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OTB Staff Round Table: Rutgers Basketball Non-Conference Review

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at DePaul Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers men’s basketball team completed their non-conference schedule with an 11-2 record. Their impressive start under first year head coach Steve Pikiell was a pleasant surprise and welcomed change from the past few seasons. It’s clear he has the program moving in the right direction. Our staff got together to assess all that has happened so far this season and what we expect once Big Ten play begins in a couple of days. Here we go!

Team MVP So Far

David Anderson: CJ Gettys. There have been games when Freeman had a ridiculous stat line, games where Nigel Johnson simply demoralized opponents with pull ups, or Sanders hounded the opposing point guard, but when the team needs to get back to basics and get a shot close to the basket it’s CJ. The stats might not show it and he doesn’t score many style points but he has consistently gotten baskets in key moments of games where the momentum was at stake. His game winning shot against Hartford on an intelligent hustle play may epitomize this season more than any other.

Griffin Whitmer: Mike Williams. Talk about bringing the firepower off the bench. Williams is the main reason Rutgers beat Fordham and has been a +/- machine this year. For those of you who don’t know, +/- is the team’s point differential when a given player is on the floor. Against Fordham, his was +32. The next highest on the team was +16. He was +31 against Central Connecticut and +26 against Niagara, twice the closest teammate. Off all the great effort we’ve seen this year, no one has been giving more than Mike Williams and the team consistently plays its best basketball when he is on the floor. His pure hustle, good defense, and much improved and much more balanced offensive game this year have set him apart.

Dave White: Mike Williams has been in the middle of every single run this team has made. Whether it’s pulling down a major rebound, forcing a turnover, making the extra pass or hitting a big three, Williams has done it all. Is he a superstar? No, but he’s making winning plays and at times been the best play on the court. If CJ Gettys’ spark and fire have turned the attitude of this team around, Mike Williams has been the one to quietly spur this team on to an 11-1 start. (Yes, I’m writing this before Seton Hall.)

Aaron Breitman: Mike Williams is the heart and soul of this team. His willingness to accept a new role of coming off the bench and embracing his opportunity has sparkled this team and has been a monumental reason for their success. He has made at least one big play in every win and even in the losses, he has battled until the end. He carried the burden of the many losses the past two seasons, but has been reborn under this new coaching staff. It’s been a pleasure to witness and everyone around the program vouches for what a great kid he is.

Biggest Surprise

David Anderson: Mike Williams. He had been billed as good shooter but we never really saw it. This season he has made a lot of baskets which have been key for a team that often struggles from the field. What really puts him over the top in this category is the offensive rebounding, even when he is in the game as the small forward. Many of these plays go unnoticed, but the offensive rebounding wears out an opponent and gives RU so many extra possessions. I thought Johnson and Sanders would squeeze him out of the rotation a little bit, but it has actually had the opposite effect.

Bob Cancro: Eleven wins. End of discussion. Period.

Griffin Whitmer: CJ Gettys. If we’re being honest, I thought this would be sort of a honeymoon stop for Gettys and he would play a few minutes each game and get a couple points and boards. Boy has he blown me away. He is a dominant center and has proven on multiple occasions he can completely take over a game. He feasts on players that are too short and are lacking in heighth. He makes shots at a very high percentage and has also been the team’s best foul shooter. Talk about an impact transfer.

Dave White: No slip ups. Seriously, Rutgers always has a WTF loss in them, usually to someone sitting at the lower end of the KenPom rankings. But this team has avoided that. A few times they’ve come close, like Hartford and Stony Brook, but they’ve managed to withstand it. So eleven wins are huge and they’ve done what good teams do: share the ball, play tough defense and find ways to win even when the shots aren’t falling.

Aaron Breitman: Defense. I knew that Pikiell would make this team much more competitive on the defensive end of the floor, but the results he has accomplished so far has been nothing short of astonishing. We are talking about a team that was a horrific defensive unit the past two years and they’ve been completely transformed. They still need to be more consistent and eliminate lapses in key stretches, but when they are locked in, they’ll have a chance against anyone they’re playing. The first half of the Seton Hall game is exhibit A.

Biggest Disappointment

David Anderson: Jonathan Laurent. When you watch the games, you forget he is even out there. In the Stony Brook game at one point I asked myself if he even played in the game and had to check the box score. After last year, I expected with bigger guys healthy he would have more freedom to make plays and be in better spots for his talent than battling with monsters down low. The team will need to add a dimension to be competitive in B1G play and luckily, Laurent may be the one to provide it.

Griffin Whitmer: Shaq Doorson. Sure, there should not have been too many expectations for him coming off surgery, but he has not been very good in his steadily increasing time this year. He is not great at receiving passes down low and when he gets fouled, he can’t make the free throws. He is good for a few open dunks and getting Gettys and Deshawn Freeman rest, but is currently too much of a liability to get consistent minutes.

