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Rutgers faces familiar foe in Northwestern



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

Rutgers men’s basketball will face arguably the hottest team in the Big Ten on Wednesday night at Northwestern. The game airs live on the Big Ten Network at 9 p.m. ET. The Wildcats defeated Illinois at home last week 73-60 and then won at Indiana 84-83 on Sunday. Chris Collins has his team off to an impressive 12-3 start and 3-1 in Big Ten play that includes a win at Michigan State.

The Scarlet Knights are looking to bounce back after a disappointing 76-65 loss at home to Iowa on Sunday. It was a poor performance on both ends of the floor. RU made only 12 of 29 shots at the rim (41%) while allowing the Hawkeyes to make 12 of 27 shot from behind the arc (44%). The fast pace and ball movement of Iowa along with them defending RU with a zone kept Steve Pikiell’s team off balance most of the game.

It comes down to matchups and Iowa is a bad one for Rutgers. As Pikiell said after the loss, they have to have “short memories” with another big game tonight at Northwestern. In fact, this matchup is fascinating to prepare for because both teams have a similar statistical profile. They’re also led by experienced veterans.

Rutgers is No. 3 nationally in defensive efficiency while Northwestern is No. 10. On the flip side, Rutgers is No. 131 nationally in offensive efficiency and Northwestern is No. 159.

Offensively, both teams struggle from three-point range with RU shooting 31.4% and NW at 31.6%. Where they are different is Rutgers is a a very good offensive rebounding team with a 34.3% rate for No. 38 nationally. Northwestern is about average on the offensive glass (30.3%; No. 138) but have an extremely low turnover rate of 16.1%, which is No. 34 nationally. The Scarlet Knights have an 18.0% turnover rate which ranks No. 109.

Both teams are shooting well from the foul line. Northwestern is shooting 75.0% from the charity stripe while Rutgers is on pace for its best season at the foul line in decades in shooting 73.8%. The key difference though is the Wildcats are proficient at getting to the foul line, while RU doesn’t get there enough. In Big Ten play, Northwestern leads the league with a free throw rate of 47.0% while Rutgers is only 10th at 23.4%.

Defensively, both teams matchup similarly with top 35 ranks nationally in block rate, steal rate, two-point shooting defense and turnover rate. The key difference is that Rutgers is No. 7 nationally in three-point defense even after the Iowa game at 27.1%. Northwestern is allowing opponents to shoot 32.9% from behind the arc which is No. 149 nationally.

This game could very well turn into an old fashioned rock fight. It’s a style that Rutgers is well suited for and they’re looking to slow down a Northwestern team that is averaging 78.5 points over its last two games.

The key players for the Wildcats are Chase Audige and Boo Buie, both perimeter players. The 6’4″ Audige leads the team with 16.0 points, 3.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.8 steals. He is their top three-point shooter at 36.6% and is high volume averaging over 6 attempts per game. The 6’2″ Buie runs the offense and is averaging 14.7 points, 4.1 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals. He is shooting just 35.4% from the floor and 28.9% from behind the arc. Their two other core players are 6’3″ guard Ty Berry (9.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 1.4 assists) and 6’9″ big man Robbie Beran (9.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks). They also have seven-football Matthew Nicholson who averages 6.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

A big factor in this game will be how it is officiated. If they let these teams play, it will be a good thing for Rutgers. They MUST defend without fouling and be physical without being over aggressive. Northwestern is a worse shooting team as none of their four main scorers are shooting above 40% from the floor. The Scarlet Knights cannot allow them frequent trips to the foul line or they will be fighting an uphill battle. Staying out of the bonus as long as possible in both halves might just be the ultimate key in this game.

Last season, Northwestern had major trouble defending Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi. Mulcahy had his breakout game with 31 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in leading RU back from 23 points down to lose by 1. Cliff also had a big game, finishing with 22 points and 6 rebounds. Both remain bad matchups for the Wildcats based on their size and athleticism. I’d like to see more of a two-man game between them tonight with the high pick and roll. Mulcahy should also have the opportunity to back down smaller defenders in this game. I doubt Northwestern plays a zone even though Iowa frustrated Rutgers with it. Not their style but they may implement at times.

It will be interesting to see how much full court pressure Rutgers brings with Northwestern good at protecting the basketball. However, it does seem to get RU more into the game when they do so I expect it in spots.

Leadership will be key. Rutgers needs Mulcahy to keep the team focused and playing smart on offense. They have to limit turnovers and make Northwestern work for everything on offense in the halfcourt. He needs to look to run off of defensive rebounds to negate Northwestern’s half court defense. Look to score on a smaller defender while helping to create scoring chances for Cliff and Cam.

Caleb McConnell will be tasked with shutting down Northwestern’s leading scorer Audige. But I think he can be effective attacking the rim as well.

Getting Cam Spencer involved offensively from the get go is important too. I think he could have a big shooting night with Northwestern not strong at defending the perimeter on kick outs. And finding ways for Cliff to get the ball inside is a must, whether it is on pick and rolls, alley-oops, in transition or off of movement on the blocks, this is a game he needs to assert himself.

Overall, Rutgers needs to go strong at the rim and finish better as well as draw fouls. I believe they’re the tougher team but they need to prove it at the rim too.

One major advantage that Rutgers has on paper is its bench. Northwestern is thin and relies heavily on their starters to produce. A physical game against a bigger team can take its toll. In addition, Aundre Hyatt and Derek Simpson have been consistent with scoring off the bench. Rutgers can wear Northwestern down utilizing both advantages.

For the musical selection I chose “Not” by Big Thief. It’s a gritty song about appreciating the small moments in life. This game is a big moment for Rutgers. The Big Ten is wide open and winning tonight puts the Scarlet Knights on the plus side at 4-2 in the league. It gives them momentum heading into Sunday’s rematch at the RAC against Ohio State. And it gets the bad taste of the Iowa loss to bed. This is the type of game they can impose their will. Be relentless, play together and for each other, and keep your head about you. It’s not about the refs, or about having won at Purdue, or being favored by 1 point. It’s about being the tougher team, taking it to Northwestern for 40 minutes and getting Chicago with a W. They can do it.

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers No. 16; Northwestern No. 51

KenPom Projection: Rutgers 59 Northwestern 58

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  1. pj43

    January 11, 2023 at 6:08 pm

    It’s a bit scary to read Aaron’s comment that this game could come down to how the game is officiated. We know how that usually goes when Rutgers plays on the road! Assuming officiating doesn’t turn out to be a dominating factor in the outcome, I think how Rutgers comes out in the first 5-10 minutes could be the key. Rutgers can’t afford to fall too far behind early or they may find it very difficult to come back.

  2. InPikeWeTrust

    January 11, 2023 at 7:58 pm

    Two games is not a trend but so far this team has played 2 great games on the road in conference play. You could argue they were their best 2 games so far. Basically, beating 2 teams that have been top 10 in most metrics for large portions of this season – OSU and Purdue. Maybe this team will be a much better road team than any other in the Pikiell era. Feels like a huge game and since we got screwed put of a W @ OSU,it’s kind of a must win if we want to solidify ourselves as a top tier team in this league.

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