Rutgers won a key Big Ten contest on Saturday against Michigan State and it showed the character of this team. In a super charged Madison Square Garden, the Scarlet Knights continue to prove they belong at the top of the conference. Here are five takeaways as Rutgers is now in sole possession of second place at 8-4.
Depth Will Be Tested Without Mag
Mawot Mag scored seven of the first 13 points for Rutgers on Saturday before leaving the game with a knee injury. He did not return and was on the bench in the second half with a brace and in street clothes. The versatile two-way player has developed into a key contributor for this team.
“Really feel for him,” Pikiell said after the game. “He’ll see some doctors (Sunday) and we got to keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.”
On Mag’s importance to the team, Pikiell said, “He was our leading scorer (when he got hurt). He’s been a very important guy for us. He mixes up our defense, we could do a lot of things with him. He’s a high-energy guy, he’s a great teammate, they love him.”
Caleb McConnell was asked about Mag after the game and said, “That’s really tough, especially what he brings to this team. He brings a lot more. Everyone looks at the stat sheet and everyone looks at (offense). He brings way more. He absolutely stuffs the stat sheet. He comes through when you need him. Hard worker and he’s kind of our anchor on both ends.”
Mag was averaging 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists entering Saturday’s game against Michigan State. He was becoming a reliable finisher around the rim and had made 25 of his last 37 shots (67.6%) over the last seven games including Saturday. Mag also emerged as a tremendous defender who was a great 1b to McConnell’s 1a for Rutgers. Fingers crossed on his diagnosis this week. If he is out an extended period of time, other will need to step up similarly to how a key bench player did against MSU.
Derek Simpson comes through
The freshman played in a big spot in the second half on Saturday. With Mawot Mag out injured, head coach Steve Pikiell chose to go with a smaller lineup against Michigan State down the stretch. It worked and Simpson was a big reason why. He defended well, negating the quickness of the Spartans backcourt, made an 18 foot jumper to cut the MSU lead to 1 point with seven minutes to play while converting both free throws with just over a minute to play.
Depending on how long Mag is out, Simpson should get opportunities to expand his role. Of course, matchups have a lot to do with that. Either way, Simpson has improved defensively and is the prime candidate to get more minutes if Mag is out an extended period of time. While he’s experienced typical freshman growing pains this season, he also has tremendous upside. Patience is needed. Performances like Saturday breed confidence that he can help this team a bit more the rest of the way. The ability to play a smaller lineup with Simpson down the stretch could prove valuable come March.
Elite Defense Keeps Ceiling High
As I said in my rapid reaction video, Rutgers has a ceiling. This is true for all but five or so teams legitimately competing for a national championship. While Rutgers has flaws on the offensive end, their defense is as much of a strength that any team has.
“All year, if we’re connected on the defensive end we cause havoc, we cause problems,” Caleb McConnell said after the win. “A lot of teams have struggled against our half-court defense. Coming into this game, that’s something that we wanted to do – we wanted to smother them, we wanted to be in help defense, get rebounds and push the ball. I feel like if we’re all connected on the defensive end, we’re hard to beat.”
No one could say it better than the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He is the unquestioned leader of the defense. He was masterful on the defensive end once again on Saturday. While the potential loss of Mag would be a major loss on the defensively, Rutgers played really well without him against MSU. Either way, their versatility and length makes them unique. However, it’s their mindset and identity as a team that elevates their ability to be elite. It gives RU a chance every time they step onto the court. That’s a major reason for optimism as the season enters the stretch run.
The way Rutgers won against Michigan State is how they can win now and in March. Elite defense, attacking inside through Cliff Omoruyi in the post and Paul Mulcahy getting downhill and making free throws down the stretch. This isn’t breaking news, but it was proven true once again against Michigan State.
While Rutgers isn’t a great offensive team, playing this way gets them high percentage looks and the ball in the hands of their veterans. It also helps prevent long droughts that the other team can take advantage of. While getting Cam Spencer going again with his shot is really important, he can prosper from Mulcahy and Cliff attacking more inside. It creates space on the perimeter and Mulcahy has the vision and passing ability to find him.
It really comes down to Mulcahy’s assertiveness and decision making. He make the Rutgers offense unique and more complex when he’s looking to score. RU shares the basketball very well and are No, 13 nationally with a 61.0 assist rate. However, to win in March, the Scarlet Knights to have a clear focus offensively. As the offense continues to evolve and potentially change, the more Mulcahy is directing, the harder Rutgers will be to defend.
Pivotal seven game stretch enters final week
On January 19, Rutgers began a seven game stretch in which they would only play at the RAC twice in 26 days. The Scarlet Knights needed to win at least three games to keep their heads above the high water level Big Ten. They’re now 3-2 with road games this coming week at Indiana and at Illinois. If they lose both, it would disappointing but not devastating at all. They would still firmly be in the NCAA Tournament field and in contention for a top four Big Ten finish. The win against MSU was so important in part because if they struggle on the road, they’ll still come home with an 8-6 league record.
RU could be favored in five the final six games of the season following this stretch. There is a long way to go, but the win over Sparty was also about keeping this team on course for a top four finish.
There are eight teams in the Big Ten with winning records in league. They are ahead by one game on both the Hoosiers and Illini entering this week. This team knows they can beat Indiana and Illinois isn’t as fearsome as they’ve been in the past. A 1-1 split this coming week would keep Rutgers in a great position entering the last few weeks of the season. And if not, they’ll fight their way back up the standings like always seem to do. Either way, if this team sticks to their strengths and plays together, they’ll always be a tough out now and in the postseason.
Thanks for reading the The Scarlet Faithful. For more Rutgers Athletics content from The Scarlet Faithful, follow us on Twitter and Instagram. You can also subscribe to our YouTube Channel. You can subscribe to The Scarlet Faithful podcast on Apple, Spotify, Pocket Casts and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. For advertising inquiries or to reach out directly, email at firstname.lastname@example.org