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Rutgers basketball must increase speed limit



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There are many takeaways and points of discussion regarding this past season along with big picture items for Rutgers men’s basketball that I plan to discuss and cover in the coming days. However, I wanted to look at an immediate takeaway from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

While I debated not watching out of solidarity for RU not making the dance, my love for college basketball was to much to ignore it. I’m glad I did watch because it help put some things in perspective. The lack of success of the Big Ten and the need for strong guard play is definitely tied together but another topic entirely. From a Rutgers perspective, something became painfully obvious. For the program to continue to grow and be more successful, the speed limit must be raised.

The identity of Rutgers basketball under Steve Pikiell is defense. I don’t see that changing and I’m not saying it should. What does need to change is the team’s ability to win games when they allow more than 65 points in a game. Holding opponents under this mark affectionately became known as keeping them under the speed limit. And it does work a fair amount of the time.

Rutgers played 25 games against high major opponents this past season. When they held opponents under 65 points, the Scarlet Knights were 12-2. When opponents scored 65 or more points, RU was 0-11.


It’s not a coincidence that the the two losses Rutgers suffered when holding opponents under 65 points were the team’s two least efficient performances on the offensive end against high major opponents. They lost to Seton Hall 45-43 and to Michigan 59-46. If they had just a normally bad offensive night, they definitely would have beaten their rival. And the game against the Wolverines would have been closer and probably a toss up.

If Rutgers is going to make progress next season and beyond, they must get better offensively. This isn’t breaking news, but the takeaway is more than that.

The Scarlet Knights are no. 6 nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom. The five teams ahead of them are all preparing to play in the Sweet 16.

While UCLA, Alabama and Houston, ranked No. 2, 3, and 4 are also in the top 21 in offensive efficiency, it’s No. 1 Tennessee that inspires hope. Their offensive is only No. 60 nationally in efficiency. The No. 5 team San Diego State is just No. 69.

The difference is Rutgers is N0. 152. The No. 7 team Iowa State, which lost in the first round to Pitt, is No. 111 in offensive efficiency. The No. 8 team is Mississippi State and also lost to Pitt in the First Four. Their offensive efficiency is even worse than RU at No. 171.

The point is that elite defense only gets you so far if your team is unable to come through on the offensive end at times. In games Rutgers gave up a lot of points, they were more efficient offensively but they didn’t have enough firepower to keep up. When they found themselves in shootouts against Iowa and Nebraska, they ran out of bullets. In a season defining loss to Minnesota that likely cost them an NCAA Tournament berth, losing a 10 point lead with 1:15 to play wasn’t just a collapse defensively. It was a lack of poise and inability to come through offensively that allowed the Gophers to pull of the miracle comeback.

Conversely, it was defense that allowed Rutgers to mount a 19 point comeback against Penn State. But it was the offense that ultimately won the game for Rutgers by coming through in the clutch.

Revisiting Tennessee, the top defensive team in efficiency, they offer a compromise. They’re still vulnerable if they allow teams to score in the 70’s as they are just 3-9 when allowing opponents to score 65+ points. However, they scored 65+ points 20 times. So even games they held opponents under that mark, they won a good amount by a comfortable margin. And one of their wins when allowing 65+ points came in a 82-71 win over No. 2 seed Texas in January. Their win over No. 1 seed Alabama, they scored 68 points.

That’s a significant point as well. Of the 12 games Rutgers did win in holding foes under 65 points, the margin of victory in six of those wins was just one or two possessions. RU encountered many high stress games throughout the season. I think part of the reason for the late season struggles were the miles this team acquired in being in so many meat grinder type games. The lack of depth on the roster, which I’ll address soon, was compounded by the fact that the Scarlet Knights had so many close battles.

Rutgers scored 65 or more points just 12 times against 25 high major opponents. Five of those twelve occurrences were exactly 65 points. The Scarlet Knights won just three times against high majors scoring more than 65 points. Two were blowouts against Wake Forest and Minnesota when they scored 81 and 90 points. The third was a 68-64 win in overtime over Ohio State.

