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Defensive identity has Rutgers rising to new heights



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

When Rutgers needed to win on Thursday night against Maryland to build off the momentum of the best road win in all of college basketball earlier in the week, they stayed true to their identity. Although staying focused is another obstacle that head coach Steve Pikiell spoke about after the game in response to beating No. 1 Purdue, the Scarlet Knights played with the same trademark toughness that has them in this position. Despite not playing their best basketball, RU won comfortably 64-50 behind another elite defensive performance.

In holding the Terps to just 17 points in the opening frame, it was the fewest points allowed in the first half of a Big Ten game under Pikiell.

If Rutgers wants to take the next step as a program and become one of the best in the Big Ten, consistency is a must. It was very important for RU to beat Maryland. They now can continue to build momentum following the win over No. 1 Purdue, who survived at No. 24 Ohio State on Thursday night. It was also a swing game in the Big Ten standings. There is a big difference in being 2-2 versus now being 3-1. It was important Quad 2 win in the NET rankings, as Rutgers held firm at No. 14. Winning as many home games as possible is a must. And perhaps most importantly, this team had a bit of growing up moment in not letting the win over Purdue knock their focus.

“To hold them to 14 points in the first half until that last three went in – you know, this group is mature. I will say that about them,” Pikiell stated. “They approach preparation the right way. It was a crazy couple of days, too, that daily fame is fleeting too. So, you have to make sure that you’re ready to play when you’re playing teams in our league, and two weeks ago, this team was ranked. You have to be ready. Our defense was good. I know it wasn’t pretty today, but I kind of liked those kind of games. We just grinded and figured out a way to win and that’s a good sign for us.”

The biggest reason that Rutgers has become so dangerous and such a tough out has been their elite defensive play. The program’s identity has always been tied to defense under Pikiell. However, this season the Scarlet Knights have entered another defensive stratosphere. The roster that Pikiell built from a defensive perspective is long, deep, versatile and athletic. He spoke about what each player brings to their defense on the floor.

“These guys are connected,” explained Pikiell. “The National Defensive Player of the Year, Caleb McConnell. I think Cam is leading our league in steals. Paul can guard the versatility. Mawot Mag gives us tremendous energy. Aundre (Hyatt), versatility. Cliff (Omoruyi) is a shot blocker. You know, they’re connected, and then the guys that come off the bench, too. Wolf (Antwone Woolfolk) can really defend. Dean can defend. So I’m confident, but it’s work. We do a lot of different things. These guys are able to take the coaching and move the prep around because we do a lot of different things. It’s work, they watch film – these guys watch more film than anybody in the country. It shows at times. Our versatility really is unique.”

Maryland head coach Kevin Willard, who had greater perspective of Rutgers from his previous tenure at Seton Hall, spoke about what makes them special on the defensive end.

“I think, the adjustment Steve has made. You know, what the pressure defense says. I think it’s made up for a lot of their offensive woes to be perfectly honest,” explained Willard. “They’re a very good basketball team. I think they’re not a great half court offensive team. I went back and watched the Seton Hall game and it’s one of the better college games I’ve seen. But seeing the struggle scoring in the half court, the press especially in this building, it just gives them an opportunity, puts a little bit less pressure on their half court defense, it gives them an opportunity to get easy transition points.”

A big part of Thursday’s win was Rutgers producing a 18-2 advantage in fast break points. While they were able to run at times off of a few of Maryland’s 20 turnovers, RU looked to run more off of defensive rebounds as well. This is smart and something the Scarlet Knights need to prioritize moving forward. As teams get worn down by the stifling defense of Rutgers, they will be more prone to struggle in getting back in transition. Having the confidence and comfort as a team to both press and then run in transition more regularly requires more than just athleticism and fitness. It requires trust and belief in one another.

“I think that’s the biggest difference I’ve seen in them from watching them play at Miami, I watch them, and then obviously, the Big Ten games,” Willard said. “Paul, Cliff, McConnell, Mag they all work really well as a group. Cam Spencer is a really smart player out there and kind of knows this game. I just think the pressing has changed them from a half court team that you really knew what was coming at you the whole time and that we were going to have to score to a team that now it’s a special preparations unit. In this building it is tough.”

The leadership and mentality of this team is grounded in being a hard nosed defensive team. But a big reason that Pikiell has utilized more front court pressure and switched defensive looks so frequently is because of the versatility and depth. In essence, Pikiell built this team to play defense this particular way.

“We’ve got great leadership and the way they prepare. But we have tremendous versatility,” explained Pikiell. “I mean, our guys can guard any position, Paul can guard any position, Caleb can really guard any position. Andre, Mawot. And we’ve added Cam, who’s as good an anticipator (as there is) and has got great hands. Caleb led the league in steals and now Cam is doing that for us. We’ve got good size. Obviously Jersey Mike’s Arena gives us a huge advantage, people are loud and it is a great environment, so that helps too.”

Rutgers is currently No. 3 in defensive efficiency nationally. They’ve held every opponent below their season scoring average including all but two foes by at least 10 points. It’s the consistency on the defensive end that will give this team a chance to beat whoever they play on any given night. While the offense has room to grow, there are positive signs.

Paul Mulcahy took over once against down the stretch. Cam Spencer has now scored in double figures in three of four Big Ten contests. Both led the way in wins over Purdue and Maryland. Scoring off the bench has been steady as well with Aundre Hyatt and Derek Simpson, who combined for 14 points against the Terps. As a team, RU has shot 80.2% from the foul line over the last six games. If Cliff Omoruyi can become more of a factor on the offensive end, the Scarlet Knights will continue to improve.

Monday night’s win over Purdue proved Rutgers could beat any team in the country in any venue. Thursday’s victory over Maryland proved that this team can win comfortably even when they don’t play their best. Since they suffered a 45-43 loss at home to Seton Hall, this team has responded with a five game winning streak. How they handle adversity the rest of the way will be key to how much they can actually accomplish. Staying grounded and focused by relying on their defensive identity is key to doing that.

 “That’s just you know the journey of every season. You’re not gonna play great every night, it was a one possession game (Seton Hall). We just didn’t finish that game,” explained Pikiell. “You learn from it and that’s why I think we finished the Purdue game and these guys are back on track. You learn from film, it’s early in the year, our rotations are better now. I think everyone’s a little more comfortable in what they do and it’s part of the process that you have to go through. Everyone wants to skip all the steps, but these guys know that you have to go through those steps, especially in a league like this, it prepares you for that.”

The next test is Iowa at home on Sunday at noon. The Hawkeyes have struggled by came from way behind to beat Indiana 91-89 on Thursday night. There are no games in the Big Ten. But Rutgers knows how they can succeed in this league. It’s not just about playing great defense, it’s about being who they are. If they continue to do that, they can end up having a special season.

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