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Rutgers lost its identity in loss to Nebraska



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

In a season that has brought much joy to Rutgers basketball fans up until last week, the Scarlet Knights broke hearts of many on Valentine’s Day at the RAC.

It was an historically poor defensive performance by Rutgers in a 82-72 loss to Nebraska on Tuesday night. The Huskers shot 74.1% inside the arc, the worst two-point defensive performance by RU in the 20+ years of the KenPom era. The Huskers also posted a 69.1% effective field goal percentage, the 6th highest allowed by the Scarlet Knights in KenPom era. The fact that Rutgers was No. 2 in defensive efficiency nationally and No. 1 in the Big Ten coming into the game and the damage was done by a team second to last in league play in offensive efficiency made it all the more stunning.

“They were better than us today. It’s on me. I got to get us to play Rutgers defense,” head coach Steve Pikiell said matter of factly. “Certainly, didn’t tonight. I think is the first time we’ve given up over 50% for the game in a long time. They made some tough shots. They made it hard for us, thought we had some chances too, but turnovers, missing free throws, and layups. Didn’t give us a point, an opportunity to kind of turn the tide but defensively, it’s on me. Very disappointed in how we defended. I got to do a better job. I got to make sure we get back to playing, the kind of defense that we need to play in a great league against some really good shooting teams.”

A big issue in the loss was that Rutgers was unable to control tempo and dictate the pace of the game. The Huskers were able to speed up the game, space out the defense and get downhill to the rim while finding room along the perimeter to shoot. Credit Nebraska for taking advantage of the defensive issues.

RU was a step or two slow, unable to close out shooters while incapable of shrinking the paint and defending the rim. Help defense was non-existent and the connectedness that Rutgers has had all season was unplugged. Their trademark physical and suffocating defensive pressure as nowhere to be found.

Part of the issue in my estimation was that the full court pressure the Scarlet Knights implemented had the opposite effect that was intended. Instead of putting Nebraska under duress with ball pressure and forcing mistakes, it put Rutgers on its own heels and unable to slow down the speedy Huskers.

“We’ve been pressing all year long, and then when you’re down, you have to try and get the ball back, but we’ve been a pressing team all season,” Pikiell explained. “I thought it wasn’t our press that hurt us when we got back into half court. They really did a good job. Anytime we made a mistake. They hit a bomb three and they really moved the ball. It’s credit to Nebraska how they played. They made it tough on us and when we made a mistake defensively, we had to pay. Press. A bunch of different presses. Did okay there, but once we got into half court, they really had their way with us.”

Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg explained his team’s plan in countering the pressure and why they were effective in beating it.

“We didn’t want to let their pressure get us on our heels and we felt that we really wanted to attack and get out quick with good looks,” Hoiberg stated. “This defense is so good and we didn’t know how many chances we would get to have good looks, but when you have press like that you have to look up the floor, and you have to attack. A couple times we dribbled right over the sideline, especially when they came from behind and tried to trap us, but I thought we had great spacing with CJ (Wilcher) and Keisei (Tominaga), and I thought Derek was terrific as well. We didn’t want the crowd to get to us so we made simple plays, and for the most part I thought we did a great job”.

As far as quantifying the defensive issues as a whole, it was the worst game efficiency rating for Rutgers this season with a lone exception, the 93-82 road loss to Iowa. It was Nebraska’s highest offensive rating in a Big Ten game this season. Even more impressive, the Huskers have now won three of their last four league games despite losing two starters to injuries.

The same cannot be said for Rutgers.

Since Mawot Mag was declared out for the season with a torn ACL, the Scarlet Knights are now 0-3. While last week’s two road losses came against top 30 competition in Indiana and Illinois, the loss to Nebraska signals a more complex problem.

What has been identity for Rutgers all season and really for the entire Pikiell era is a tough, defensive team that plays extremely hard and keeps grinding.

All of those traits were noticeably absent on Tuesday night. They were replaced by players arguing and being  visibly upset with each other on the court. There was bad body language, a lack of communication as well as a lack of urgency and energy. The toughness that made them special was gone. After being super connected defensively and playing for each other all season, the loss to Nebraska was an unraveling of all that has made this team good. It was unsettling for every Rutgers fan and panic has begun to set in with some.

The loss of Mag has been a major factor. He was the second best defender on the team, he was a good rebounder on both ends, had become an efficient finisher near the rim and played with an edge and energy that is sorely missed. He was a true glue guy.

“Anytime you lose anybody, at this time of year, (it hurts),” explained Pikiell. “He’s a starter. He’s a really good defender, so he gave us another guy that could guard multiple positions. That was his strength.”

That being said, Pikiell did make a point in saying even with the loss of Mag, “We’ve got enough though. We’ve got enough guys.”

Paul Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell, and Cliff Omoruyi are the core of this team and have been major contributors during the rise of this program in recent seasons. They are a capable group each with their own accolades in tow. The most disturbing part of Tuesday’s loss is how deflated and frustrated they appeared with each other and the situation.

Pikiell placed the blame on the such a heavy loss on himself.

“We scored enough points. Just really down on myself,” he explained. “We got to defend and it’s on me 100%. These guys got a lot of season left. We got to get that back because that’s what we do.”

Rutgers’ success this season has been generated from having an elite defense. It might be time to except that they’re unable to play defense at the same level without Mag. His responsibilities, coverages, ability to read situations and provide help side defense along with rebounding have left a major void. Perhaps Pikiell will consider changing things up based on how much the defense has fallen off.

Hoiberg spoke after the game about his shifting on the defensive end after key injuries has helped his team.

“And then we switched up defenses that is where we are right now with this team. Two of our best defenders and two of the guys who really gave us our defensive identity this year with Gary not being on the floor.  It is just who we are right now. We have to change defenses and I thought the guys executed well.”