How Rutgers improves offensively is a much bigger discussion that I will delve into soon. Having guards who can create offense off the dribble along with more shooters are obvious needs. Scheme and strategy are part of it as well.

This past season, the limitations were painfully clear. When the Rutgers defense wasn’t playing at an elite level, there wasn’t much of a chance that they could win against high major competition. And they didn’t, not even once.

Overall, the Scarlet Knights were one of the elite defensive teams in college basketball. However, due to their offensive deficiencies, they’re ultimate destination fell short of the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers can keep their defensive identity, but it can’t solely rely on it wants to win in March.

I think Steve Pikiell and the staff have shown they are learning this and adapting. The signs are in how and who they are recruiting. Bringing in Cam Spencer this season and Gavin Griffiths for next are above all else, true shot makers. That’s encouraging, but the results of this season showed though that figuring things out on the offensive end is an urgent need and more weapons are needed.

The point is for Rutgers basketball to reach another gear as a program, the team has to be able to compete when the speed limit increases. Elite defense can take you far, but you have to be able to win games when you aren’t as effective in what you do best. That’s a trait of all very good teams. Balance is everything and right now the Scarlet Knights are weighed down. If RU doesn’t improve and evolve offensively, the program could be stuck in neutral next season and beyond.

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  1. moru

    March 20, 2023 at 3:26 pm

    Well, they lost Mag and weren’t the same team. Lack of bench strength hurt them. Against Minnie and Hofstra they lead late and choked. Under the circumstances I think thay got as much out of this team as they could. Finally with Mag I felt this team was a sweet sixteen candidate. Which says alot about Mags developement. jWho thought he would be this good? regards

  2. InPikeWeTrust

    March 20, 2023 at 3:44 pm

    The Mag injury was a true killer in so many ways. It pushed everyone into a different role which obviously stressed our bench. It happened in the middle of the season which forced us all to watch the growing pains during game action. If Mag’s injury is in the pre-season, it would’ve allowed the entire team to adjust and not made that stretch so brutal. Our ceiling would’ve been not as high as it was with him but the lows wouldn’t have been as pronounced. The biggest thing it did, however, is it made us a half court defensive team. Willard said it best before his game against us…the aggressive full court press made us a very difficult team to prepare for. The steals and chaos Mag helped create at the top of the press was enormous in how we played the first 20 some odd games. It fueled our energy, our D but also our offense. Fast break points are so big for an offensively-challenged team.

    Simpson, Cam and Gavin should be fun to watch. The offense should be much improved. Hopefully, Cliff returns but with more polish to his post-up game, as well. The “old site” I saw people calling for Oskar to transfer but I saw a dude that can stroke it and who was figuring out defensively. I think he can be a sniper off the bench who still defends admirably. He definitely showed a willingness to stick his nose in which is half the battle.

    • thevinman

      March 20, 2023 at 3:47 pm

      I agree. I think it is nuts to want Palmquist to transfer for the reasons you state.

      • BataliBoli98

        March 20, 2023 at 11:31 pm

        Completely agree. RU needs more shooters not less. The only way that I would say it makes sense is if everyone else comes back and RU can basically trade Oskar’s roster spot with a more proven shooter. I’m sure that Jalen Miller is a nice young man, but he brings almost nothing to the table. That would be where I would look first.

  3. thevinman

    March 20, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    Excellent column Aaron. It just takes one or two opposing players to beat the bets defense, especially if they can shoot the 3 or combine 3 point shooting with a guard who can drive and then dish out. I am pretty confident that coach Pikiell knows our offensive deficiencies and is working hard to correct them, and some of the moves you described in this article makes that clear.

  4. RUONE

    March 20, 2023 at 5:57 pm

    On defense this team plays 5 on 5. On offense it just seemed it was 1.5 vs 5. Definitely need more balance between offense and defensive efforts. Paul should have taken more shots rather than looking to pass on every drive to the hole. Cliff needs to develop post moves that are not just dunks (baby hooks, bank shots in the post and a good mid-range shot). Simpson needs to develop a deadly shot inside the arc, love the kids driving ability to the hole. Cam needs to figure out how to create space and quickly release. He is great at catch and shoot but if a defenders on him, he gets stuck dribbling. Certainly some of this is scheme but in general there is a lot to work on offensively.

