There are currently seven undefeated teams left in the Big Ten about a week and a half into this college basketball season. Rutgers is one of them. While the competition hasn’t been great, it is still a major step for a program that, as we all know, has suffered for many, many years. And not just straight up losing, but imploding as a program under multiple coaching regimes. Taking satisfaction in this 4-0 start is perfectly acceptable, but please keep expectations for this season in check.
The 2016-2017 team under first year head coach Steve Pikiell surely has miles to go in becoming a good basketball team. Thus far, we have seen too many turnovers, poor free throw shooting at times, and one too many ejections. It’s a process, but there have been more positives and signs of hope than we have seen in recent years. The fact that the two leading scorers on the team through four games, guards Nigel Johnson and Mike Williams, haven’t started once between them, speaks volumes about the improved depth of this team. Here are five other areas that have stuck out to me so far.
Before Sunday’s game, I watched both Rutgers and Niagara warm up about an hour before tip-off. The visitors were having a typical shootaround, not expending much energy and casually taking jump shots. What I saw from the Rutgers side was completely different. Assistant coach Jay Young was running an intense defensive drill with the entire team. There was nothing casual about it. To truly impart a defensive mindset on the players, the coaches are constantly drilling them and working to achieve the type of attitude needed for them to be a strong defensive team. The results have truly been “knight and day” from last season, a mantra Pikiell has used early on his tenure to mark the culture change within the program.
After the win over Niagara, I asked Mike Williams about the emphasis on defense and coach Young’s impact in that area. He had this to say:
He has had a huge effect on the defense. We feel like coach Young, his style of defense, you can’t really go wrong with it and it makes a lot of sense to us. You don’t have to be perfect and we can still get stops. Imagine when you are perfect? We believe in coach Young, his system and defensive strategy. We feel like he is the best defensive coach in the country and try to listen to everything he tells us.
In talking with Mike, you could see the belief and confidence in his eyes. The way this team has embraced the coaching staff and bought into trying to be a great defensive team has been so impressive. Hopefully, they continue to improve as the season progresses, as it gives them the best chance to be competitive in the Big Ten.
A big reason for the improvement on defense has been the presence in the paint by Rutgers. According to KenPom, Rutgers is 17th in the country in block % at 17.9. Block rate is the number of blocked shots divided by the number of 2-point field goals attempted by the opponent. So that means Rutgers blocks almost one out of every five 2-point shots taken by the opposition. If they can stay anywhere near the current percentage, it will be a huge improvement from last season, when they had a block rate of 7.9%, which ranked 223rd in the country.
Candido Sa came to Rutgers with a reputation as a rim enforcer and he has delivered so far, averaging 1.8 per game, including 4 blocks against Niagara. His impressive defensive effort wasn’t even among the top three performances off the bench in that game, another example of the improved depth of this team.
Deshawn Freeman also averages 1.8 blocks and CJ Gettys is swatting away 1.5 per game. If these three can continue to be forces in the paint as the competition increases, it will be another major plus.
Rutgers has been a revelation on the boards this season and it’s an area Pikiell has focused on since he took over the program. The team currently ranks 9th in the country with 48.5 rebounds per game and 7th in rebounding margin at +18.5 per game. Limiting second chance opportunities for their opponents have been a key to being a better defensive team and something that Rutgers was abysmal at a season ago.
On the other end of the floor, Rutgers is 1st in the country in offensive rebounding % at 51.8 and 5th in averaging 18.25 offensive boards per game. That is out of 351 Division I teams. Despite the weak schedule so far, those stats are still incredible considering the recent past with this team.
It is true Rutgers has had a size advantage in every game so far, including versus DePaul, but to see them capitalizing on it is another step forward. Of course, they need to still be effective on the glass against Big Ten competition in order to win, but this season is about progress and this area has been a major improvement so far.
The Niagara game highlighted the future for Rutgers, as freshman Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi took a nice step forward on the court.
Issa has started every game this season, but had yet to be much of a factor. That’s not to say he had played poorly, as he made five three-pointers in the first three games, but he hadn’t contributed much other than that. However, against Niagara, his smooth stroke was on display, as was his overall game. Issa shot 3 for 6 from behind the arc and he added 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in a season high 29 minutes of action. He is still getting comfortable, but it was great to see him more assertive in this game. The 6’9” wing is just scratching the surface of his potential.
After flashing his versatility in the opener against Molloy, Omoruyi didn’t see much playing time in the next two games. After a sluggish first half against Niagara, Pikiell said he wanted “toughness and energy” and made the decision to play him after the break. The move paid off, as Omoruyi played 13 minutes of the second half, contributing 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block, as well as energizing the entire team and sparking a 16-0 run that sealed the win.
I asked Nigel Johnson about the freshman duo afterwards and he had this to say about them:
They’ve been great, especially for freshman. Issa is going to come in and knock down his shots. Eugene of course, he is going to defend and rebound. He is going to do all of the little things that help this team win. That’s definitely good for us. He is going to bring a lot of energy and he is going to fight, which is what we need.
The fact that Pikiell and his staff were able to add quality freshman like Thiam and Omoruyi in their first recruiting cycle, which was abbreviated since they weren’t fully on board until April, is really encouraging. The fact that they are developing them into solid contributors already is even more so. If both players can continue to improve in the non-conference portion of the schedule, it will bode well for Rutgers to be much more competitive in Big Ten play this season.
We all know Rutgers was flat out terrible last season from behind the arc, shooting 32% as a team. Honestly, it seemed worse than that. Only graduate senior Omari Grier shot above that mark, finishing at 40.5% on 84 attempts. However, he wasn’t a consistent presence from behind the arc each game, having some big games but disappearing in others. Depth in this area is something Rutgers desperately needed.
Through four games this season, Rutgers is shooting 33.8% from three-point range, a slight improvement over last year. However, it’s the emergence of two players consistently making three’s that is most encouraging. Issa Thiam and Mike Williams are both averaging 2 three-pointers per game and if they can keep that pace up, it will add an element to this team that hasn’t been there in some time. The last player to average two made three’s per game was Myles Mack during the 2013-2014 season, when he averaged 2.1 per game, while shooting 37% from behind the arc. Issa is shooting 8 for 19 for 42.1% and Williams is shooting 8 for 21 for 38.1%. If they can both average better than 35% this season, it will be a big step forward for this team.
In addition, Rutgers has seen forwards Candido Sa and Jonathan Laurent shoot a combined 5 for 11 from three-point range. Neither player’s game is predicated on shooting from behind the arc, but if they can contribute here and there from long range, it would be another plus for this team.
While Rutgers has yet to play top competition, there is reason to believe their shooting percentage from deep will get better this season. Guards Nigel Johnson and Corey Sanders have struggled from three-point range so far, combining for just 4 of 20, a pedestrian 20%. They will improve on that mark as the season progresses, which means Rutgers should have five or six players that can hit from deep on a somewhat consistent basis, giving them more depth with long range shooting than there has been in many years.
One Last Thing
There was a lot of chatter about Rutgers getting one vote in the AP Poll yesterday. It means literally nothing. What is significant is the fact that Rutgers started the season #191 in the KenPom rankings and have moved up to #150 as of today. Those rankings are based on advanced statistics and are a true measurement of the improvement with this team. So be happy and hopeful, but for the right reasons and not some arbitrary poll. Also, keep expectations in check and just be joyful that we once again have a basketball team we can be proud of. If Rutgers can continue to develop and improve in the areas mentioned above, a lot of progress will be made this season. They will try to begin the season 5-0 tomorrow night at home against North Texas (1-2).