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Rutgers Basketball: Previewing Big Ten Play

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NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers men’s basketball team will begin Big Ten play tomorrow night on the road against one of the conference’s elite in Wisconsin. We reviewed how Rutgers did in non-conference play in our latest staff round table here. Now it’s time for a full preview of the Big Ten and how Rutgers is positioned entering conference play.

State Of Big Ten Entering Conference Play

Maryland

Record: 12-1

KenPom Rank: #64

Best Win: #31 Kansas State

Worst Loss: #55 Pittsburgh

Minnesota

Record: 12-1

KenPom Rank: #47

Best Win: #39 Arkansas

Worst Loss: #26 Florida State

Wisconsin

Record: 11-2

KenPom Rank: #10

Best Win: #38 Marquette

Worst Loss: #21 Creighton

Purdue

Record: 11-2

KenPom Rank: #12

Best Win: #24 Notre Dame

Worst Loss: #8 Louisville

Northwestern

Record: 11-2

KenPom Rank: #46

Best Win: #40 Dayton

Worst Loss: #24 Notre Dame

Rutgers

Record: 11-2

KenPom Rank: #115

Best Win: #198 DePaul

Worst Loss: #49 Seton Hall

Indiana

Record: 10-2

KenPom Rank: #15

Best Win: #5 North Carolina

Worst Loss: #99 Fort Wayne

Michigan

Record: 10-3

KenPom Rank: #29

Best Win: #34 SMU

Worst Loss: #35 Virginia Tech

Ohio State

Record: 10-3

KenPom Rank: #41

Best Win: #61 Providence

Worst Loss: #224 Florida Atlantic

Illinois

Record: 10-3

KenPom Rank: #66

Best Win: #57 NC State

Worst Loss: #124 Wintrop

Michigan State

Record: 8-5

KenPom Rank: #53

Best Win: #23 Wichita State

Worst Loss: #143 Northeastern

Iowa

Record: 8-5

KenPom Rank: #60

Best Win: #30 Iowa State

Worst Loss: #171 Omaha

Penn State

Record: 8-5

KenPom Rank: #96

Best Win: #98 St. John’s

Worst Loss: #167 Albany

Nebraska

Record: 6-6

KenPom Rank: #97

Best Win: #40 Dayton

Worst Loss: #195 Gardner Webb

One interesting note, Rutgers is the only Big Ten team that doesn’t own a win over a team ranked in the top 100 of KenPom. It’s fair to mention they also only played non-conference opponents ranked in the top 100 in Miami and Seton Hall, but they lost to both by double digits. We know they had positive moments in both losses, but it highlights how much less competitive their non-conference schedule was compared to the rest of the Big Ten.

The lighter schedule did allow for Rutgers to gain confidence and learn how to win against weaker competition. They deserve credit for avoiding any bad losses, as there were certainly many opportunities for those and it’s something that has plagued this program in recent years. The Big Ten saw five teams lose a game to an opponent ranked sub-100 in the KenPom rankings, and one team lost to a sub-200 opponent. Rutgers not falling in that category is a step forward for sure.

In terms of the Big Ten schedule, I like to break the 18 game slate into three sections of 6 games each. Here is what is ahead for Rutgers.

1) At Wisconsin, Penn State, At Michigan State, At Iowa, Northwestern, At Indiana

2) Nebraska, At Maryland, Wisconsin, Iowa, At Penn State, At Ohio State

3) Minnesota, At Purdue, At Northwestern, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois

While there is no easy stretch in conference play, I do think the first six-game stretch is the most difficult. It encompasses part of a six game period that Rutgers is playing five games away from the RAC, which started against Fordham. Wisconsin and Indiana are the two favorites to win the Big Ten right now and Rutgers plays them both on the road in this opening stretch of conference play. They also have to travel to Michigan State, who have had a rough start, but if they get healthy, they could certainly be in the mix to win the conference as well.

Stretches 2 & 3 aren’t easy, but there are winnable games if Rutgers can bring the same defensive intensity and focus they did against Seton Hall. Head coach Kevin Willard of the Hall seems to agree, as he said this after Friday’s game:

“I don't think they respected (Hall players) the job or respected how good of a defensive team Rutgers is. I think that was the biggest difference. Once they realized how good they were, they ran the offense better.”

“They are different. People better respect them in the Big Ten, or they are going to win a lot of games.”

Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell was asked after the game if he thought his team was ready for the Big Ten and he had this to say:

“I think we are prepared for the Big Ten. Teams are great, this team (Seton Hall) is excellent. We’re going to have to go on the road and play in some tough places. We showed some good signs today. People have a lot of questions about us, which is fine. I like this team. I like our whole roster. We’re going to get better. We have to execute and we have to add to our roster. Our defense in the first half was fantastic. We have to figure out how to play that for 40 minutes.”

A couple of weeks ago, Pikiell spoke on the Big Ten teleconference and harped on areas the team must improve on, heading into conference play:

“We really have to improve a lot on the defensive end. Just being where we need to be. Our rotations, you know blocking out on a daily basis, haven’t been good at all. We’ve got to add some defenses too. We have to try and perfect what we are trying to do and we have to add some things.”

“On the offensive end, obviously we have to shoot the ball better. We really want to get guys in the right spots at the right times. A lot of details. I’m a detailed guy and we are not good at details right now, so this team really needs some time off. I need another week on the practice floor. Unfortunately, we have game after game after game coming up here, so we won’t have that. But their still working, they really are. It’s a whole group of new players together for the first time, so I want to have a little patience with them and give them a little confidence. But I certainly know what is ahead in the Big Ten and the teams we are going to be playing are obviously terrific teams, so we have to improve.”

