Rutgers men’s basketball (17-10;9-7) hosts Michigan (15-12; 9-7) on Thursday night at the RAC. The pivotal Big Ten matchup will air live on FS1 at 8:30 p.m. ET.
It should be a tremendous atmosphere for several reasons. It’s a “Blackout” game for the Scarlet Knights. Michigan is essentially in a must-win situation as they are clearly on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. A win for RU would keep them in contention for a top four finish in the Big Ten. Both teams are fighting through injuries. And the fans should be fired up to welcome back the Wolverines, who lost last season at the RAC for the first time ever.
Michigan is No. 49 in KenPom with an offensive efficiency ranked No. 40 and defensive efficiency ranked No. 70. In Big Ten play, the Wolverines are No. 4 in offensive efficiency and No. 7 in defensive efficiency. Comparatively, Rutgers is No. 27 overall, No. 130 offensively and N0. 4 defensively on a national scale. In Big Ten play, RU is 10th in offensive efficiency and 1st in defensive efficiency.
Profiling Michigan, they are a slighting above average shooting team from the floor as they making 51.8% from two-point range (No. 138) and 34.8% from three-point range (No. 149) and subpar from the foul line at 70.0% (No. 240).
The Wolverines are 9th nationally in turnover rate (14.4%) but just 277th in offensive rebounding rate (25.4%). Part of that has to do with them being a perimeter oriented team, as well as their priority on getting back defensively off of missed shots. They are 339th nationally in opponent turnover rate (15.2%). Coupled with a low offensive rebounding rate, Michigan is very dependent on shooting a high percentage to win.
“Michigan is talented, big, (and) physical,” head coach Steve Pikiell said this week on a call. “I think they have three first round draft picks right now on the draft boards. Well coached and really good. We’ve got to play really well. It’s like every game in this league. They pose different problems. Size, speed, (and) athleticism. They’re really good.”
A key individual matchup in this game is between Hunter Dickinson and Cliff Omoruyi. Dickinson is an elite offensive big man who can score multiple ways. He makes 57.4% of his two-point shot attempts and while taking only 42 three-point attempts, he’s made 40.5%. He has the 7th best free throw rate in the Big Ten at 43.8%, so Omoruyi has to be careful not to get into foul trouble.
Dickinson may look to play some outside of the paint, which is an area Cliff has struggled defending. On the flip side, Omoruyi needs to be poised and controlled when he has the ball in the paint. Attacking the rim and Dickinson is critical. He needs to create contact and not allow Dickinson to force him to take shots with his momentum falling away from the basket. Watching these two battle for rebounds, both top ten in the league in offensive and defensive rebounding rate, should be like fine wine for basketball junkies.
Both second leading scorer Jett Howard and starting forward Terrence Williams are considered game-time decisions per associate head coach Phil Martelli.
A key player that Rutgers has to make a priority whether Howard and Williams play is Kobe Bufkin. The 6’4″ guard has become a very efficient scorer for Michigan but is turnover prone. He is a strong downhill player who can finish at the rim.
Michigan is extremely dangerous in that they are a multi-faceted offensive team and they are desperate to win this game. They are 2-10 against Quad 1 opponents but Rutgers is a tremendous opportunity for them to get another. They’re not on the right side of the bubble and the Michigan media is calling this game a must win.
Pace of this game will be something to watch for. Michigan will look to limit Rutgers in transition, but you can say that for RU defensively as well. Every transition basket will be valuable. Can Rutgers, No. 2 in steal rate, use their length to generate turnovers to create transition opportunities? That’s their best chance to do so.
With Caleb McConnell dealing with back spasms that kept him out of Saturday’s game at the last minute against Wisconsin, Steve Pikiell said earlier this week that it “didn’t look good” for him to play tonight.
Rutgers needs contributions from every player who steps on the court tonight in order to win. Cam Spencer needs to be a priority on offense,make shots and get to the foul line. Aundre Hyatt needs to be a presence on the glass, attack the rim and play at a high level defensively like he did against Wisconsin. Oskar Palmquist needs to play smart and look for his shot in the flow of the offense. Derek Simpson needs to bring a spark off the bench and create off the dribble. Dean Reiber needs to rebound and defend with anything offensively a bonus. This very well could be a game that Antwone Woolfolk is needed to contribute inside for spots. If Jalen Miller gets a shot, he needs to find a way to be a positive factor.
As for Paul Mulcahy, I think this is a game he needs to be locked in as a scorer. He is a matchup problem and can be a tone setter by looking for his shot early and often. It can open up space on the perimeter for Spencer and Palmquist.
His leadership is always important and he must maintain his poise. Remember last season Dickinson set a blindside, open court screen on McConnell with the issue no longer in doubt. Soon after there was an incident in the handshake line. Rutgers can’t get caught up in Michigan trying to start anything and must stay above it. Keeping their focus as a team is a responsibility that Mulcahy must take on.
As for Cliff, he needs to impose his will on this game in some way. His individual defensive stand on the last Wisconsin possession to seal the win was tremendous. Whether he dominates the glass, win his matchup with Dickinson with his explosiveness around the rim or force him into a bad shooting night, Omoruyi MUST play big minutes tonight. If he gets into foul trouble, I’m not sure how Rutgers will be able to contain Dickinson.
Rutgers needs an attacking mindset and to go strong at the rim. They need to do a better job of finishing layups and drawing contact. This is a game they can win from the foul line. It’s up to Mulcahy, Spencer, Hyatt and Simpson to get downhill and draw fouls. They are the foul shooters you want at the line.
While Rutgers is 9-0 in Big Ten play when they allow 65 or fewer points and 0-7 when they don’t, this game may need to be an anomaly. Michigan is second in Big Ten play in averaging 73.2 points per game. While Rutgers is 5th in holding league foes to 64.9 points per game, they’re likely without their two best defenders tonight. Their team defense was tremendous against Wisconsin, but the Wolverines have more weapons. RU has to find a way to win and that’ll come by playing together on both ends.
Getting stops and limiting scoring runs is a must, but Rutgers can’t expect to win this game in the 50’s. They need stay the course with the offensive game plan and share the basketball. Don’t be passive or settle, but rather look to attack Michigan on the defensive end. This will be a very physical game but RU has to play within themselves on both ends of the floor.
And of course, the RAC should provide a much needed boost tonight.
“Excited,” Pikiell said of playing at home tonight. “I want our students to come out. It needs to be rocking. We’re playing Caleb’s last two games in this place. Paul all of our seniors. I want people to come. These guys stayed. They didn’t go in the portal. They’ve continued a winning program. They’ve made this a winning program. And hopefully everyone will show up when we are playing Michigan. Hopefully everyone is there and loud just as they always have been and our students come out and show they kind of appreciation that I have for all these guys.”
I think Rutgers will have a bad taste in their mouth after playing so poorly in their last home game. This is a huge game for both teams and RU needs to dig as deep as possible. This series has been a spirited one for a few years now and tonight should be a hard fought battle for 40 minutes.
I chose “My Own Soul’s Warning” by the Killers for the pregame song. This game will be battle of wills for two teams that play really hard. Rutgers has faced a ton of adversity this season. They need to stay true to themselves, play to their strengths and stick together as a team. Michigan will bring their A game and RU needs to be prepared for that. Be ready for anything, weather any storm, and keep grinding just like they did in the win over Wisconsin. Bring it for 40 minutes tonight and I like their chances.
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