After yesterday’s loss to Indiana, Rutgers is mired in a seven game losing streak and are now the only conference team without a win in Big Ten play. It’s easy to read that sentence or look at recent scores and think, same old Rutgers. However, if you have been watching this team, it’s been pretty clear that is not true. The struggles on offense have been very frustrating to watch, but the effort and success this team has had on the defensive end and with rebounding, has been nothing short of impressive.
After 19 games, Rutgers has a defensive adjusted efficiency ranking of 61st out of 351 Division I teams, according to KenPom. That puts them 8th in the Big Ten and in the top 20% of all college basketball teams. Before the idea of this purely being a benefit of their light non-conference schedule, think again. Rutgers just held Indiana, an elite offensive team, to their third lowest offensive adjusted efficiency rating of the season. Only Louisville held them lower since Thanksgiving and Indiana is currently ranked 2nd in the Big Ten and 11th in the country in offensive adjusted efficiency even after yesterday’s game.
In addition, Rutgers became the first team to out-rebound Indiana in a game this season. It is significant, because they are also an elite rebounding team. They were ranked 6th in the country and averaged 41 boards entering the contest, but Rutgers held them to 29 in the game. Rutgers is now ranked 5th in the country in both offensive rebounds and total rebounds per game, while ranking 14th in rebounding margin. They have done a good job maintaining their prowess on the glass in Big Ten play, something that I was skeptical of before the conference schedule began.
Those two accomplishments didn’t change the outcome of the game, but it highlights how far this team has come in certain key areas. Rutgers was arguably the worst high major team in the modern era last season. I don’t enjoy writing that fact, but as someone that covered them closely, it’s hard to argue against it. They were awful in just about every statistical category there is. Defense and rebounding were two glaring deficiencies and in just a little more than half a season, new head coach Steve Pikiell has completely turned this team around in those areas. The slogan “knight and day” created by this regime rings no truer than it does with defense and rebounding. It’s also tangible proof that Pikiell and his assistants can flat out coach.
So why has Rutgers experienced so little success against Big Ten competition? Because they are still an extremely poor offensive team. This is a very bad shooting team, as they are averaging just 42% from the field, an abysmal 28% from three-point range, and a stress inducing 64% from free throw line. If there is a sign that this program is in need of a talent upgrade, these shooting statistics are exhibit A. It’s why recruiting is so important for the future of the program and, as I reviewed last week, Pikiell clearly understands that and is grinding it out on the recruiting trail.
In addition to poor shooting, turnovers have been a major issue all season. Even during the 11-1 start in non-conference play, Rutgers still averaged 13 turnovers per game. Predictably, it’s only gotten worse since the seven game losing streak began two nights before Christmas against Seton Hall. Rutgers has committed 112 turnovers in the last 7 games, which is an average of 16 per game. The Northwestern game was the only time Rutgers committed less than 10 turnovers and edged their opponent by any significant margin. They lost that game due to a terrible shooting performance.
Another way to measure their carelessness with the ball is turnover percentage, which is currently 20.5% and ranks them 270th in country. They’ve had a turnover percentage of 20% or higher in 12 of 19 games played. Not only is this issue preventing Rutgers from more scoring opportunities, but it’s creating easier scoring opportunities for their opponents. The lack of assists on offense signals a problem as well. Rutgers scored 22 baskets against Indiana, but only 5 of them were assisted on. For the season, Rutgers is ranked 291st in assists per field goals made. That’s a bad stat, as well as having poor assist to turnover ratio as a team for the season.
A major issue with the Rutgers offense in my opinion is the lack of a true point guard on the roster. This is not a slight towards Corey Sanders, who I believe has done an admirable job, and I grade his performance this season so far as a B+. It was clear from the first game against Molloy that he was committed to making a real effort in being a distributor first on offense and getting other players involved. As the competition has increased, so has his focus on scoring and creating offense off the dribble, which is his strength. It’s also been absolutely necessary, as Sanders is easily the most offensively gifted player and best scorer on the team.
His willingness to commit himself on the defensive end under Pikiell has been commendable as well. Pikiell has challenged him with the goal of becoming the best defender in the conference and he has shadowed the top backcourt player on every team Rutgers has faced. He held Penn State’s Shep Garner scoreless and limited Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok, who is 4 inches taller, to just 7 of 18 from the field and 5 points below his season average. His workload and results produced on the defensive end have been impressive.