Dave White: I really can’t say I’m disappointed. Everyone on this team save for Matt Bullock and Ibrahima Diallo have contributed at some point. Are others playing better than some? Yes. Jonathan Laurent was a mismatch to slower and bigger guys last year, but seems to be struggling to find his spot. But he still put up 15 against Drexel. So, to me—there hasn’t been a disappointment yet. It’s all a surprise.

Aaron Breitman: The turnout at the RAC. I get that fans are a bit scarred and pessimistic from the past three seasons, but this team is so likeable and they deserve an enthusiastic atmosphere on their home court. The Rutgers faithful that have been at games have been great as usual. However, now that conference play is about to begin, it’s time to pack the RAC again give this team a true home court advantage.

Reason to Be Optimistic

David Anderson: This team still hasn’t fully hit it’s stride. They are winning games, but still have plenty of room for growth by hitting more shots and being more consistent defensively. The team’s best athletes (Sanders, Laurent, perhaps Doorson) are still not all comfortable in the scheme but if any of those three really break out, this team could surprise some people in the B1G.

Bob Cancro: Just look! Are you not at least mildly excited and happy? Yeah, I know. Molloy College, North Texas, and Morgan State does not a murderers’ row make. But let me give you the brief history lesson on the 1976 Final Four team. That team was good, but it took its hits for playing the likes of Stetson, Bentley, Lehigh, and Lafayette. Not to say this team is going to duplicate anything that historic, but a soft schedule doesn’t mean you can’t perform at a high level, or raise your game.

Griffin Whitmer: This team is improving at shooting the deep ball and this will help them win games down the stretch. They are not a great shooting team, but constantly get open looks. Against Fordham, they were very smart shooting the ball and didn’t take any ill-advised threes like the Rams were doing. They are good enough to not have to rely on the three to win, but Mike Williams and Issa Thiam are improving and Thiam is incredibly dangerous when he gets hot. He is a guy that can come in and hit three shots in a row and swing the momentum in a game.

Matthew Pisani: This team was predicted by experts, fans, and the writers of this fine site to get no more than about 14 wins. We are already at 11. While the Big Ten is a really tough conference to play in, there are definitely beatable teams. Teams like Nebraska and Iowa are teams Rutgers could end up beating. There will not be a plethora of conference wins this season, but there will be some. They may not come against Indiana or Illinois or Purdue, but they will be there. This team has shown they can blowout bad teams and play competitively with good ones so far. Also, at 11-1 giving up barely 60 points per game, they have a reason to be feared come conference play.

Dave White: Rutgers has out-performed my every expectation so far this season. If that keeps up going forward, there’s the optimism. And by landing Geo Baker and Mamadou Doucoure over the next few season—it appears we can still believe that the future is bright. Everything is trending upward here.

Aaron Breitman: Again, it’s the ability of this team to play intense and fundamentally sound defense that has me most hopeful heading into Big Ten play. They will still struggle against the conference elite, but playing tough defense will give them a chance against a good number of teams. It’s also gotten them to play together and the unity their displaying on the floor this season has been so refreshing.

Reason To Be Worried

David Anderson: To say their schedule up to this point has been weak would be an understatement. Making comebacks against teams you can physically dominate and have more depth than is one thing, but doing it against big, fundamentally sound teams is another. The play at the point guard, power forward, and center spots is at an acceptable level, but without improved wing play we could see stagnation in the team if not regression overall.

Bob Cancro: As David said, the schedule is an issue. It was the 350th toughest schedule out of 351 (I swear I think that’s accurate). They have played tough and pretty smart to date. That’s good, but with a few exceptions, they weren’t playing anything like the schedule they’ll face in conference.

Griffin Whitmer: The B1G is as deep as its ever been. There aren’t multiple top-10 teams, but 11 of 14 teams are in the top-70 of KenPom and the bottom of the conference is not nearly as bad as it has been in the past. Minnesota was their lone conference win last year, but the Gophers are looking like a tournament team early. Penn State just blew out St. Johns and that New Year’s Day game is not a comfortable game for the Knights. Nebraska doesn’t have a good record, but has played a very tough schedule and are battle tested. The whole conference schedule is very difficult and not one game can be marked as a win right now.

Matthew Pisani: Have you seen the teams they have had to play? Hartford? Fordham? Farleigh Dickinson? Pretty smooth sailing if you ask me. Having to play teams like Indiana and Wisconsin and Illinois and Ohio State and even Michigan and Penn State will be much much tougher opponents than anyone they have faced thus far besides Miami, whom they lost to. Eleven wins looks nice and toasty right now, but how much more are they really going to come away with once conference play kicks in? Four-five? Less? Hopefully more. Either way, the Big Ten is a really good conference and no conference win will come easily so Rutgers really needs to buckle down and prepare for the rough road ahead.

