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Rutgers looks to put pressure on No. 1 Purdue



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

Rutgers men’s basketball (9-4; 1-1) resumes Big Ten action on Monday night in visiting the No. 1 team in the country, the undefeated Purdue Boilermakers (13-0; 2-0). The game will air live at 7:00 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network.

The Scarlet Knights did lose at Mackey Arena last February which ended an historic four game winning streak against ranked foes by an unranked team. However, RU won the four previous meetings between the two programs. This included Rutgers’ buzzer beating win over then No. 1 Purdue at the RAC in December 2021.

The fact that RU faces the Boilermakers ranked No. 1 in the country for a second straight season isn’t something head coach Steve Pikiell puts much stock into. He spoke about this matchup against Purdue following Friday night’s 90-57 win over Coppin State.

“It is just another Big Ten game. They are a good team and then the next team we play is good,” explained Pikiell. “I don’t know how many teams are ranked in the Big Ten maybe six or five.  It is a great league and the challenges come. We will play a lot of ranked teams throughout the years and it’s the joy of playing in the Big Ten.”

As for having to play at Mackey, which generally considered the best homecourt advantage in the league, Pikiell discussed the challenge ahead.

“I think everyone in the league pretty much says it’s the toughest place to play. They’re all tough in their own ways. A great fan base and have been very successful. It’s loud. They are the number one team in the country. We’ve been there before when they’re top-five, top-10 every year. So it’s a tough, challenging environment.”

The Scarlet Knights do have Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy ready to lead their teammates on Monday night. Both were part of the only Rutgers team to win at Mackey in the 2019-2020 regular season finale. Asked about the importance of having veteran leadership for a road game of this magnitude, Pikiell spoke about the value of having experience for this matchup.

“I think it’s huge. I mean, these guys share their stories already with Derrick Simpson and (Antwone Woolfork) and those guys,” said Pikiell. You have veteran guys and they kind of know what it brings and they know the opposing team is going to be counting down the shot clock seven seconds before. We’ve been there, we’ve done that and these guys shared those stories. But they also know how challenging these places are. So you’ve got to come with your “A” game and be prepared. Veterans. I mean, I think anyone will tell you, there’s more veterans now in college basketball than ever, COVID, sixth years. Every team has gotten older, Purdue has got guys that have been around.”

As for Monday night’s matchup on the court, the Boilermakers are extremely balanced with very few weaknesses. Purdue is No. 5 nationally in offensive efficiency at 116.5, No. 2 in offensive rebounding rate at 39.1%, No. 15 in offensive turnover rate at 15.3%, and No. 26 in two-point shooting at 56.2%. The only offensive weakness for this team is they’re shooting just 30.5% from behind the arc this season.

On the other end of the floor, Purdue is 24th nationally with a defensive efficiency of 91.8. The Boilermakers are No. 16 in three-point defense as opponents are shooting just 27.7% from behind the arc. They’re No. 19 in allowing opponents an offensive rebounding rate of just 23.5%. In addition, Painter’s team is No. 22 in defensive effective field goal percentage at 44.0%, No. 49 with a 12.2% block rate and No. 56 in two point defense at just 45.6% shooting. Purdue’s only weakness defensively is they don’t force turnovers. They are No. 321 with a defensive turnover rate of only 16.0%

Purdue is led by National Player of the Year candidate Zach Edey. The 7’4″ junior is averaging 21.9 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 63.4% from the floor. Cliff Omoruyi has played against Edey  several times in recent years. However, Edey has taken a big leap forward this past season. Their head to head matchup is obviously a key matchup in this game. Pikiell spoke about the challenge of playing Edey.

“He was there last year so it’s not a new challenge. They also had Trevion Williams last year who was an All-American, so they always have great big guys.  Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the country. They have always been good since I’ve been in the league. It has always been a difficult team, well coached, talented guys and hard place to play so it’s no different this year. They always find themselves 7’5″ guys.”

Don’t expect Cliff to be tasked alone in defending Edey. Expect Pikiell to employ different looks, double teams and traps in trying to slow down Edey. Purdue isn’t a good three-point shooting team so forcing Edey to pass it out of traps to the perimeter is a strategy worth considering.

Aside from Edey, Purdue is a balanced team with multiple contributors in every facet of the game. They aren’t filled with stars but rather hard working, efficient players who win with team basketball.

One major key for Rutgers is controlling the glass and not allowing Purdue too many second chance point opportunities. Another is that the Boilermakers live inside the paint and thrive in getting to the line. 40.7% of their shot attempts are from the charity stripe. Cutting off driving lanes in addition to boxing out their man is huge for RU to be able to hang in this matchup.

Playing elite defense like they’re capable of doing and limiting the home team to one shot possessions will be a major factor to the outcome. Make Purdue take jump shots and keep them away from the rim. Easier said then done.

Rutgers needs to knock down at least a handful of three-pointers in this game. They also cannot allow Purdue to gain confidence shooting from behind the arc. Also taking care of the basketball and not gifting possessions to Purdue is important. RU dished out 30 assists on 34 made field goals in their last game. Continuing to share the basketball in this matchup is critical as well.

“I like that we’re healthy,” said Pikiell. “I like that we are getting better. We have challenges ahead. I like this team a lot.”

Rutgers is in a great position from a metrics perspective as they resume Big Ten play. With all of his options available, Pikiell will attempt to get the most out of his roster in this game. It will be all hands on deck in this one as RU needs contributions from everyone who sees minutes. Of course, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy need to play well, as does Cliff Omoruyi. Cam Spencer has been more consistent later and Aundre Hyatt has provided consistent scoring off the bench. I think two key performances will be whether Mawot Mag can defend at the same level he has been inside as well as whether Derek Simpson can provide an offensive punch off the bench for Rutgers.

“We’ll go to Purdue, a tough place to play. An undefeated team, there’s only a couple left in the country,” Pikiell stated. “(They’re) well-coached and a real tough place to play, but we’re no strangers to tough schedules and tough starts to the season. We’ve got to go there and play great basketball. We’re all healthy, so you know that’s really helped and guys were banged up. So now you’ve got a stretch here where you’ve really got to take care of the bodies. Challenges are physical, they’re mental, the film, there are a lot of challenges that come up, but this group has fought through a lot of challenges.”

For the musical selection for this game, I chose “Apply Some Pressure by Maximo Park. Rutgers should approach this game with nothing to lose. Not many expect them to win and all the pressure is on No. 1 Purdue. It obviously will come down to whether Rutgers can defend at an elite level on Monday night.

They need to score of course, but I think the key is toughness. RU needs to be the tougher opponent in this matchup to have a chance to pull the upset. It won’t be easy, but the Scarlet Knights have been through a lot already this season. I love the team chemistry and energy that this team has displayed this season so far. Come out locked in defensively, play smart offensively as well as physically and mentally tough. If Rutgers can play that way on a consistent basis on Monday night, there is no reason to believe that they can’t walk out of West Lafayette with a major upset.

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  1. NJtilidie

    January 2, 2023 at 2:49 pm

    Can Rutgers take the next step forward? It all begins with this game tonight!

  2. RU Serious

    January 2, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    Glad to see the comments are back!

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