Tuesday night will be a welcomed home game for Rutgers men’s basketball (16-9; 8-6). The Scarlet Knights have played just twice at the RAC over the last 30 days and it’s been 13 days since the most recent game at home. The sellout crowd could be just what the doctor ordered after the toughest week of the season that included road losses at Indiana and Illinois as well as the official diagnosis of the season ending injury to Mawot Mag.
Rutgers will take on Nebraska (12-14; 5-10) at 8 p.m. ET with the game airing live on the Big Ten Network. The all-time series is tied at 9-9 while RU has won four of the last five meetings, including twice last season.
While the 12th place Huskers have won two of three including victories over Penn State and Wisconsin, they’ve struggled mightily on the road. Other than a 2 point overtime win at Minnesota, they’re 0-7 in Big Ten road games this season. All seven defeats are by double digits and by an average of 17 points.
After forward Juwan Gary suffered a season ending injury to his shoulder last month, the Huskers are extremely thin up front. However, their offense runs through 6’9″ Derrick Walker. He generally likes the ball in the high post and is 68th nationally with a 30.4% assist rate while averaging 3.7 assists per game. As a scorer, the key is keeping him away from the basket. Walker is shooting 66.7% at the rim, but is only 38.9% on two-point jumpers per Hoop Math. It’s essential that Cliff Omoruyi defend wisely and avoid foul trouble. He has the length and shot blocking ability to sag in the paint and dare Walker to shoot from mid-range.
The other major weapon for Nebraska is gunslinger Keisei Tominaga. He is by far their most efficient player with an offensive rating of 119.4, which is No. 156 nationally. Tominaga is shooting 49.6% from the floor, 40.3% from three-point range and 86.1% from the foul line. The 6’2″ guard would shoot it from the student section if it was allowed. He’s been on a hot streak his last three games in averaging 25.3 points in shooting 29 of 48 for 60.5% from the floor and 14 of 29 for 48.3% from behind the arc.
Despite Tominaga’s offensive surge, Nebraska only averaged 72.3 points over that three game stretch. It includes two bottom half defensive teams in the Big Ten. While I expect Caleb McConnell to defend the smaller Tominaga at times, it’s probably more likely that Rutgers rotates different defenders on him. He needs to be a top priority on the floor and RU needs to account for him at all times, especially in transition.
As usual, the key is team defense and making sure Nebraska doesn’t have a third scorer tonight will be a huge part of that. If it’s only Walker and Tominaga scoring, it is unlikely to be enough scoring for the Huskers to win. Rutgers is 8-0 in Big Ten play when holding opponents to 65 or fewer points. They’re 0-6 when they allow more than that. Nebraska averages just 66.2 points per game overall and only 64.1 points in Big Ten play.
While Nebraska is No. 6 in opponent free throw rate, they’re allowing opponents to shoot 50.3% inside the arc. In Big Ten play, the Huskers are 13th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency. In comparison, Rutgers is 9th in offensive efficiency and 1st in defensive efficiency. Nebraska is not particularly strong with rebounding while also being prone to turnovers and blocks.
This is a game that Rutgers needs to and should dictate from the start. Nebraska allows a 57.8% assist rate which is 328th nationally. RU has the 19th best at 59.3%. Sharing the basketball and making the extra pass will yield high percentage scoring opportunities tonight. Paul Mulcahy needs to be assertive as a offensive creator and facilitator. I’d like to see him and Cliff Omoruyi play a two man game at the start and be the focal point. They both should be able to produce at a high level with the matchups tonight. They can also create space for their teammates as the game progresses. There should be good looks from behind the arc for Cam Spencer, Aundre Hyatt and Oskar Palmquist. Getting Spencer going and utilizing more screening action to get him shots should be a priority as well.
Steve Pikiell and the coaching staff may look back at last week as a blessing as they cut their teeth with new rotations against two of the best teams in the league. Now they’ve had some time to adjust and tonight is a great opportunity to apply some lessons learned. Balancing lineups with experienced scorers and being more connected defensively are to things to look for.
If Rutgers plays together and is committed on the defensive end, they should win this game by double digits. They should have transition scoring opportunities off of steals and defensive rebounds. Getting the Huskers defending on their heels and attacking the rim while finding open shots on the perimeter should be the mindset. Finishing near the rim must be better and it should be with Nebraska’s lack of size inside.
Getting the win by any margin and regaining some confidence are the most important goals for tonight. Get well, hold pace in the Big Ten standings while avoiding a Q3 loss and move on.
My musical choice is “Olympians” by Andrew Bird. One of my favorite musicians singing a chorus of “We’re going to turn it around.” While Rutgers were underdogs in both games last week, the next six games they’re projected to win per KenPom. While the possibility of running the table on the regular season would be getting ahead of ourselves, you have to start somewhere. I expect Rutgers to play hard as always but have an extra pep in their step with some much needed home loving on Valentine’s Day. Look for Cam Spencer to have a big night as well. It’s going to be a process in continuing to adjust to playing without Mag, but tonight is an opportunity to do so while getting well at the same time.
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