There is a strong case to be made that Michigan is the biggest antagonist in Rutgers men’s basketball history. There have been plenty of rivalry losses over the years to both Princeton and Seton Hall with pain and suffering. However, even though Michigan isn’t a true rival, they always seem to show up in big moments or at the worst times.
Two of the biggest postseason games that Rutgers has ever played resulted in losses to Michigan.
The only appearance Rutgers has ever made at the Final Four came against the Wolverines in a 86-70 loss in 1976. The undefeated season was over for the most talented team in program history.
Three decades later, Rutgers made an NIT run to the Garden with a upstart freshman named Quincy Douby. After a win over Iowa State, the Scarlet Knight lost in the title game to….Michigan by the score of 62-55.
Since joining the Big Ten for the 2014-2015, Rutgers is 1-10 against the Wolverines. In fact, the Scarlet Knights are just 1-15 all-time and lost their first nine matchups as Big Ten foes before finally winning a the RAC last season. Since that victory, Michigan beat RU in Ann Arbor in a crucial game at the end of last season. That was followed by a double digit home loss in Piscataway just a couple weeks ago.
And now Rutgers will face Michigan again in the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at noon ET. The game will air live on the Big Ten Network.
The stakes are clear. The season is essentially on the line. Rutgers in danger of missing out on the NCAA Tournament if they lose this game. They’ll still be on the bubble with a loss but their fate will no longer be in their hands. If they want to state their case to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in the strongest way possible, they must beat Michigan.
The Wolverines have a talented big man in Hunter Dickinson, sparkplug guard Dug McDaniel, scoring guard Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard, who can score in multiple ways. They also have a knockdown three-point shooter in Joey Baker and a tough forward in Terrence Williams. This team has struggled with consistency, shooting and rebounding at times. However, they are 10th nationally in turnover rate and they’ve become a good defensive team. Michigan finished second in league play behind Rutgers in efficiency. The only thing they don’t do well defensively is force turnovers.
Rutgers played relatively well on the defensive end in the first meeting. Michigan only shot 40.7% from the floor and just 7 of 25 from three (28.0%). However, RU had its least efficient outing on the offensive end in Big Ten play. And they are entering the game after their second least efficient game in the loss to Northwestern on Sunday.
The Scarlet Knights were just 14 of 34 for 41.2% from two-point range and only 4 of 13 for 30.8% from three against Michigan two weeks ago. They shot just 38% from the floor, were just 5 of 18 on layups and 5 of 16 from the foul line. Rutgers committed 13 turnovers, while Michigan had 10. However, the key was that the Wolverines held a 17-3 advantage in points off of turnovers. They also only had 6 offensive rebounds and just 7 second chance points.
If Rutgers is going to win this game, they must create good scoring opportunities and be able to take advantage of them. They need to make free throws and layups, which is obvious. But how they do that is more involved.
The biggest key is being able to pass out of double teams. Michigan created major issues for Rutgers in the first meeting by doubling the ball. Cliff Omoruyi has struggled with this, but so have his teammates. Finding the open man is key but that means RU is committed to sharing the basketball at a higher level than they have of late. They must have better recognition of where the open man is on the floor as well.
The Scarlet Knights have been too stagnant in the halfcourt offense. Rutgers needs to move without the ball and create more space. The key to passing out of double teams is to not allow them to happen. The ball can’t stick and RU can’t be so predictable on offense.
Michigan is 1-6 against high major teams when Hunter Dickinson commits three or more fouls. The hard part is getting him in foul trouble.
I don’t think posting Cliff up is the answer anymore. Getting him the ball from dribble penetration, lobs and ball movement will limit double teams and get him more space to use his athleticism.
Dickinson has proven he can defend the post without fouling. But forcing him to help on penetration, as well as reacting to lobs to Cliff could force him into being late to the ball and thus fouling.
Derek Simpson needs to play a big part obviously as the best penetrator on the team. I’d like to see him attack off the dribble more from the wing and baseline, not just from the top of the key. If he can attack the opposite side the Cliff is on, his ability to find Cliff open or draw fouls on contact with his own defender or if Dickinson helps is critical.
If Rutgers can get similar action from Paul Mulcahy as well, it could help too. He’s struggled a lot lately and hasn’t looked himself. Whether he’s injured or having a mental block, any contribution from Mulcahy is a plus
And with penetration, Rutgers can look for kick outs to Cam Spencer. Running action for Spencer off of screens will create more movement and hopefully lead to better looks for him. He needs to take double digit shot attempts but also as many as possible within the flow of the offense.
I also think Aundre Hyatt is the x-factor in this game. When he is aggressive and confident, he creates instant offense. He’s been struggling but I have a feeling he’ll play with more urgency in this game.
As for Caleb McConnell, they need his defense and rebounding. He’s playing hurt but his heart is huge. The more he can give Rutgers an emotional lift and make the tough plays, the better.
When Michigan has the ball, letting Jett Howard work in iso is worth the risk. He didn’t play in the first meeting. However, he has quite the statistical oddity that speaks to Wolverine fans having concerns the ball sticks too much with Howard. Against high major opponents, Michigan is 6-1 when Howard takes single digit shot attempts but just 4-11 when he gets double digit shot attempts.
Kobe Bufkin and Dug McDaniel hurt Rutgers in the first meeting. They also made tough shots that might not fall as much in the rematch if they aren’t in a flow. Although Howard is extremely talented, his iso sets off the dribble have a tendency to slow the flow of the offense. It’s a risk worth taking by allowing him to take shots, although they need to cut off driving lanes and force Howard to take jumpers.
Steve Pikiell has to play Cliff as much as possible as Dickinson dominated when he was off the floor. If Mulcahy continues to struggle, Pikiell needs to get the ball in the hands of Simpson and Spencer as much as possible. Using Woolfolk along side Cliff to double Dickinson is an idea. Giving Oskar Palmquist an extended run if he makes his first shot or two could give Rutgers a different look.
In the end, Rutgers needs to leave it all on the floor in this game. They need to play like their season is on the line because it is. Steve Pikiell needs to coach like it as well. Taking the same approach as the last meeting and really the last few games would actually be more of a risk. The offense needs a spark. This team needs a jolt.
It’s not too late until it is. The postseason is the perfect time for Rutgers to reset their mindset. Their backs are as firmly against the wall as possible. They’ve responded in wins at Wisconsin and Penn State but fallen short more so of late. Losing six of eight games doesn’t mean anything on Thursday. Only advancing in the Big Ten Tournament does.
Michigan has long been a problem for Rutgers, especially when so much is at stake. This team can help change that narrative. They can resurrect their season and put the dagger in Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes at the same time. The postseason is about taking advantage of opportunities. If Rutgers can’t turn it around on Thursday, it may be their only chance to make a memorable March run.
Thanks for reading the The Scarlet Faithful. For more Rutgers Athletics content from The Scarlet Faithful, follow us on Twitter and Instagram. You can also subscribe to our YouTube Channel. You can subscribe to The Scarlet Faithful podcast on Apple, Spotify, Pocket Casts and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. For advertising inquiries or to reach out directly, email at email@example.com