After a second thrilling road victory in consecutive games with Wednesday night’s 65-62 triumph over Northwestern, some perspective is needed. The state of this team and program continues to improve.
Rutgers men’s basketball lost its first 23 road games after joining the Big Ten for the 2014-2015 season. In the first six seasons in the league, the Scarlet Knights were just 6-56 in regular season road contests. Even the 2019-2020 team that won 20 games and would have advanced to the NCAA Tournament had it not been for COVID-19 was just 2-8 away from the RAC in conference play.
As program’s improve, narratives change when results improve. Rutgers went 4-6 on the road in each of the two previous seasons, but the perception that the Scarlet Knights couldn’t win away from the RAC remained. Part of it was the 2020-2021 season was played without fans due to COVID-19. However, last season Rutgers won at Wisconsin, one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten. They then beat Indiana in Bloomington on Senior Night with both teams fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid.
After losing to Temple on a neutral court and losing to No. 16 Miami following an 11 point lead in the second half, the narrative of not being able to win on the road ramped up again. When Rutgers lost on a shot that the Big Ten admitted should not have counted at Ohio State in December, it felt like the college basketball gods put a road curse on this program.
The calendar turned to 2023 and things have dramatically changed.
Rutgers won at No. 1 Purdue in Mackey Arena, generally considered the toughest Big Ten venue to play at. During the game, the second loudest decibel reading in the history of Mackey was taken.
Wednesday night was their next road game and the Scarlet Knights won in similar fashion. Cam Spencer hit the game winning three-pointer in both road victories over the last week and a half.
“We had some injuries in the beginning of the season when we went on the road, this group has been really good and [Cam Spencer] has been great since day one, there’s never a doubt with him,” head coach Steve Pikiell said after the game. “The minute he stepped foot on campus he was ready to go, so he’s been great. He leads the league in steals, three to one assist to turnover ratio, and a really good defender, tough as nails, does a lot of great things for us. But first, Northwestern is good and the environment here is unbelievable. I knew this team would be like this, they’re so great defensively and they have a very good coach. He’s got them playing at a high level so it was tough, but a good win”.
Dating back to last season, Rutgers has now won six of their last eleven road games in Big Ten play. It’s a striking difference after going 10-58 before this recent streak. They’ve now won back to back road games in league play for just the second time ever. However, its the first time they’ve done it with fans as the other occurrence came during the 2020-2021 season with empty arenas.
This is clear evidence of this program taking the next step in its development. Rutgers learned how to make the RAC a true homecourt advantage. Now they are learning how to win on the road. It’s no easy task, especially in such a tough league. If they can remain consistent moving forward, RU will become a legitimate top tier Big Ten team. They’ve now won two road games in a row by a combined four points.
“It’s Big Ten Basketball so one possession games happen all the time,” said Pikiell. “My guys were tough, they stayed the course, and remained poised.”
Rutgers teetered on the brink with frustration in the second half as foul calls mounted. After not committing a foul in the first 14 minutes of the game and just three total in the first half, the whistle was blown at a much higher rate in the second half. Northwestern went into the bonus with over 12 minutes remaining in the game. The Wildcats came into the game having taken 17 more free throws than any other team in the Big Ten. Despite shooting 75% from the line entering Wednesday night, they made just 10 of 18 in this game.
“It is hard to tell your team how it is being officiated when it is like that,” confessed Pikiell. “But we have to stop fouling. The officials are trying to do a good job.”
A key part of Rutgers closing out the game on a 7-0 run was getting two defensive stops in the final minute of the game. In a late timeout with the game on the edge of slipping away, Pikiell explained what he told his team in the huddle.
“I wanted to remind them to remain poised and not to let them get to the free throw line,” Pikiell said. “You can’t defend the free throw line and they have gotten a lot of their wins with that so that was my main message. Defend without fouling, show great poise, and we all knew they would make a run. So we just had to withstand that.”
