No 24 Rutgers lost to No. 18 Indiana 66-60 on Tuesday night in their first game without starter Mawot Mag. The junior forward was declared out for the season earlier in the day to a torn ACL in his right knee. Head coach Steve Pikiell started sixth man Aundre Hyatt and then rotated in five reserve players in the first half as he tinkered with finding the right combination. In the second half, Pikiell tightened the rotation and used three subs.
What should first be said is that Rutgers can’t completely replace Mawot Mag. The combination in his production on both ends of the court along with the toughness, physicality and edge that he plays is unique. That makes him irreplaceable. However, there are several players who will gain more opportunity to contribute more now. The Scarlet Knights will be different without Mag, but they are still a good team. The starting five is still one of the best in the conference. How this team evolves as a whole in replacing Mag will ultimately decide their final destination.
How Rutgers will use its bench moving forward remains to be seen. There are versatile options that can give this team different contributions based on the situation or matchup. Pikiell did a good job trying different combinations out in the loss to Indiana that gives hope moving forward.
“Obviously we only had a couple of days to figure things out without Mawot,” Pikiell said after the game. “He’s been a huge part of what we’ve been trying to do. I feel awful for him. The guys love him too. He certainly would have helped us on the backboards today with our defense, but we have to make adjustments and haven’t had a lot of time to work on some of the things without him. We have to spend a little time here in the next couple of weeks getting life adjusted (without him). I did think Oskar (Palmquist) came in and gave us some great minutes and Derek Simpson did too. That bench is going to be important to us moving forward now that we moved Aundre (Hyatt) into the starting lineup.”
The most natural thing was to simply slide Hyatt from his sixth man role into the starting lineup to replace Mag. They were actually playing almost the exact same minutes. Hyatt could increase his production with more minutes. He can be explosive offensive option who can defend and rebound. However, he’s two inches smaller than Mag and not as good of a defender and rebounder. That’s not a slight, just that they do offer different skill sets.
In starting against Indiana, Hyatt finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 26 minutes. He is now tied for third in scoring average on the team at 9.4 points with Caleb McConnell and fourth in rebounds with 4.2 per game. So he essentially delivered his average production with slightly more minutes. After a strong first half, he didn’t register any stats in 9 second half minutes and missed all three shots. Hyatt has produced big in the second half in recent games against Penn State and Iowa.
Hyatt can stretch the defense with his perimeter defense and is more of a driving threat at the rim as opposed to put backs and being fed on the block like Mag. He’s also one of just three primary shooters from behind the arc. Hyatt has been up and done at times this season but hopefully more time will help his consistency. Putting together more complete games now as a starter will be key. No matter what his importance is even greater now without Mag.
Derek Simpson has now played down the stretch against Michigan State and Indiana with Mag out. He performed well in both situations.
Simpson subbed in with 11:56 to play against the Spartans with RU trailing 36-33. He hit a 18 foot jumper with under eight minutes to play and made two free throws late. Simpson never left the floor as Rutgers outscored MSU 28-19 for the 61-55 victory.
On Tuesday, he checked back in with just over nine minutes to play with Rutgers trailing 54-45. A minute later, Simpson scored for the first time in the game with a three-pointer. With RU down 7 and under six minutes to play, he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a pull up jumper. Simpson then cut the Indiana lead to 59-56 with 3:29 to play on a baseline drive layup. His offensive outburst was key in getting the score back to a one possession game. He added 3 rebounds and an assist, finishing with a team high +/- of 6.
“He can go by people with his speed and quickness and he can defend too,” Pikiell explained in regard to increased minutes. “I felt like today he had to go in a little bit and he can bother the basketball. He brings us another defender too now that Mawot’s out. He’s got to keep getting better because he’s an important part of this thing moving forward.”
The other aspect of Simpson is his improvement on the defensive end. He struggled in November adjusting in his first month of college basketball. As the stretch run of the season approaching, he’s become a reliable defender for Rutgers. He has the highest upside of any player coming off the bench because of his ability to produce on both ends of the court. Simpson also allows Pikiell to play a smaller lineup, which could create matchup problems depending on the opponent.
After a career high 13 points against Minnesota, Palmquist got another chance against Michigan State last weekend. He didn’t produce much but responded well on Tuesday night. Palmquist was the catalyst for Rutgers coming back from a 30-16 deficit. After hitting a three previously, RU was trailing Indiana 30-16 with under eight minutes left in the first half. Palmquist coolly knocked down threes on back to back possessions to cut the lead to 8 points. It started what became a 19-8 run to end the half to trail by just 3 points at the break.
While he didn’t make an impact in the second half, missing his only three, his overall contribution was significant. The biggest concern with Palmquist is his defense.
His length and outside shot gives Pikiell a different look and new option to bring in for a spark. It’s likely going to be hit or miss at times as Palmquist will need to shoot a high percentage to stay on the floor with limited minutes available. In the last three games, he is now 6 of 9 from deep, but a larger sample size is needed before he can be counted on. Just the fact that’s even a possibility after being a non-factor for so long is extremely encouraging. Palmquist making a contribution in this moment highlights how strong this program is from a culture and player development standpoint.
The rangy Dean Reiber has seen less minutes this season but could gain more moving forward. Other than Hyatt, he is the most experienced frontcourt option and can stretch the floor with his perimeter game. Reiber didn’t make an impact in 2 minutes against Michigan State. However, denying Trayce Jackson-Davis in the post at the end of the first half Tuesday was impressive. He came in cold and brought energy to the defense. In the second half, Reiber grabbed an offensive rebound and scored at the rim. He only played 5 minutes, but they were of the quality minutes.
Reiber is sort of a hybrid version that brings some of the same qualities Palmquist offers, while able to defend the post like freshman big man Antwone Woolfolk. The Wolf is bigger than Mag by two inches and about 30 pounds, but he is the best option if Pikiell wanted to focus purely on defense and rebounding. He isn’t as versatile a defender as Mag, but Wolf has shown really good footwork and a feel for defending in the low post. That being said, he’s a work in progress in his first season as all rookies are. He can’t be counted on and is still developing. The hope should be getting productive minutes out of him when you can, but not expecting him to be consistent.
Jalen Miller got a combined four minutes over the last two games. He hasn’t made an impact and appears to be on the end of the bench with freshman Antonio Chol, who hasn’t played since November. It’s possible he will get more chances, but as the stretch run progresses, the rotation could get tighter.
Rutgers isn’t the same team without Mawot Mag. However, they are still a good team that has a chance to finish in the top four of the Big Ten and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Mag was rapidly improving and gave Rutgers a certain dynamic that is absent now. This team will need to adapt and evolve. Having an experienced player in Hyatt to step into the starting role is a luxury not many teams have. However, his new role means the bench needs to step up as well.
The good news is Pikiell has several different options that give RU different looks that could make them harder for opponents to prepare for. Off the bench, he can use a smaller lineup with Simpson. The rookie guard is still developing and the more crunch time minutes he gets, the more opportunity he will have to make an impact. Palmquist could develop into a sniper off the bench while Reiber could provide stability. They’re the three most likely to gain more minutes moving forward. They combined to score 18 points against Indiana. That’s a lot to expect every game, but the did their job in putting Rutgers in a position to win.
There is a long way to go and their consistency as a group is crucial to the team’s success. However, if their contributions since Mag went down can continue in a similar way, Rutgers will have an opportunity to make a March run they’ve hoped for from the beginning of this season.
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