The Rutgers men's basketball team completed an 0-9 record through the first half of the Big Ten conference schedule. Of course, we cannot forget that they completed a 6-7 non-conference record as well. Rutgers is currently ranked 275th by KenPom, which has predicted they will not win another game this season. Do you know what Rutgers best statistic is within KenPom's advanced scouting report? Free Throw percentage defense, I kid you not. Opponents are shooting only 66.6% from the line against Rutgers, which ranks them 48th best out of 351 teams. That means Rutgers has been one of the luckiest teams in the country in regards to their opponent missing free throws. Their best statistic has absolutely nothing to do with their own performance. Brutal.
Injuries have been an issue for sure, with frontcourt starter Deshawn Freeman and reserves Ibrahima Diallo and Shaq Doorson all out for the season since late December. However, there are many more reasons why this team is in such dire straits this season. Let's examine six factors to keep an eye on as Rutgers fights to end their conference losing streak, currently at 24 games and counting
In a word, it's been terrible. And it's getting worse. In the first five conference games against Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Nebraska, and Ohio State, those opponents shot 40-106 from three-point range for 37.7%. In the past four games, Purdue, Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State shot 50-118 from three-point range for an alarming 42.4%. Granted those four teams are in the top six in the conference from long range, but consider the defensive strategy against those opponents. Why is Rutgers not playing pressure defense along the perimeter in an effort to limit open looks for their sharp shooting opponents? Fatigue was not the reason Michigan and Michigan State had countless open looks in the first half and opening minutes of the second half of the last two games. Rutgers plays off the perimeter, packing it in the paint, in an effort to counter their lack of size. But it is playing into their opponents strengths, as good shooting teams will make you pay dearly when they consistently have open looks. The sad fact is Rutgers has not adjusted their defense at all during this brutal stretch and are allowing 87.9 points per game in conference play.
Rutgers is shooting 42-152 for an abysmal 27.6% from three-point range in conference play. I discussed this problem in detail here. Rutgers not only shoots the three less than any other Big Ten team, but they shoot the second to worst percentage from long range, with only Penn State worse. Their five made three-pointers per game is dead last in the conference and puts them at a major disadvantage. However, Rutgers needs to continue focusing on their strength, attacking the basket, something they have done a better job recently. Forcing three's is only making things worse.
The best way to overcome injuries and adversity, which EVERY TEAM goes through during a season, is with your veteran players. Eddie Jordan has three seniors at his disposal and they simply are not playing up to expectations. Omari Grier was a complete non-factor the first twelve games of the season, which was a major reason why Rutgers had a losing record in non-conference play. However, he has come into his own the last ten games, averaging 11.2 points a game on 47% shooting from the field. Which makes you wonder why Grier was given so few minutes per game in the early part of the season? A major red flag is the lack of development from seniors Greg Lewis and Bishop Daniels. They have not improved since last year, in a season when them stepping up their games was so crucial to the success of the team. I don't want to pick on them, but they have been disappointing, to say the least. Daniels was a big catch on the recruiting trail but he has failed to live up to expectations. It's a disturbing trend that is becoming common during Eddie Jordan's tenure.
Eddie Jordan and staff secured their third commitment of the 2016 class yesterday, receiving a pledge from 6'8" wing Issa Thiam. He has tremendous length, plays aggressive defense, and can light it up from behind the arc. He is also in need of gaining 30+ pounds and is a project. However, Issa is a high upside recruit and a fine pickup for Jordan, who leaned on assistant Greg "Shoes" Vetrone in the recruiting process. The problem is Issa is a great third or fourth recruit to have within a class. I rate him above Rutgers other two commitments, guard Maishe Dailey and wing Jahlil Tripp. Both have potential, but are I believe they are bigger projects and have less upside than Issa. As disappointing as the senior class has performed this season, is it realistic to think these three recruits will signal an improvement over them next season? I have a hard time believing anything but no. All three recruits need major development time, which unfortunately leads to...
The thought when Eddie took over the program was that he was a great developer of talent, having mentored some of the NBA's elite over the years, including Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson. The reality is Eddie has struggled to elevate the games of anyone on the roster the past three seasons. Kadeem Jack and Malick Kone, along with Lewis and Daniels, are the four that standout the most over the years as failing to improve. I will say Mike Williams is starting to make progress the past few games, as well as the great Corey Sanders. But recruiting is getting worse. Last year's class of Sanders, Laurent, Goode and Freeman were all rated 3-star recruits and above. This year all three current commits are unrated. Take ratings with a grain of salt, but you cannot deny it's trending the wrong way. And to have a coach that has mostly struggled in three seasons to develop his players, the prospects of the team getting better is worrisome. Add in Rutgers failing to make effective adjustments after halftime in conference play, the players inability to not get caught up in fast paced play against better opponents, the defensive effort being suspect in multiple games, and the team unable to avoid bad stretches of poor shot selection and turnovers that put games out of reach, and you have a big mess. That falls at the feet of Jordan, no matter how great a player he was, nor how nice and good a man he is.
There is no doubt the second half of the conference schedule is less challenging than the first half. It will still be difficult to string together multiple victories at a time, but their opponents are far less daunting than teams they have already played. Rutgers nine conference games have come against the top nine teams in the conference, who have a combined record of 148-52. When I discussed whether Rutgers would win a conference game this season, it was the second half that bore several chances. They play Illinois twice, including tomorrow night at the RAC, who are 10-12 with a 2-7 conference record. Rutgers also plays fellow last place Minnesota, who has an identical 6-16 record and is 0-9 in conference play. Mix in 11-11 Penn State at home and Rutgers has five winnable games ahead. KenPom still projects Rutgers to lose everyone, but hopefully they could pull at least a couple wins out. Eddie Jordan's job may depend on it.