Winning on the road requires incredible toughness and fortitude. Rutgers led Northwestern the entire game and with 6:53 to play they were up 52-43. Seemingly in control, the Wildcats rattled off a 19-6 run to flip the script. RU did answer twice as Aundre Hyatt hit a three to regain the lead and Cam Spencer tied it back up with 2:27 to play. However, a Julian Roper three put Northwestern ahead 62-58 with 1:14 remaining in the game.
Every Rutgers fan felt that familiar pit in their stomach. After leading almost the entire game, the Scarlet Knights were going to lose a heartbreaker on the road yet again. Last season, RU lost at Northwestern by 1 point in overtime. This time, the outcome was different.
“It’s a game of runs, and the free throws were huge, so we had to be prepared,” explained Pikiell. “I knew they would go on a run, they’re as good of a team as there is in the conference and they are very experienced. Boo Buie is talented and they have a lot of really good pieces. Well just stay in the course in games like this, and we had to be able to answer runs like what they had. We’re fortunate to take the win.”
Both road wins came down to Cam Spencer taking the shot with the game on the line. A major question about this team was who would step up when it was needed most. Spencer has answered that question two road games in a row. Against Northwestern, he made six of seven three-pointers. The game winning shot was set up once again by a pass from Paul Mulcahy as Spencer found open space behind the arc.
“All credit to Paul,” said Spencer after the game. “They helped a bit too much on Cliff, he was able to find me, and I just shot it with confidence.”
Here is some great analysis of the play in which Spencer made the game winning shot. The play design by Pikiell and his staff created at mismatch that made Northwestern chose which option to defend. They helped on Omoruyi driving to the basket which allowed Spencer to get a clean look from behind the arc.
Hey everybody, here’s a quick video explaining how Rutgers created that look from three to beat Northwestern. Enjoy! pic.twitter.com/ornsH5A8jA
— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) January 12, 2023
Pikiell discussed the final play and lead up to getting that opportunity.
“The plays that lead up to that are more important than that, like the rebound Cliff got, and Andre’s big three, but we spaced the floor out and put the ball in Paul’s hands, and he makes really good decisions,” stated Pikiell. “It could have gone anywhere and I’m really confident in all of my players. Whoever is open is ready to go”.
As for Spencer’s mentality at the end of games, his preparation has been the key.
“I’ve been trusting the work I put in and staying poised in the big moments,” he explained.
With the two biggest shots of the season, Spencer and Rutgers have answered two major questions about this team. We now know this team can win on the road in Big Ten play and that Spencer is the big time shot maker they needed to close out the game.
Winning on the road requires toughness and this Rutgers team has plenty of it. But it also requires execution in big spots. The Scarlet Knights were 11 of 18 from three-point range, tying a program best in Big Ten play. They made 8 of 10 free throws and are shooting 80% from the line over the last eight games. RU held a 13-7 advantage in second chance points and assisted on 16 of 23 made field goals. When Rutgers needed defensive stops in the final minute of the game, they came through. With the game on the line, this team came through once again.
“I love the assists because this is a hard team to get assists on. They scramble and they get steals,” explained Pikiell. “I thought we did a really good job with 11 turnovers against a team that forces about 17 a game. I was really pleased with that and we outrebounded them too which you have to do when you are on the road in this league. Everyone chipped in. For about a four minute stretch they were scoring on all second chance shots too. We got into a timeout and got ourselves refocused and then down the stretch grabbed the boards we needed to.”
At 4-2 in Big Ten play, Rutgers is just half a game out of first place in the league standings. With a KenPom rating of No. 16 and NET ranking of No. 18, this team is well positioned for the postseason. The key of course is continuing to win. With Ohio State visiting on Sunday, there is an opportunity for another Quad 1 in addition to payback following the controversial loss in December. Protecting homecourt is important to remaining in a strong position both in the Big Ten and with NCAA Tournament projections. If Rutgers can keep winning at home like years past while now being able to win on the road, the ceiling for this team and this program will only continue to rise.
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