The buzzer sounded, the win went in the column, and the Scarlet Knights sat at 1-1 in the Big Ten. The previous 13 games were a roller coaster with some highs and some very low lows. Rutgers sits at 154 in KemPom rankings and an astounding 72 RPI ranking or even as high as 63 (!!). Let's get into some thoughts about the team thus far:
-This team has talent. Whether it's Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack, two seniors leading the way in scoring. The hustle and grit of Mike Williams (who's three has potential). Or the length of Junior Etou and speed of Bishop Daniels. Even the defense and Greg Lewis and promise of Shaquille Doorson and D.J. Foreman. There are pieces of talent here, and enough that this team should be at least a game or two better than it is. The problem is these pieces of talent don't always quite fit together. That's coaching. When the team buys into what Eddie Jordan is selling, it is impressive, but when the pieces start to fall apart, things get ugly.
-Team defense has been a great improvement. Last year, too often, the opposition would run the same play over and over again--a drive and a kick, maybe an extra pass and boom, open three. While the team is still vulnerable to the open three pointer, it doesn't happen nearly as often. Length is still a problem, and as much of a grinder as Myles Mack is, he gets worn down fighting through screens. The more the opposing guard runs him through, the less Mack can fight and it often leads to open jumpers or drives. However, under the basket Greg Lewis and Shaquille Doorson have been darn near dominant defensively, shutting down the interior.
-Rebounding and hustle has got to improve. And last night it did. When Rutgers out-rebounds a team, it's a sign their hungry. Especially the big men. However, too often it seems Rutgers doesn't want it and the ball bounces around to the opponent, which gives them extra chances. The games against Northwestern and Penn State were prime examples of this. Jack--after coming off the bench--never got it going and never seemed like he really wanted it against the Wildcats. However, the entire team wanted to win against Penn State and did whatever it took, diving for the ball, grabbing rebounds. Hustle plays trickle down from your seniors. Jack, Mack and Malick Kone have to remember this is their last rodeo, and there are only 16 games left. Show your teammates how much you want to win, and they will follow you.
-What's going on with the offense? Night after night, this team can't get the ball in the bucket, whether it's 3 point shots or even chippees. They can't score. Some of that comes from Jack and Junior Etou taking way too many three point shots, when they should be attacking the rim. But the rest? Jordan was known for his Princeton type offense, an offense designed to get players easy buckets. But it's clear the team--after playing the system so well against Vanderbilt and Clemson--has simplified the offense and gone away from the Princeton tendencies. Rutgers should run the Princeton offense and get easy back door baskets. Another thing that would help would be running a fast break here and there. Daniels and Mack would dominate in transition, but they don't--opting instead to walk it up the court. Is that another coaching decision?
-Big Highs and Really low Lows. The odd thing about this team, the thing that's different from nearly every previous Rutgers team, is that they seem to actually be better away from the RAC. Their best wins, Manhattan, Clemson, Vanderbilt, all came on the road or on neutral courts. The Penn State win may turn into a great one (PSU was getting Top 25 votes before this week), and it's probably the best win of the Jordan era... but man, this team also lost (big) to St. Peters and played ugly basketball in a loss to St. Francis (PA). The schedule features really tough teams from here on out and Eddie Jordan needs a signature win in a big way. Can this team find enough grit to knock off a top 25 team? Considering there were some rumblings about 0-18 before last night, there's also hope. Eddie needs a win big time and plenty of top 25 teams will play against the Scarlet Knights.
-Where's the pizazz? I noticed this last night and the game before. This team is not one that will really get the crowd up and going. There's very little swagger on the court. None of the big men seem to want to dunk the ball to get the crowd into it, during home games. They will need to have a big play early against Wisconsin to get the crowd rolling.
-The grind. Let's end on a positive note. When this team wins, it's willing to really get its pail and bucket. Even against Northwestern, Rutgers tried to grind it out. They will muck up the passing lanes and make it hard for the opponent to attack the rim. There are going to be games where they give up a lot of threes, but if a team can't shoot, Rutgers will be in the game. Their interior defense is too good. And while that may make the games ugly, that's how Rutgers is going to have to win this year. And the more wins they can get in conference, the easier it will be to sell recruits on the program point upward. That's as much a key to winning for Eddie Jordan as a practice facility is. Jordan needs to show the AAU guys, the high school coaches, and future players that the ship has been righted. If that means Rutgers has to grind out games, then by all means, grind away.
Things aren't all negative for Rutgers, and at the mid-season point, the Scarlet Knights may be a game behind schedule. If they can find some consistency, the rest of the season might still be fun.