After leading 47-41 with 15 minutes to play, Rutgers lost control as Illinois delivered a 19-0 knockout run to change the game. It resulted in a 69-60 defeat as fell back into the top six of the Big Ten. After losing back to back road games against current top four teams in the league standings, RU will look to regroup on Tuesday at home against Nebraska. Context is important. This was always going to be the most challenging week of the Big Ten season based on the schedule. Losing Mag made it that much more so, but hope should not be lost. Here are five takeaways for this team moving forward following the disappointing loss to the Illini.
Cliff has to value his time
A day after being named the to the Top 10 List for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award given to the nation’s best center, Cliff Omoruyi’s value to Rutgers was proven loud and clear. However, it was felt in his absence, not his dominance. He played just 24 minutes after being in foul trouble most of the game. He went to the bench in the first half with 8 minutes left and Rutgers leading 23-16. While they were able to head to the locker room with a 4 point lead, it was a missed opportunity. RU was getting stops and playing with rhythm on offense. Illinois was able to cut into the lead by doing damage inside.
It was back and forth in the second half until Cliff turned it over with under 14 minutes remaining. Out of frustration, he was called for a needless reach-in over 80 feet away from the basket. While the foul call could be deemed the ticky tack variety, it was a completely unnecessary risk.
When Cliff checked back in with ten minutes left the game, Rutgers trailed 52-47 after llinois outscored the visitors 8-0 during his time on the bench. He didn’t last long, picking up his fourth foul just a minute plus later. He came back in with RU trailing 56-47 and seven plus minutes left. It ballooned to 60-47 as the Illini completed a stunning 19-0 run. 14 of those points came with Cliff on the bench in foul trouble. In the game in which they lost by 9 points, Rutgers was outscored by 17 points with Cliff out with foul trouble. They were also outscored 38-32 in points in the paint for the game.
“He’s been pretty good this whole season,” head coach Steve Pikiell said in regard to Omoruyi avoiding foul trouble. “That wasn’t his strength as a freshman, you guys know that. He just got a couple of careless ones out of frustration. We just got to do a better job of keeping them on the floor and you’re right, we were plus-11 at one point and we go into halftime just plus-4. They got us on second shots, and therefore they’re going to get to the foul line too, because that’s always a recipe for the free throw line. So, we’ve got to just do a better job. He knows that and he knows how important he is. But you can’t certainly do that on the road and have him out in the game like this.”
The importance of Cliff to this team is massive. Staying out of foul trouble the rest of the way will be critical to Rutgers having success. When Cliff is off the floor along with Mawot Mag missing due to his season ending injury, the interior defense is vulnerable. Omoruyi is on pace to become the first Rutgers player to lead the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots since the late, great Keith Hughes did in the 1990-1991. He needs to stay disciplined and stay on the floor. When he doesn’t, it could be a major problem like it was on Saturday against Illinois.
Cam Spencer has to be an offensive priority
If Rutgers wants to make a memorable March, they need their best shooter actively involved. Cam Spencer was limited to just 2 points on 5 shots in the loss to Illinois. He made just one field goal and was 0-1 from three-point range. After averaging 16.8 points per contest over a five game stretch in January, Spencer has been atop the opposition’s scouting report. In his last seven games, he’s only averages 8.7 points and has scored in double digits just three times.
“You always have to give the other team a little credit,” explained Pikiell. “They got tremendous length. And Cam, they’re loading up on him now, too. I’d love to get him more involved, but I thought we did when we got good looks. We got some layups. We got a couple of breakaways. I mean we had opportunities to score, it’s never going to be easy for him. They’re always going to put a bigger guy on him. We got to do a much better job to get them involved through some of our pin down action. We have plenty of opportunities today in that area and he got a couple of good looks too.”
Making Spencer more of a priority on offense for a team that struggles shooting the ball is a must. Spencer is a natural shooter and needs to take shots on a consistent basis to be most effective. It’s partly on Paul Mulcahy to recognize when Spencer isn’t involved and change that. While Spencer’s defense has been very solid and he’s been rebounding relatively well, Rutgers is a different team when he’s making shots. Taking the sixth most shots in the game the way he did against Illinois negates the value of Spencer as the most efficient player on the team. He has to fight for the ball and Rutgers has to get him the ball.
Transition and Second Chance points are key
It’s not breaking news in stating that Rutgers does not have an efficient offense. They’re currently No. 10 in Big Ten play and No. 132 nationally in offensive efficiency. However, RU is No. 2 in the league and No. 53 nationally in offensive rebounding rate. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights are No. 5 nationally in steal rate and No. 22 in turnover rate while leading the Big Ten in both categories.
