The entire college basketball world is probably wondering Rutgers' secret to being the only program in the country this season to beat Purdue, this week's unanimous No. 1 team.
Coach Ben Johnson has been closely following the rise of the Scarlet Knights under Steve Pikiell, even before preparing his Gophers (7-13, 1-9 Big Ten) to face them Wednesday night in Piscataway, N.J.
In his second season, Johnson has yet to establish an identity for Gophers basketball. And he's not shy about admitting he wants his program to look like Rutgers, where a bunch of tough players bought into a defensive-minded culture that established itself as a Big Ten contender.
"I have a lot of admiration for how Steve has built it," Johnson said. "I know when he took the job over there, their history wasn't very good as far as being competitive in our league and NCAA appearances. I think he really got it going and built it the way he wanted to — his type of culture."
The Scarlet Knights (14-7, 6-4) are led by six upperclassmen and rank No. 2 in the country in defensive efficiency. They lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (59.7) and lowest opponent field goal percentage (38.3), which included holding the Boilermakers under 40% shooting.
Rutgers made the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, and it would have been three in a row for the Scarlet Knights under Pikiell if not for the COVID-19 cancellation of the 2020 postseason.
Pikiell performed a major turnaround previously at Stony Brook, but it took a decade to reach the first NCAA tournament there in 2016. Rutgers hadn't been to the NCAA tourney since 1991 but made it in 2021, his fifth season.
"They're definitely an established program that has a DNA and a culture," Johnson said. "That's impressive because he's a little bit like us in terms of not a brand that's maybe an Indiana or Michigan, but that doesn't mean that in time if you stay the course that you can't find your way."
Johnson described Rutgers players as having experience, size and physicality to them, whether that's on the perimeter with 6-7 seniors Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell or in the paint with 6-11 junior Cliff Omoruyi. The Scarlet Knights also added transfers Cam Spencer (Loyola Maryland) and Aundre Hyatt (LSU).
"They know how to play and how to compete," Johnson said. "They just do a good job with their system, and they don't break. That's what happens when you have older guys who do it at a high level."
Omoruyi has improved offensively this season to lead Rutgers with 13.4 points per game, but he also ranks third in the Big Ten in rebounds (10.0) and blocks (2.0). His frontcourt presence will be even more of a challenge if the U's leading scorer and rebounder, Dawson Garcia, is sidelined for the third straight game with a bone bruise.
Struggling mightily to stay healthy has contributed to the Gophers lack of identity but so has minimal experience within the program. Sophomore Treyton Thompson and junior forward Jamison Battle are the only returning players from last year.
"Something we need to emphasize is to hang our hat on defense," Battle said after Saturday's 81-61 loss at Northwestern. "That's something we're capable of doing way more with the athletes we have."
The Gophers can't draw from much recent success playing the Rutgers way, but Johnson told players to focus on repeating how they fought and competed in a Jan. 12 win at Ohio State, and in a four-point loss last week vs. Indiana with only seven scholarship players.
"We've got to come in there with the right mentality if we're going to give ourselves a chance, especially when you're down guys," Johnson said. "You've got to know you're in a fight before you get punched. That's that whole mentality thing. We've proven we can do it. We just haven't been consistent."