It is no secret that the Rutgers men’s basketball team was absolutely terrible defensively last season. As Dave White said yesterday, there is hope that new head coach Steve Pikiell will lead this team in making progress on the court this season. The biggest reason Rutgers fans should believe this team will be improved this season is because of defense. We know Pikiell is focusing on this and has traditionally had strong defensive teams. We also know that Rutgers cannot be much worse on the defensive end then they were last season.
In conference play, Rutgers allowed a video game-like 86.1 points per game last season, by far the worst in the Big Ten. The next closest was Illinois, who gave up 76.0 points per conference game. Rutgers allowed 90+ points in 8 of 18 regular season conference games, which results in an ungodly 44%. None of these stats count their loss in the conference tournament, when Nebraska scored 89 points. In fact, no team better represented the futility of the Rutgers defense last season than the Cornhuskers, who were just 16-18 a year ago. Nebraska averaged scoring 72.2 points per game last season, but averaged 89 points in three games against Rutgers.
For the entire season, Rutgers allowed 80.3 points per game, which was ranked 333rd out of 351 Division I teams. Only two other Big Ten schools even allowed more than 70 points per game, Minnesota and Illinois, who allowed 5+ points less than Rutgers.
Of course, a big part of the defensive struggles was due to a lack of rebounding. While Rutgers finished 10th in the conference in total rebounding, averaging 34.8 per game, their rebounding defense was dead last at 14th. Opponents averaged 41.7 rebounds against Rutgers, which resulted in the worst rebounding margin in the Big Ten at -6.9.
So what can we expect this season? Coach Pikiell has made it clear defense and rebounding are major priorities for this team. The coaching staff has upgraded the size of this team and they now have the biggest frontcourt in the Big Ten. Another positive is that Deshawn Freeman is closer to returning to full health. He was a capable rebounder in limited time last season before his knee injury, aside from being the best frontcourt scorer on the roster. Jonathan Laurent could also improve off his 5.1 rebounds per game average as a freshman. Rutgers needs more than just improved rebounding though. They need a strong defensive presence clogging up the paint and making it difficult for opponents to score near the basket.
Adding rim protectors was a must and Rutgers was able add 7’0” center C.J. Gettys and 6’9” forward Candido Sa. Rutgers averaged 3.5 blocked shots per game last season, which was 10th in the Big Ten. While they have now lost Greg Lewis and his 1.1 blocks per game average, Pikiell has added two established shot blockers in Gettys and Sa.
Gettys averaged 1.4 blocks per game last season at UNC-Wilmington and he averages 1.0 block per game for his career. Sa comes to Rutgers with a reputation as a defensive force near the rim, having averaged 3.8 blocks per game at San Jacinto, which was the second most for all JUCO players last season. He has a chance to become an elite shot blocker in the Big Ten, which would be a big development for this team.
Although Freeman is just 6’7”, he did average 1.1 blocks per game in limited action before suffering his season ending injury. Also, add in 7’0” Shaq Doorson, who missed all of last season with a broken foot and is now back 40 pounds lighter.
One statistic that will surprise you from last season is that Rutgers actually finished 4th in the Big Ten with 6.1 steals per game. Corey Sanders finished 2nd in the conference with 1.8 steals per game, and both Mike Williams and Freeman averaged better than 1 steal per game. However, one deceiving aspect of Rutgers being near the top of the league in steals is as a team, they took way too many chances on the defensive end. They were bad fundamentally in keeping the opposition in front of them and defenders had a tendency to jump passing lanes far too often, which burned them more times than not.
The bottom line is Rutgers needs to be more disciplined on the defensive end and make it more difficult on opponents shooting the basketball. Opponents averaged a 45.3% shooting percentage from the field and 37.7% from three-point range last season. Far too often, opposing players had plenty of space and time to take open jump shots. While it is important for Rutgers to be able to show multiple looks defensively this season, improvement on basic fundamentals is a must. Having more size in the paint will help, along with taller wing players like 6’9’’ Issa Thiam and 6’6’’ Eugene Omoruyi to defend the perimeter.
There is potential on this Rutgers team to be much improved on the defensive end. Now that they have a head coach who knows how to win with defense, it’s inevitable this team will show marked improvement on that end of the floor. Expectations overall for this team need to be tempered though, as they only averaged scoring 65.9 points per game last season and shooting will continue to be an issue. Rutgers also needs to cut down on turnovers, as their 0.9 assist to turnover ratio was dead last in the conference last season. However, if this team can rebound and defend, they will be much more competitive and should be much more fun to watch. It will also mean the days of Big Ten opponents looking to improve their scoring average at the RAC, rather than worry about a win, will be long gone. If you are a Rutgers basketball fan, hope equals defense.