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Consistency key for Rutgers to take next step



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

Following the biggest road win in program history, Rutgers comes home with a golden opportunity in front of them. The Scarlet Knights host Maryland on Thursday night followed by Iowa for Sunday matinee. With a 2-1 record in Big Ten play, RU can assert themselves as a legitimate conference title contender by closing out the week strong.

Rutgers is playing at an elite level on the defensive end. They’ve held every opponent below their season scoring average and are fourth nationally in allowing just 55.2 points per game.

One of the most impressive aspects in beating No. 1 Purdue on Monday was holding them to only 64 points. The Boilermakers scored 12 points below their average despite RU mired in foul trouble. Seven players committed at least three fouls apiece. Their best interior defender, Mawot Mag, only played 16 minutes. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Caleb McConnell, missed a good portion of the first half as well. Even so, Purdue only scored 24 points in the opening frame, giving them a 10 point deficit at the half.

“Whenever you hold a team like that that scores at will like they do to just 24 points in the first half and I think 10 were from the foul line. So again, you can’t defend the foul line but I thought we really did a good job of mixing things up and just making it hard,” explained Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell after the game. “We’ve been good defensively all year and these guys played really well in a tough, tough environment, but Purdue was excellent. We knew they were going to score some points. And again, we can never defend the foul line. So, we took a hit there and in the backboards. And that’s really where they got majority of their points I felt”

If Rutgers can continue to consistently play at or near an elite level on the defensive end in Big Ten play, it will give them a chance to win every game remaining. They have what it takes to maintain a high level with their versatility, physicality, size, ability to execute multiple defensive concepts, and depth. However, if Rutgers wants to take the next step and truly challenge for a Big Ten title, they need to take the next step offensively.

As the Scarlet Knights proved on Monday, they don’t have to be the most efficient team on offense. That being said, they do need to be competent. I thought in particular that Rutgers played smart on offense against Purdue. They took advantage of Zach Edey on the bench in the first half that helped build a double digit lead. After Purdue was able to adjust and take some things away to climb back into the game, Rutgers was able to pivot in a way that changed the game. Paul Mulcahy took handoffs from Cliff Omoruyi on his way to repeatedly attacking the basket. It worked and without this change, it was unlikely the game ends in RU’s favor.

Rutgers is currently No. 3 in defensive efficiency in college basketball in allowing just 84.4 points per 100 possessions. However, they are just No. 110 offensive efficiency in scoring 104.7 points per 100 possessions. RU’s strength is having a 34.6% offensive rebounding rate, which is No. 37 nationally.

Rebounding at a high level is important as well. For the most part, Rutgers has been good on the boards. However, the night to night grind of the Big Ten can take its toll. Can they maintain a high defensive effort while also outwilling opponents on the glass? They have been slightly above average in allowing opponents an offensive rebounding rate of 26. 9%, which is 110th nationally.

Keys for offensive improvement though starts with limiting turnovers. They are averaging 12.2 per game (No. 104) and have a turnover rate of 17.8% (No. 102). It’s not a weakness, but the better Rutgers can be with taking care of the basketball, it will only enhance their defensive play.

One area of improvement this season has been RU shooting 72.8% from the foul line as a team. They only took 11 free throws in the win over No. 1 Purdue, but they made an all-important 9 of them for 81%. Continuing to shoot at a similar rate or even improve slightly is critical if the Scarlet Knights want to take the next step this season.

Overall, Rutgers shares the basketball and plays unselfishly on the offensive end. These are encouraging traits. It’s going to come down to shooting at a more efficient rate. While they are shooting a decent 49.7% from two-point range, they are 270th nationally in only making 31.3% from behind the arc. Their effective field goal percentage, which measures a more complete shooting picture as three-pointers are weighted more heavily, is just 48.9% and ranks only 224th nationally.

Two players that should be more aggressive in taking more shots are Cam Spencer and Paul Mulcahy. We saw Spencer step up in a big way in hitting the game winning three against Purdue, while Mulcahy got Rutgers to that stage by taking over down the stretch. Spencer is the best shooter on the team and Mulcahy impacts the team in a major way. When he is clicking on all cylinders offensively, Rutgers is as well.

Scoring in transition and finishing layups as a team is key as well. Rutgers does have the ability to run the floor. They are averaging 13.3 fast break points per game, which is No. 57 nationally. Their ability to force turnovers on the defensive end and swipe steals gives them chances to punish foes with transition offense.