They didn’t fail in these areas in the loss to Illinois. Rutgers forced 17 turnovers and swiped 9 steals while also grabbing 15 offensive rebounds. However, they scored just 16 points off of turnovers and only 18 points in second chance points. They need to be more efficient in taking advantage of those scoring opportunities. A big part of points off of turnovers is scoring in transition. Putbacks on offensive rebounds is key as well. RU was just 9 of 18 in layups and scored only 2 transition points in the loss to Illinois.
“Obviously they’re (Illinois) the fourth best shot blocking team in the country,” Pikiell exclaimed. “They’re number one in our league, they bothered us at the rim. You almost have to go through them. You’ve got to try to dunk the ball. Even if you get a charge on something like that, you’ve got to finish with tremendous toughness around that basket, to their credit. Myers will block shots, Coleman Hawkins is long, Danger has long arms and reminds me of Myles Johnson. He can really block shots, Terrence Shannon, got three tonight too. He’s athletic as can be. We got to finish better around the rim, and finish through some contact and we didn’t.”
Nothing is ever easy on offense for Rutgers. Capitalizing on opponent mistakes is critical to their success and will help an offense that clearly needs it.
Adapting to the loss of Mag will take time
Rutgers was not projected to win at Indiana and at Illinois in KenPom even before Mawot Mag suffered a season ending injury. This was always the hardest week on the Big Ten schedule. Losing Mag just three days before the first leg of this trip made it incredibly challenging. Even so, Rutgers was tied with No. 18 Indiana and led Illinois in the second halves of both games before falling short. They miss Mag dearly for his versatility, toughness, interior defense, efficiency scoring inside and ability to run in transition.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t the same team without Mag. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still a good team and also that they have the potential to evolve as a team.
“We had one practice before Indiana, which obviously is not a lot,” Pikiell explained. “We had two practices here in Illinois. It’s going to just take us a little time. We need some practice time without him and like you said, those guys are stepping up bigger roles. He was a 25-to-30 minute guy and he helped our defense too in a lot of ways, but it’s no excuse. These guys are plenty good enough. Dean (Reiber’s) got to play more minutes and Antoine Woolfolk. Oskar Palmquist has been coming in giving us some really good minutes too. They just gotta get more comfortable with longer stretches and they’ve got to do more for us.”
Pikiell said after the Indiana loss that it would take the team two weeks to adjust to life without Mag. Week 1 is in the books. It was actually a blessing they played two difficult games in a row without him as they are adjusting. They lost two Quad 1 road games which is not a major issue long term. Playing an inferior team and losing because of the changes being made would have been costly. That leads to my last takeaway.
Opportunity is knocking
Rutgers has six regular season games remaining and KenPom has them projected to win them all. They play three teams right outside the top 50, the No. 70 ranked team, a sub 100 team and a sub 200 team. RU is currently No. 16 in KenPom. Even after the past two losses, they are still No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the Big Ten and No. 2 nationally.
Nebraska visits the RAC next after earning a big win at home over Wisconsin in overtime on Saturday. They’re now 5-10 in league play and even beat Iowa by 16 at home when the Hawkeyes struggled mightily in December. However, they’re 1-7 on the road in Big Ten play with their lone win at last place Minnesota. None of those losses were by single digits. It’s a golden opportunity for Rutgers to get right on Tuesday night in their first true home game in almost two weeks.
It’s up to the veteran leaders of this team to make sure Rutgers bounces back and takes advantage of the road ahead. Additional home games against Michigan and Northwestern won’t be easy, but they are winnable. So are road games at Wisconsin, at Penn State and at Minnesota, all bottom half of the league teams. It’s doubtful RU will go 6-0, but a floor of 4-2 would be just fine. It would mean a 12-8 finish in Big Ten play, matching last year’s high mark and possibly another top four finish.
“In this league every game is important. Every team is really good,” said Pikiell. “You see where the records are of everybody. Every game is important. It’s not more important than the next. They are all important. This game was important today, too. We just got to get back to playing our kind of defense, and sharing the ball a little bit better. Especially in the second half. We played, again, a good 31 minutes. We were not good enough on the road against a good Illinois team.”
Pikiell added, “We are going to need them all (players), it’s the grind of the year. It’s three road games in a row, we got to keep fighting through this. We get on another plane now and head back home. It’ll be nice to play at Jersey Mike’s Arena coming up here.”
There is no need for panic. There is certainly cause for concern because Rutgers has had issues in ways they didn’t before the Mag injury. However, they also had to adjust on the fly against two NCAA Tournament bound teams. Even after all of that, a top half finish in the Big Ten and top six seed in the NCAA Tournament is very much still on the table. Now is the time to apply the lessons learned on the road and get better. There should be confidence they will.
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