Rutgers men’s basketball came into Thursday’s game at Michigan State game have won seven of eight games, including four of five in Big Ten play. However, the elite defense that the Scarlet Knights are known for was made vulnerable due to ball movement and open shooters hitting shots. MSU shot 55% from three-point range in making 12 of 22 three-point attempts. On the flip side, RU made just 2 of 17 from behind the arc for a putrid 12%. The result was a 70-57 road defeat.
Despite the large variance from deep, Rutgers found itself in a two possession game after a Derek Simpson layup made it 55-49 Spartans with under eight minutes to play.
It was at the point of the game when one of two things were going to happen. Either shots would start to fall and it would be a dogfight to the finish OR Rutgers would keep missing shots and the bottom would ultimately fall.
Unfortunately, the bottom did indeed fall out. The Spartans ended the game on 15-8 run and handed the Scarlet Knights their biggest margin of defeat this season.
“They made threes and we didn’t,” head coach Steve Pikiell said following the loss.
In making ten more shot from behind the arc, Michigan State finished with a 30 point differential from the three-point line. The Spartans came into the game shooting an efficient 36.7% from deep. Their ability to drive and make the extra pass coupled with being shot ready in receiving the ball ultimately negated the physicality and ball swarming ability of the Rutgers defense. Credit the Spartans for making shots, but it wasn’t just a matter of running into a hot shooting team.
While MSU made big shots, Rutgers allowed too many open looks and were unable to close out shooters at a high enough rate. MSU made them pay.
“Giving up that percentage from three and not being able to generate any of that for ourselves really hurt us,” explained Pikiell. “They did a great job, they really did. Shared the ball and the got open looks and they made them when they got them.”
This was the worst loss of the season for Rutgers from an efficiency standpoint as well. Both ends of the floor were a struggle.
Rutgers finished with its lowest effective field goal percentage of the season at 35.9%. Effective field goal percentage adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal.
“I just want them to take good shots,” Pikiell said after the loss. “I’m going to go back and grade them on their shots like we always do, but I think we have some good looks. I’ll watch again on film, but you have to trust your guys, if they’re open. Aundre’s been a good shooter for us. He’s probably, in practice, one of our elite shooters. We stat every single day, every shot he takes. It’s just one of those nights too, he just didn’t make enough.”
He added, “All the guys are capable, and I thought we took good shots. I’m very confident in all of our players. We just didn’t have one of those nights tonight.”
A lot of the shots Rutgers did miss did seem like mostly good looks within the flow of the offense. There wasn’t much forced iso plays but rather misses that were not bad shots. The rim had a lid on it and was a tough night more than anything. It wasn’t bad offense, just poor shooting. That’s a difference worth noting.
In addition, RU had the worst adjusted margin of the season between offensive and defensive efficiency. These two ratings are an estimate of points scored per 100 possessions by a team against an average defense, as well as how they would defend against an average offense based on that game’s performance.
Last night, Rutgers tied for its second lowest offensive efficiency rating of the season at 90.2. They also produced that number in a neutral court loss to Temple. Their worst offensive efficiency rating of the season was against Seton Hall at 72.4. On the flip side, RU produced its second worst defensive efficiency rating at 110.7. It was just under the 111.6 they allowed in the 11 point loss to Iowa. However, this was the worst adjusted efficiency margin in any game this season at 20.5. The next closest was against 116.1 against the Hawkeyes.
On more analytical nugget to chew on.
Rutgers is 11-1 their offensive efficiency rating is over 100 and just 2-5 when they aren’t. On the flip side, they are 11-2 when their defensive efficiency is below 100 and 2-4 when it’s above.
The biggest takeaway is that defense is still the most influential factor in performance for Rutgers. They have only suffered two losses when they had an above average defensive efficiency rating. They came against Seton Hall, by far their worst offensive performance of the season, and to Temple without Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell.
Against Miami, Iowa and Michigan State were the only losses were both the offense and defense efficiency ratings were subpar. And against Ohio State, it was the defensive efficiency rating that was worse than usual.
The bottom line is the identity and strength of this team is on the defensive end. Rutgers will rely on playing well on the defensive end to have success. They’ve only lost twice when they a defensive efficiency rating under 100. While a lack of offense is an issue, shortens the margin for error, and puts more pressure on their defensive performance, last night’s loss to Michigan State was so far an outlier. It was their worst three-point shooting game on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
The encouraging part of this defeat is that despite playing poorly on both ends of the floor, Rutgers didn’t get blown out. They got sloppy in the final three minutes as reality set in, but it was a 10 point game with three minutes to play. The Scarlet Knights played hard despite the poor performance. Team rebounding was as good as its been and that is all about effort. They finished with a +8 rebounding margin and were +12 on the offensive glass. Unfortunately, they were unable to take advantage.
There is a lot of basketball yet. Rutgers is a good team that also has flaws. They will rarely shoot well enough and be efficient enough on the offensive end to overcome a bad defensive performance. That being said, they remain No. 3 nationally in defensive efficiency. Their strength is as powerful as any team’s in the country. Poor shooting nights happen. Thursday night was particularly bad. However, learning from this game and bouncing back on the defensive end is the key.
Penn State is shooting 39.6% from three-point range this season, good for sixth best in the nation. They’re shooting even better in league play for a Big Ten best mark of 42.1%. The Nittany Lions visit Rutgers on Tuesday night. Getting a rare weekend off couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We’ve got to continue to earn it in a league like this every week, every time you play,” explained Pikiell. “In this league you don’t stand in the center of the ring and win fights all the time. You get knocked down and you have to get back up. If you don’t do that in this league, it’s a humbling league.”
After the loss to Michigan State. Rutgers has the 21st best adjusted efficiency margin on the season in KenPom. Their NET is No. 21 and their record against Quad 1 opponents is now 4-3 with Indiana moving back up after a blowout win at Illinois. It’s life in the Big Ten, where they’re now in a second place tie with….Michigan State. The two teams will meet again at Madison Square Garden on February 4. If Rutgers relies on it resiliency, toughness and defense, Thursday night will just be a footnote when looking back on this season.
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