Perhaps Pikiell and the staff will look to change things on the defensive end. They regularly mix and match different looks, but a shift in focus is possible. Or maybe there will be a personnel change with the starting lineup or rotations. Can someone off the bench other than Derek Simpson step up? It’s all something to keep an eye on.

I don’t know what the answers are. However, it’s clear that things aren’t working right now. The loss to Nebraska made that crystal clear. The way in which they lost and seemed to be so disconnected with one another was what made it so disheartening. The hope now is such a poor performance will generate positive change with some internal reflection and adjustments.

Rutgers is now No. 26 in KenPom and No. 28 in the NET rankings. They still have a good postseason resume and firmly projected to make the NCAA Tournament as of now. However, there are five regular season games to and RU has to recover quickly. Otherwise, they could find themselves rapidly in a tailspin towards and worst case, past the bubble discussion for March Madness. They’re now 16-10 overall and 8-7 in the Big Ten.

Next up is a road game on Saturday at Wisconsin. The Badgers are fighting for their own NCAA Tournament bid and are firmly on the bubble. It will be a battle that Rutgers has to be prepared for or the losing streak will build.

“Wisconsin, as you know, is one of the toughest places to play in the league,” Pikiell said. “We got to play better defense. These guys have done it before. A lot of belief in these guys, and faith we’ll prepare well. We’ll go to Wisconsin and play on the road.”

There is time to recover. However, the clock is ticking as the second half of February will soon lead to March. After an inspiring two-thirds of the season, things are quickly trending in the wrong direction.

The important part is that Rutgers is still in control of its own destiny. The key to everything now is restoring their identity. It’s really up to the veteran leaders to decide what they want this team to be and achieve. And it’s up to the coaching staff to find a way to get the most out of this team.

Rutgers has experienced difficult periods late in the season over each of the past three years. They’ve overcome those obstacles each time. In the midst of a three game losing streak and frustrations rising on the court and within the fan base, it’s easy to predict impending doom. If you rely on recent history, Steve Pikiell’s teams have proven they ultimately come through in the end. We don’t know how this season will finish, but giving up on this team would be a mistake.

For more analysis on the current state of things, here is my rapid reaction video following the loss to Nebraska.

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  1. BataliBoli98

    February 16, 2023 at 1:08 am

    All of your articles and the reaction hit on every single key issue. Thanks again for the thorough and pragmatic approach. What stood out to me were:
    1) It looked like guys who had never played with each other before. It was really strange. It was like watching an early season scrimmage.
    2) I have no idea what the answers are off of the bench beyond Simpson. Reiber, Miller, and Palmquist are just not B1G level players. Each has had a moment or two this season but RU simply cannot count on them. I don’t blame Woolfork and Chol since they were always meant to have this year to develop.
    3) I really think that Cam and Paul have to take the reigns on offense and have everything run through them. They can set up Cliff and Aundre, while Caleb can do some of the dirty work around the basket.
    4) I guess that teaching Cliff to learn to anticipate and then pass out of a double team is not doable because he is really bad at that.
    5) Part of me thinks that RU simply needs to attack the basket more often but they don’t really have a lot of guys who can routinely beat their man off of the dribble. Except for Simpson, there isn’t that much speed with the ball.
    6) I knew that RU would really miss Mag on D, but not having his athleticism has also killed their transition game. Aaron, I wonder if you can tell us how many points in transition that RU has scored in the last three games.

    • pj43

      February 16, 2023 at 4:01 am

      On your 2nd point, I think Simpson is Big Ten quality.  He just makes frosh mistakes. Reiber is marginal at best. 
      Regarding Omoruyi, here’s a player who apparently devoted too much off season time attempting to develop his perimeter shooting touch and not enough time learning the basics of establishing himself as a legit low post offensive player and an even better interior defender.  I know he averages a double double and blocks shots.  But, by failing to work on developing a good base through proper footwork he fails to maximize his enormous physical tools and superior athleticism that should allow him to dominate both ends of the court.  Poor footwork has led to too many unnecessary fouls and it really hurts now with the lack of front court depth. For me, looking at a player in his 3rd year, I expected a quantum leap over the promising improvement he showed in his soph year.  I haven’t seen it and it’s both frustrating and disappointing.  

      I’ve said my piece many times about the inconsistency of the half court offense.  It’s too late in the season now to do anything meaningful about it.  If the defense can’t carry the load from here on out, it’ll be a similar scenario to recent past seasons where Rutgers is left scrambling to make the NCAA tournament.  I’m still holding on to the hope that Pikiell can get this team back on track.

      • BataliBoli98

        February 17, 2023 at 12:57 am

        My point was no one beyond Simpson. I certainly agree that he is a B1G caliber player. You made great points about Cliff’s inability to establish the post with his footwork on both ends of the floor. I posted before the season that I worried that Cliff would try to pattern his game after Embiid who takes far too many 3s. That said, I get why he might have done it. The path for a big man to the NBA is by showing that you can be a perimeter threat. I long for the days of Moses Malone dueling Jabbar in the post.

  2. InPikeWeTrust

    February 16, 2023 at 6:43 pm

    If we are going to keep the 1-2-2 press, which I believe is a big if, I would try Woolfolk in Mag’s spot at the head of it. So, play Woolf at the 4 and have a big lineup. He would be a very large/long obstacle for teams to contend with and he has very quick feet for a guy his size. He isnt quick as Mag but i think he could be effective there. It would also allow us to be potentially dominant on the boards with him and Cliff out there together along with maybe Miller, Caleb and Paul let’s say. The substitutions behind this group when they get gassed could be Reiber, Oskar, Hyatt, Simpson and Cam who could really spread the floor.

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