTN).

Just moments after Woodson had secured a win over the preseason No. 1 Tar Heels and one of his two biggest wins as IU head coach, he was in no mood to discuss the big picture.

“We were able to come out on top (against North Carolina),” Woodson said.  “I don’t think it’s a statement. We got to now start preparing for Rutgers, get ready for the Big Ten because the Big Ten is a grind, as you know. Rutgers is next up.”

Jackson-Davis was ahead of Woodson.  He was already talking to his teammates about Rutgers before the North Carolina game.

“That’s the biggest test (Rutgers),” Jackson-Davis said.  “That’s what I said to our guys this week, I said, UNC is going to be a great team and a great game. Obviously with this crowd, I liked our chances. But the real test is what we’re going to do on Saturday with that game because they’re a good team and they’re very well-coached.

“The RAC has always been a very hostile environment. They’ve had our number there.”

Truth be told, they’ve had Indiana’s number everywhere.


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