With all that being said, it does feel like Rutgers is still gelling on the offensive end.

Caleb McConnell has taken a step forward offensively after missing the first five games of the season. Mulcahy is looking like himself again after battling a shoulder injury. Spencer is learning how to play with both veterans and they are doing the same with him. Cliff Omoruyi can dominate inside but is learning how to counter defenses denying him the ball. Aundre Hyatt can be a spark off the bench but can be hot and cold. Derek Simpson is the best penetrator on the team but is still developing.

This team has talent and the potential to be an improved team on offense two months down the road certainly exists. If roles continue to develop, Mulcahy settles in as the director with the basketball in his hands, and this team can shoot better as a whole, they become an even harder team to play.

Avoiding a letdown against the veteran Terps is a must for RU in order to build momentum off of arguably the most impressive win of the Steve Pikiell era so far. Maryland will bring experience and a chip on their shoulder to the RAC on Thursday night. Rutgers needs to be ready.

It will always start for this team on the defensive end. Ball pressure, trapping and switching defenses is something Rutgers not only is comfortable doing, but they thrive in. It’s a real weapon that can also help get this team into games quickly by generating turnovers and scoring chances at the start. Staying disciplined and out of foul trouble is a must. Playing smart on offense, taking shots within the flow and taking what the defense gives them is important too.

The win over No. 1 Purdue was historic for the program. However, if they want to make an even bigger piece of history by winning the Big Ten regular season title, being more consistent is the key. The league is brutal grind. Rutgers is a very tough team and they’ve already experienced a lot of adversity. Keeping their mental edge and playing team basketball on both ends is something RU is capable of.

After the loss to Ohio State on a call the Big Ten said was wrongly called against Rutgers, it caused them to lose their mojo against rival Seton Hall. They have recovered with flying colors since. A loss to Maryland or Iowa doesn’t negate the win over Purdue. But it would halt momentum to a degree.

The challenge now is not letting a signature win impact their play the rest of this week. It’s another short turnaround that leaves reduced prep time and makes turning the page quickly critical. This team’s mindset can be the difference between building off of Monday’s win in a positive way in the long term or let inconsistent play hold them back.

On Thursday against Maryland, Rutgers faces a major test that will play a part in determining their ceiling this season. Iowa will follow just three days later with similar circumstances. These next two games are a huge opportunity to build momentum and establish themselves as a top Big Ten team. It’s not just about making the NCAA Tournament anymore. Expectations should be higher. This team is capable of accomplishing more than any other Pikiell team so far. If they can go 3-0 this week, we may very well look back at it as the turning point of what becomes an historic season. The ball is in their court.

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  1. BataliBoli98

    January 5, 2023 at 12:52 am

    Wow! So much content. Great stuff. Couldn’t agree more across the board. Mulcahy has to be a little more assertive and I do think that this group will continue to get better offensively as the season progresses. Simpson’s confidence should continue to grow and the same can be said for Woolfork. To me, it’s as much about shot selection as anything else. While I love Mag’s overall game, he needs to understand his limitations on offense. He could get 6 to 8 a game just by crashing the boards. There is a reason why the other team literally just allows him to shoot from distance. I also think that RU will need to find ways to get more baskets in transition. I might be forgetting a few but did they have any fast break points against Purdue?

  2. BataliBoli98

    January 5, 2023 at 12:59 am

    One more…Pikiell’s rotations were outstanding in this win. I thought how he shuttled Cliff in and out in the first half was very smart as was his use of Mag and Spencer in the final minutes. It was nice to see two very strong coaches go at it. On a completely separate note, Juan Dixon was a really nice player at MD and has been a coach for more than a few years. That said, what kind of program is he looking to build at Coppin State? That team has zero discipline and could care less about even trying to play defense. Bizarre. I guess that Sam Sessoms cared far more about getting his own than winning.

    • Aaron Breitman

      January 5, 2023 at 1:53 am

      Thanks for the kind words and good to hear from you. Good takes on all that you said. As for Sessoms, let’s just say I don’t think he had a lot of options.

    • InPikeWeTrust

      January 5, 2023 at 12:44 pm

      Read the SI article on Coppin State’s first 30 days of their season. It was as close to the Bataan Death March as a college basketball could possibly experience. They desperately need to get into conference play and be home for long stretches. That being said, Dixon doesn’t appear to be a program-builder like Pikiell.

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