  5. pj43

    March 20, 2023 at 7:44 pm

    I won’t rehash what I’ve already said about the offense previously, i.e. for me it’s about placing more coaching emphasis on the offensive end of the court and I spelled out the options. It’s probably too late for Cliff to develop low post moves, in my opinion, but I do think Woolfolk can do it if it’s emphasized and developed. I don’t know anything about Choi. Spacing, ball movement, solid screens, movement without the ball, proper passing angles on low post entry passes, timely back cuts – all of that needs emphasis. Technique drills with attention to details as part of a emphasized half court offensive philosophy is needed, in my opinion. But, it has to be implemented by a coaching staff dedicated to that aspect of the game.
    By the way, thevinman & I raised the question about the Big Ten (or should I say Tiny Ten) being overrated yet again. Well, out of 8 teams invited to the Big Dance, only MSU got to the Sweet Sixteen! Granted, some teams lost to tough opposition, but Purdue loses to FDU? In the NIT, Rutgers loses to Hofstra at home! One out of 3 Big Ten teams in the NIT advanced beyond the 2nd game. Thankfully, at least Princeton gives Jersey a team to follow. My only solace is that a coach that I really admire, Izzo, is still standing to uphold the honor of the Big Ten.

    • RUONE

      March 20, 2023 at 8:51 pm

      I think given the size of these conferences, in-season comparisons is difficult due to lack of non-conference games. And the non-conference games folks do have are against cupcakes except for one or two. Thus the tournament is the only place you see this gauge of over/under rated conferences. But it is also unfair to come to that conclusion based on a one and done format. No doubt that the Big Ten is difficult as is the SEC and ACC given the teams in these conferences. Easily the top-10 teams in each conference are formidable opponents, the top two finishers in any conference are truly title contenders. Now if someone gets hot and lucky, well that’s just a magical tournament run.

      • thevinman

        March 24, 2023 at 3:49 pm

        MSU always plays a tough out of conference schedule to get ready for the NCAAs.

    • Henry Rutgers

      March 20, 2023 at 11:29 pm

      Never, ever, under any circumstances will I cheer for Princeton. Well, maybe if they give our cannon back I won’t actively cheer against them.

      Aaron, a thoughtful, well written article.

      I don’t blame the season on the injury Mag sustained. If you only play the starting five until you are forced to change due to injury you’ve failed as a coach. Emptying the bench with two minutes to play against some team you are beating by 30 points is not how great coaches develop the bench. Having made the same rant I’ll move on and say I think this coaching staff has the ability to learn and get better. As Aaron points out shooting guards are going to be critical to our growth. I am very hopeful for the season ahead. As I said elsewhere, I hope Mulcahy hangs up his headband but returns for another season just not as the point guard. With he, Hyatt, Mag and incoming talent we’d have depth like we haven’t had.

  6. BataliBoli98

    March 20, 2023 at 11:29 pm

    I do think the criticism of the B1G is fair because this is not a one year event. It is recent history. You even have to go back 23 years for the last champion out of the conference. 23 years! What I’ve noticed in the tournament so far goes back to the title of this article: Speed. The B1G, in general, just looks like it has slower guard play than so many of these teams. I was watching KSU the other night and they are flying all over the place. Meanwhile, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, RU, etc., are just slower with fewer athletes. Watch Tennessee play and think of which team in the B1G that they remind you of. The answer is none because they have superior athletes. This doesn’t mean that on a given night that they are better than the teams at the top of the B1G, but winning in March is far more about guard play than the bigs. Just my two-cents.

  7. Richard Kelner

    March 22, 2023 at 2:03 am

    Think the recruit for 2023 will help as I’ve read all three can create their own shots. Davis, the from Tennessee by way of Georgia, is fast and crafty. He landed in Georgia because of his life long friendship with Ace Bailey and now Ace is following him to RU. Hopefully, RU will do well in the Portal as we are allegedly bringing in a minimum of two transfers
    who will be recruited with the same parameters in mind.

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