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Rutgers defense root cause of collapse



Mar 2, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Dawson Garcia (3) shoots while Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi (11) defends during the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night’s loss will go down as one of the worst in Rutgers men’s basketball history. How bad will ultimately be determined by whether the Scarlet Knights make the NCAA Tournament or not. If they still go dancing for a program record third straight year, this game will be remembered as a disaster but not a fatal one. If RU does get left out, being 1:15 away from locking in a bid with a 10 point lead will be the signature moment of a once promising season ending in ultimate disappointment.

Following Sunday’s epic 19 point comeback at Penn State, Caleb McConnell said the key for Rutgers was to, “Stay together, stay together, stay together and when we do us, we get us results.”

At the end of the day, even with the many mistakes made in the final 1:15, the game was lost because Rutgers didn’t play Rutgers defense in the game. Their identity was missing when they needed it most.

“Yeah, they obviously hit 11 threes,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “I mean, we scored plenty of points today. It’s been kind of what we’ve done sometimes in games when we score points, we just don’t defend the way we’re supposed to. I’m very disappointed in our defense and they got open.  Jameson Battle had one of those nights for them too.”

It was the third worst defensive performance of the season from an efficiency standpoint. The only two worse were losses to Iowa and Nebraska. For a team still ranked No. 3 nationally and No. 1 in Big Ten play, having that poor of a defensive performance is inexplicable. Minnesota entered the game last in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency and in the high 200’s nationally. Thursday’s performance was their highest offensive efficiency rating of the season against a high major opponent.

“Just our defense. Again, this team averages 60 points,” stated Pikiell. “We do a great job and pride ourselves. We scored 74 points, which is plenty of points. If we made a couple more free throws we could have got to 80. We just couldn’t get those timely stops down the stretch and there’s no lead in this league especially the way they were shooting threes tonight. That’s their best three-point shooting night. We’re one of the better three point shooting defensive teams in the country. We just didn’t finish the job tonight. I would say that even if the clock had run out before he took the three, we just didn’t defend the way we need to defend on kind of a consistent basis.”

That being said, there were many mistakes down the stretch by Rutgers that led to the unthinkable collapse. If any one of them was prevented from happening, the Scarlet Knights likely would have won.

“I thought Aundre (Hyatt) had the ball and I don’t know why he turned around and threw the ball backwards,” Pikiell said bluntly. “We just didn’t handle that well. Then when we got to the free throw line, you kind of got to make those free throws, down the stretch, but we didn’t do that. Then we had a bad block out there where they got two extra points. They did what they needed to down the stretch. We kind of didn’t make the free throws or the stops. We could have done either or, and we didn’t do either.”

It was a stunning turn of events for a veteran team with players who have been through so many pressure moments over the years. However, that experience failed them when things started to unravel. It was surprising and hard to watch. Having so many experienced players who have come through before was probably why Pikiell opted to not use his final timeout. It was also why he stuck with the struggling Paul Mulcahy down the stretch despite multiple miscues.

“Those are good players and I trust them. I trust them at the end the games to make good decisions,” Pikiell explained. “They’ve made a lot of good decisions this year. We’ve won a lot of close games. Just today it didn’t go our way and, you got to deserve to win and you got to finish the game. We didn’t finish the game.”

By not finishing the game, Rutgers suffers its worst loss of the season at the worst time. After solidifying their NCAA Tournament projections with the win at Penn State, the loss to Minnesota puts them in worse shape then they were before Sunday’s comeback.

One step forward, two steps backward. It’s never easy being a Rutgers fan.

The fact that this team played so poorly on the defensive end is the most alarming part for me. They proved against a good offensive team like Penn State (3rd in Big Ten in offensive efficiency), that they can still defend at a high level. However, whenever Rutgers had a chance to put Minnesota away with one more defensive stop, they couldn’t deliver.

“Yeah, you got a group in there that’s worked really hard,” said Pikiell. “They had chances here, but this is how it is in this league. You better get ready for the next game and you still have a few more games left here down the stretch. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Rutgers hosts Northwestern on Sunday night on Senior night. It’s a must win in my estimation to boost their now questionable resume and newfound bubble status. The important part is that RU does control their own destiny. They just need to win. If that does happen, it will be because they get back to playing Rutgers defense.

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  1. pj43

    March 3, 2023 at 4:02 pm

    This season has been a roller coaster ride of emotions like no other. I’m thinking that I want to get off but I’m stuck now until the end of the ride. When it ends, I fear that I’m going to be sick. No doubt, Aaron has a better perspective than me on this team, the coaching staff  and this season to date.  To be blunt, I have no sympathy for a veteran team that doesn’t know how and who to guard in order to successfully close out a game when leading by 10pts with a minute & 15 seconds remaining on the game clock.  I’m not going to comment on the coaching in the final minute of this game.  Instead, I yield to Aaron’s diplomacy.

    If this inexcusable loss costs Rutgers an NCAA Tournament bid it’ll be a bitter disappointment for the team but, at this point, I think I’m too emotionally spent to care or share such a disappointment anymore.  I’m really hoping I’m wrong, but after this devastating loss I doubt that this team will be able to come back to win on Sunday or in the Big Ten Tournament. In my opinion, if that should occur, Rutgers will most probably not get an NCAA bid. 
    I’ll conclude by saying that while I admire Aaron’s resilience and ability to hang on with this team.  I’m at a point where I think numbness is about to set in as I watch the remaining games prior to and through the NCAA Tournament bids being announced.

  2. thevinman

    March 3, 2023 at 5:33 pm

    This is now life as a Rutgers fan, life on a roller coaster. Keep in mind that no matter how bad any of us fans feel, the players and coaching staff feel orders of magnitude worse. Both Paul and Andre have lost confidence and court awareness and that is killing us. I was yelling like a nut when Hyatt got the ball in space about 2/3rds of the way to front court and passed it BACKWARDS into traffic after we had already spent a lot of time trying to get it past half-court. We were headed for a violation even if Paul didn’t make a horrid cross-court pass. One thing I have noticed is that while we were very good at applying inbound and back-court pressure, we suck at trying to break those when other teams do it to us.

  3. thevinman

    March 3, 2023 at 5:33 pm

    We need to somehow put this gut-wrenching loss behind us and beat Northwestern in our last game. Go RU!!!

  4. BataliBoli98

    March 3, 2023 at 11:30 pm

    A few random takeaways/vents:
    1) How Simpson only played 13 minutes is beyond me and I am sure that the majority of his floor time was in the first half. Did he even see the court in the final 10 minutes?
    2) STOP INBOUNDING THE BALL TO CALEB WITH UNDER 1 MINUTE TO GO (OSU, PSU, MN). He’s maybe my favorite all time player at RU but he is NOT a clutch free throw shooter. Call the timeout in your pocket and design something to get the ball to Cam.
    3) Aaron said it in the reaction and I’m sure we all thought it — how many times did RU lead by 8 or 9 only to have MN drill a deep three to keep them in the game.
    4) Mulcahy’s last five games: 9-32 from the floor for 23 points. 170 minutes played
    Simpson’s last five games: 15-33 from the floor for for 37 points. 91 minutes played (barely over 1/2 of what Mulcahy has played)
    5) How is it that Pikiell is a master at designing plays out of timeouts but RU can almost never run a set that gets Cam an open look at a 3? Every team’s best shooters have multiple open looks every game yet Cam rarely gets one.
    6) This one will seem petty to some but it got under my skin at the time. Reiber and Miller are basically wasted scholarships and yet there they are showboating on the bench singing along as Toto’s Africa played in the arena. Maybe I’m too “old school”, but that was too much for me.

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