Offensively is where Rutgers needs to improve the most, in my opinion. One weapon they must get back on track is freshman wing Issa Thiam. He has been sick and played just 3 minutes against Fordham and while he was available against Seton Hall, he did not play. Issa made multiple three-pointers in 7 of 11 games before last week’s two game stretch in which he barely played. He is shooting 36% from behind the arc and is the team’s best deep threat.

Not only does he need to hit some in conference play to extend the defense, but it would be key for him to look to shoot the mid-range jumper as well. He has attempted 60 shots this season and only 10 have been from inside the arc. Most of those have been drives to the rim. While it’s been good to see Issa show that part of his game, it’s fair to question how effective he will be attacking the rim against bigger and stronger frontcourt’s in the Big Ten. His slight 6’9” frame is still in need of bulking up to survive the rough and tumble style of conference play. His ability to fake his three-point shot, take two dribbles towards the basket and knock down a 12-15 foot jumper would be a huge addition to this offense.

Rutgers also cannot only rely on Issa from deep. Mike Williams has been solid this season, shooting 37% from three-point range, which is a major step forward for him. He is also shooting 49% overall from the field and he needs to continue to have the same approach on offense in Big Ten play. However, Rutgers needs Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson to improve from behind the arc, as the two have struggled quite a bit. Sanders is just 3 of 20 for 15%, while Johnson is 12 of 47 for 26%.

They both have been great at times this season, but their ability to knock some shots down from three is a must, in order to give this team some balance from behind the arc and stretch the defense. Big Ten defenses are likely to pack the paint and force Rutgers to beat them with jump shots. Nigel and Corey will need to hit some, while also looking to break down the defense and attack the rim. Pikiell has talked about shot selection being something he has emphasized. They need to utilize their basketball IQ’s and have good awareness in order to recognize what the defense is giving them.

Another player that needs to develop is Candido Sa. The athletic and versatile big man has shown flashes of how good he can be in non-conference play. I think his opportunities will grow as Rutgers gets into Big Ten play, as his ability to matchup with conference big men and defend away from the rim will be needed. He is also the team’s best rim defender and leads Rutgers with 18 blocked shots.

The third newcomer who is so important to this team is Eugene Omoruyi. His toughness and physicality on defense will be something Rutgers desperately needs in conference play. He is still too out of control on offense at times, but it could just be a product of him rushing and still adjusting to the speed of the college game. If he can play smarter on that end and utilize his excellent passing skills, while utilizing his ability to defend and rebound, it will make him extremely valubale to Rutgers.

The lineup combination that coach Pikiell has used the most so far this season has been playing his best three guards in Corey Sanders, Nigel Johnson, and Mike Williams, along with captain Deshawn Freeman in the frontcourt, with a rotation of CJ Gettys and Candido Sa at center. That should continue, with Issa and Eugene being x-factors in the development of this team. Jonathan Laurent certainly has a lot of athletic ability and potential, but he has disappointed so far and has been unable to play a complete game. His development would be huge as well.

After the Seton Hall loss, I asked Sanders, Johnson, and Freeman what the mindset of this team was heading into Big Ten play:

Deshawn Freeman:

“We took a loss overall, but it was a good fight. We are not 100% satisfied, but our effort did show.”

Nigel Johnson:

“Just the fact of us having the lead pretty much the whole game, it shows us and solidifies the fact that we know we can compete with anybody. As I told them in the locker room after the loss, yeah it’s a tough loss and everyone wants to wins, but at the end of the day, we know the schedule isn’t going to get any easier from here on out, so we have to put this loss behind us and get ready for what’s coming up.”

Corey Sanders:

“Our mindset is to just work harder. We have to work hard for 40 minutes. We played a good 20 minute half and then we came out and didn’t capitalize on our lead. We let them cut it early. We have to execute better and play better defense, especially in our post. So I just feel like we have a lot of things we have to work on.”

Rutgers heads to Wisconsin with an 11-2 record, which is something to be proud of. However, this team must continue to make forward progress and stay together, as Big Ten play will be a steep step up in competition on a nightly basis. It’s important they don’t lose their confidence and focus on what they can control. Their effort has been greatly improved this season and it’s clear that Pikiell is doing a tremendous job getting the most out of his players.

This team still needs to prove it can rebound against good teams and they need to improve shooting the ball as well. However, the foundation for success is there with their defensive mindset and team chemistry seems high. I think hoping for a few conference wins is fair, but also remembering the program’s all-time record in the Big Ten is 3-33 is important too. This season is about progress and I am confident we will see that in conference play. How that translates with their record remains to be seen.

Staying healthy is essential to this team’s progress, but the more time they have to learn under Pikiell and the coaching staff, you have to believe they will continue to improve. There are so many reasons to be hopeful about the direction of the program in year one of Steve Pikiell. Others have taken notice and he already landed a 4-star big man for the future. Better days are certainly ahead. I’ll end with Pikiell’s comment after Friday’s loss to Seton Hall on his outlook for the rest of the season.

“We’re close. We have to learn how to finish some things and we have to do a better job of executing down the stretch. You saw some minutes there, where we have a chance to be a really good basketball team.”

It starts tomorrow night against Big Ten favorite Wisconsin.