By now, you’ve heard the news. The Rutgers men’s basketball team has started the season 6-0 for the first time since the 1975-1976 squad produced a perfect mark during the regular season. As Dave White smartly points out, patience and measured expectations for this team is a must. The reality is Rutgers has faced the easiest portion of their schedule and stiffer competition is ahead. It starts this Wednesday on the road against former Big East foe Miami (FL) in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Now that roughly half of the non-conference schedule is complete, there is enough of a base to determine some current strengths and weaknesses with this team. Rutgers needs to continue to build on the positives in their play and improve on areas they have struggled with versus moderate competition so far. There are some really encouraging results early on, as well as some signs of trouble ahead. I used KenPom and ESPN for this statistical review. Here are three positives that bode well for this team to continue to make progress as the calendar turns to December, as well as three negatives that are cause for concern as the schedule ramps up.
Rebounding (offensive & total)
Rutgers is currently averaging 47.7 rebounds per game, good for 4th in the country out of 351 Division I teams. They average 18.7 offensive boards per game, which is the most of any team in the country. That’s because they also lead the country with a 50
% offensive rebounding percentage, meaning they grab 1 out of every 2nd rebound possible on the offensive glass. Deshawn Freeman has been the biggest reason why, as he ranks 19th in country in offensive rebounding percentage at 17.3%. He is averaging 9.0 boards per game, which is the second most in the Big Ten behind Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan. He is averaging a league best 4.0 offensive boards per game.
It’s very impressive what Rutgers has been able to do so far in terms of rebounding and how much they have improved from last season. A major key to competing against the big boys will be the ability to maintain what this team does well and owning the glass is at the top of the list. If Freeman, Gettys and Sa can get theirs against better teams, and the guards can continue to rebound at a high rate, it will make a huge impact in Rutgers being competitive. More on that in a minute.
2-Point % defense
Aside from rebounding, Rutgers has done an excellent job defensively in the paint. They are currently 5th in country in holding their opponents to just 37.1% shooting from the field with two-point opportunities. Part of the reason is they hold a block percentage of 18.5%, which is good for 9th in country.
Players like CJ Gettys and Candido Sa, as well as Freeman, have done a tremendous job of being rim enforcers and holding their ground in the paint so far this season. Sa averages 2.2 blocks per game, which is fourth best in the Big Ten. Gettys and Freeman both average over 1 swat per contest.
The harder it is for opponents to get their shot off in the paint, the more difficult it is for them to score. Last season, the paint was a happy place for the opposition, as they shot 49.9% in two-point opportunities, which ranked Rutgers 219th in the country. A major key for Rutgers to improve in Big Ten play is their ability to defend the rim and force tough shots inside the arc.
Rutgers currently has eight players averaging 19.0 minutes or more per game, with all of them averaging 5.0 or more points per game. Of those eight, there are five players averaging 9.0 or more points per game. There is serious depth, as Deshawn Freeman, Nigel Johnson, Mike Williams, Corey Sanders, and CJ Gettys can lead this team in scoring on any given night. Think about that fact, compared to last season, when Sanders was typically joined by just one other player in double figures after Freeman’s season ending injury. This season, all eight players playing significant minutes have scored in double figures at least once so far in just six games played.
It has also been a full team effort in rebounding as well, as seven players are averaging 3.7 or more boards per game. After being called the best rebounder on the team by Pikiell in the preseason, Freeman has proven it so far, averaging 9.0 per game. However, the most impressive improvement displayed early on has been the backcourt trio of Johnson, Williams, and Sanders, who average a combined 13.0 rebounds per game. That’s tremendous production from the guards and shows that the entire team has bought into the coaching staff’s message that everyone on the court needs to rebound.
Three Point Shooting/Defense
One major problem from last season is still rearing it’s ugly head through six games this season. Rutgers averaged only 5.0 three-pointers made per game last season and shot just 32.0% from behind the arc. This season, Rutgers is making slightly more with 5.7 three-pointers per game, but is shooting just 30.0% from behind the arc, which ranks them only 290th in the country. Mike Williams and Issa Thiam are the predominate shooters from deep, connecting on a combined 23 of 62 attempts for 37.1%. That’s promising, but the rest of the team is shooting 11 for 50 for a dreadful 22%.
To compound that issue, Rutgers is allowing their opponents to make 38.6% of their three-point shots, which ranks 275th in the country. In every game this season, their opponents have made at least seven three-pointers in a game, while Rutgers has had only done that in three games so far.
The last three opponents have really been a cause for alarm, as Rutgers has allowed Niagara, North Texas, and Hartford to shoot a combined 29 for 66 from behind the arc for 44%. Not exactly a murderer’s row. Rutgers shot just 16 for 57 for 28% in those three contests, signaling a troubling trend that was a killer for the program all of last season. Allowing such a bad spread from three-point range is a major disadvantage and the margin could get wider in Big Ten play. If it does, it only puts more pressure on Rutgers ability to control the paint on both ends of the floor and with rebounding on the glass. They need to be better balanced and improve from behind the arc, both offensively and defensively.
Free Throw Shooting & Consistency
Rutgers is shooting 68.4% from the line, which is just okay, but they had two poor performances against Molloy & Hartford. I’m sure tired legs were a factor in both of those games, as Molloy was the first game of the season and Hartford was less than a 48 hour turnaround from their last game, as well as their fourth in nine days. Still, Rutgers cannot afford to shoot less than 60% from the free throw line against better competition, something they were lucky didn’t burn them against Molloy and Hartford. They need to be more consistent and get players like Corey Sanders, Mike Williams, CJ Gettys and Eugene Omoruyi to the line more, as all average 72% or better from the charity stripe. As great as Freeman and Nigel have been overall this season so far, they have shot the most of any player from the free throw line and average just a combined 66%. They should improve as the season progresses, as both players work their way back from missing all of or most of last season, due to injuries and the transfer rule, respectively.
Turnover % both sides
Turnovers have been an issue for Rutgers in almost every game at some point this season. They are averaging a turnover on 20.5% of their possessions on offense, which ranks them 234th and is something that needs to change. On the flip side, Rutgers is forcing their opponents to turn it over on 17.8% of their possessions, ranking them only 239th. Rutgers has committed 15 or more turnovers in three games and have had committed more turnovers than their opponents in four of six games. The only two contests in which they committed less turnovers than their opponents was against Division II Molloy and Hartford. It’s obvious, but Rutgers must take care of the ball much better as the competition increases. If Rutgers is going to give Miami a real test on Wednesday, taking care of the basketball is key.