The issue is Corey is much more of a natural 2-guard than he is a point guard. While his own shooting percentages are not good this season, nor were they last season either, he has been tasked with so much responsibility on the court, it should be accounted for when judging those statistics. But the problem is much deeper for the offense as a whole. Corey would be much better suited playing off the ball, allowing him to find open space to attack from the wing. Bringing up the ball and having to run the offense takes a toll, on top of all his other responsibilities, and it’s wearing him down at the end of the games when Rutgers needs his scoring the most.
The problem is Pikiell doesn’t have any other options other than to task Corey with running the offense, as former head coach Eddie Jordan left the cupboard empty. What is so frustrating is that Jordan is the best point guard in program history, but he failed to bring in any other players that could be a floor general other than Sanders.
Every good team needs a pass first point guard who is an extension of the coaching staff and is able to find teammates in the right spots on the floor, in order for them to succeed with the ball in their hands and take high percentage shots. Pikiell, as well as assistants Karl Hobbs and Brandin Knight, were all successful point guards in the Big East during their own playing careers. They know this better than anyone and shows you why Pikiell had made class of 2017 recruit Jose Alvarado such a priority last summer and fall. He was the perfect mix of grit and ball distributor that this team so badly needs. Unfortunately, Alvarado decided on Georgia Tech instead and Pikiell was left without his point guard of the future. By all accounts, Pikiell did everything he could in pursuing Alvarado, but such is recruiting for a program undergoing a massive rebuild like Rutgers.
Pikiell did recently land a point guard for next season in JUCO player Souf Mensah, who committed a couple of weeks ago. Mensah is not highly rated and seemed to come from nowhere, but his pass first mentality and on the ball defense is certainly a skill set Rutgers sorely needs. I think Pikiell’s willingness to take on a player who is so lightly recruited speaks volumes about how much of a need he sees in having a true point guard on the roster, which Mensah is. While it appears his trajectory at the next level is nothing more than a role player off the bench, Rutgers doesn’t have a player with his skill set at all this season.
Having a true point guard would help with a lot of the offensive woes on this team. No, it wouldn’t make Rutgers a noticeably better shooting team. That is a problem that cannot be fixed overnight with just a player or two. However, there aren't enough players who can create their own offense, something that could be complimented with a strong passing floor general. It would also help with pacing of the offense, ball distribution, and spacing within the halfcourt offense. Ball handling has been a major part of the turnover issues and a big reason why is there isn’t a true point guard on the floor. Other players are frankly handling the ball more than they should and it’s also allowing certain players to take either bad shots or too many altogether.
It is also killing offensive momentum for this team, as bad shots are ending possessions too quickly and putting Rutgers in bad spots in transition. Having a true point guard to put the ball into players hands where they are more likely to succeed would also help to limit big scoring runs by the opposition. Entry passing from the perimeter into the blocks to the big men is also in need of improvement.
A big reason for Rutgers jumping out to early leads at the start of games is a result of good coaching. It’s obvious Pikiell and his staff are developing good game plans and Rutgers is able to execute the opening script effectively. The issue becomes having a lack of balance and talent on offense derails their ability to maintain their execution. A lack of shooters is a big part of it, but not having a true point guard to manage the game is a major problem. Corey Sanders has to create his own offense because he is the best offensive threat on the team. However if he goes cold or gets tired, which happens with any great player that has too much of a burden on their shoulders, it completely derails the offense. The need for a point guard, who can still be a reliable scorer while being a distributor first, is a big piece to the puzzle for the future of the program.
There are no quick fixes in such a complex rebuild as Rutgers basketball is going through. Hopefully, incoming guard Geo Baker can help with the shooting woes from the perimeter next year. Also, another year of development for Issa Thiam should benefit this team greatly for next season, as he has the highest ceiling of any shooter on the roster. However, until Pikiell lands a true point guard to build the program around, the offense will not perform at the level he desires. It’s not his fault the roster he inherited had no such player on the roster. Rutgers needs an upgrade in talent and more players that can score in multiple ways, that’s no secret. However, finding a floor general to help direct the offense and cure some of the deficiencies, like turnovers and shot selection, is crucial as well.
The positive changes Pikiell has made to both the roster and the team’s defensive performance, as well as rebounding, signals optimism for the future. Progress is happening and other Big Ten coaches and fan bases are taking notice. Patience is needed and expectations should be focused on incremental steps forward. There is a winnable game at the RAC this coming Saturday and with five days for Pikiell to prepare for Nebraska, be hopeful the losing streak will come to an end.