Dave White: Rutgers has been inconsistent—to say the least—from deep. While, over the last 4 games (pre-Hall, remember), they’ve shot 37 percent from three, there have been 2 for 16 stinkers in there too. If Rutgers can’t be consistent from deep, it will be a long conference season. We don’t really know what this team can do against better competition both defensively and offensively and it may take them a while to figure it out as well.

Aaron Breitman: I love what CJ Gettys and Deshawn Freeman have brought to this team and done so far. However, as we have seen against Miami and Seton Hall, our entire frontcourt has struggled to score and rebound against big, athletic teams. They will face front lines like that going forward from here on out and it’s the biggest reason to be worried. Candido Sa has shown flashes and I see him getting more and more time during Big Ten play. Freeman did grab 11 rebounds against the Hall, but he needs help in the low post. The guards can’t carry all of the scoring load themselves and Rutgers needs more production in the interior to beat Big Ten teams.

Upset Most Likely To Happen

David Anderson: I’m tempted to say the game at Indiana who has played a weak schedule so far, but IU will have 5 days to prepare for that game and Rutgers is WAY better at home. Looking at the home schedule, none of the games seem impossible (except for Minnesota) but from a national perspective I’ll say the Northwestern game. Currently NU has an RPI of 23 and will be coming off a trip to Nebraska. They have played two good teams and lost both. Spring semester classes do not begin for a few more days so the student turnout will be interesting to watch.

Bob Cancro: In theory, almost any win is an upset. But I think topping a Minnesota (at home) or Purdue is possible. The season finale versus Illinois at the RAC is another for consideration.

Griffin Whitmer: Well, like Bob said, any win here on out is an upset but I am looking at their February 8th game at Ohio State as a potential upset against a significantly higher ranked team. Ohio State lost to FAU at home and only beat Farleigh Dickinson by 8 at home. They are a wildly inconsistent team but at their best, they can beat anyone in the country. However, I can see them not showing up because its Rutgers and the Knights can take advantage and stun them in Columbus.

Matthew Pisani: I can see us beating Purdue or Maryland at first glance. At second glance the only teams I do not see us having any chances of beating are Michigan State and Wisconsin. Should be a wild ride this conference play. We will get some wins and we will suffer some losses. One classic upset, though, and everything seems so much more fun.

Dave White: Any conference win this year will likely be deemed an upset, but if you’re looking for a win against the upper half… it’s tough to see right now. Maybe Michigan State stays injured and RU can knock them off? Iowa is struggling as well, but it’s so hard to predict. But know this: one night the shots won’t be falling for the opposition and it will for RU. And the fans will courtstorm. I hope.

Aaron Breitman: Dave is right, as Rutgers is not likely to be favored in any conference game this season. They have gone 3-33 in the Big Ten the past two regular seasons, but I’m hopeful they will exceed that total this year alone. I think at Iowa is a huge game for this team to help build confidence early on during conference play. I think they can win it if they play defense the way they are capable of. I also like how the schedule is set up down the stretch, with the last three games of conference play all at the RAC against Maryland, Michigan, and Illinois. They’ll all be difficult matchups for sure, but I think if Rutgers can keep improving, they’ll have a chance in every game.

Predicted Order Of Finish In Big Ten

David Anderson: Rutgers will finish 9th or 10th. This team should win some games at home and may steal one or two on the road. Even if they somehow go 9-9 in conference (I’m predicting only 5-6 wins), their non-conference schedule would keep them on the outside looking in for an NCAA berth.

Bob Cancro: This is why I like to go first, otherwise it looks like you’re just saying, ‘yeah, what he said’. I’m thinking 10 through 12 is possible. Could it go as high as ninth? I’m thinking no, mostly because of the grind and wearing down the inside guys by the end of the season.

Griffin Whitmer: We still must be cautiously optimistic and I still think this team wins 4-5 conference wins and finish in 12th. I don’t think they stay the worst team in the conference and win a couple of games to earn some respect.

Matthew Pisani: I do not see many conference wins on the horizon for Rutgers. Since they have already been surprising people, I say they will continue to do so. I will say they get 6-8 conference wins. That is not a super stretch, but it is a stretch. Even with that, though, they will still finish near the bottom of conference play, leaving them needing to blow minds during the conference tournament to stand a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament.

Dave White: I can see them finishing 12th in conference with 4 Big Ten wins. It’s better than 14th.

Aaron Breitman: I predicted 10-3 in conference play and 4-14 in Big Ten play before the season. While I think Rutgers has a legitimate shot in about half of the conference games, that doesn’t mean I think they’ll win them all. However, I think hoping for about half to fall R way is not a crazy thought. I’m going to say they win 5 conference games, finishing in 11th or 12th place and finishing the regular season with a 16-15 record ahead of the Big Ten tournament. If Pikiell can complete the season with the program’s first winning record in 11 years, it would be a major accomplishment and one that would make waves throughout the Big Ten. Let’s hope!!