As Rutgers (12-9; 1-7) prepares for their rematch against #15 ranked Wisconsin (17-3; 6-1) at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, there is plenty of progress that has been made since their last meeting on December 28th. While most of the results have been similar to last season, this team has been much more competitive in conference play. Defense has been key, as Rutgers has held Big Ten opponents under 70 points in five of eight games so far this season. They accomplished that only twice in nineteen games a year ago. As of today, their adjusted defensive efficiency rating per KenPom is 51st in the country.
Of course, if you follow this team, you know struggles remain on the offensive end. Their statistics read like a horror film, there is red everywhere. They rank sub-300 in effective field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, block percentage, and steal percentage. Their two-point percentage isn’t much better, coming in at 299. The saving grace is offensive rebound percentage, where Rutgers ranks 8th in the country.
Rutgers has three players averaging 10+ points a game and are relying on their scoring production heavily. Corey Sanders has been electric at times and is averaging 15.5 points in conference play. Rutgers surely would not have come from behind to defeat Nebraska without his career day and he is the best player on the team. Nigel Johnson has been up and down since the Big Ten schedule began, but he has played well two games in a row, as he has found his three-point stroke, making 5 of 8 from behind the arc. Deshawn Freeman has been solid the past five games, averaging 12 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest.
Despite their efforts, Rutgers has failed to eclipse the 65 point mark in any conference game this season. They have equaled that total twice, in a 28 point loss to Michigan State and their 1 point victory over Nebraska. However, as good as their defense has been, excluding the Michigan State game, Rutgers desperately needs more scoring production from the rest of the team in order to find themselves in the win column more regularly.
This is where things get interesting. None of the top three scorers on the team are even close to having the highest offensive rating on the team, which measures offensive efficiency for each player. While Sanders, Johnson, and Freeman all have ratings below 100, co-captain and junior guard Mike Williams leads the team with a rating of 110.4. (It should be noted CJ Gettys is the only other Rutgers player with a rating over 100.)
In terms of individual performances this season, I arbitrarily compared the rating of 140, which signifies a very good offensive game. Mike Williams has exceeded this rating in six games this season, while no other Rutgers players has more than two. Remember, this is an efficiency measurement, so while all the players mentioned have scored in double figures multiple times over, their shooting numbers haven’t always been good.
While it’s true that five of the six highly rated games by Williams came in non-conference play, he did exceed the 140 rating in games against Miami and Wisconsin. In total, he started the season with six of fourteen games above that rating. He followed that stretch by scoring 16 of the 47 points Rutgers scored against Penn State, although he struggled from the field. However, the entire team shot 29% from the field and Sanders was the only other player who reached double figures in scoring (10 points) in that game. Williams was averaging 12.1 points per game through fifteen contests and was as the clear cut MVP of the team at the time.
Somewhere along the way, Williams got sick and while he continued to play through it, he lost his way offensively the past six games. To be fair, a lot of players on the team have been battling through sickness, including Freeman, who the BTN announcers said during the Maryland game, had lost 10 pounds in a three day period recently. He still put together a 10 point, 6 rebound performance in the loss on Tuesday and has played hard all season.
My point though, is that Williams is hugely important to the success of this team. It’s not just scoring either, as Mike has the lowest turnover rate on the team. He is also the best rebounder among a backcourt of really good glass eating guards, as Sanders and Johnson each average close to 4 boards per game. Williams averages 4.5 rebounds per contest, but his efficiency rating on the glass is right at 20%, more than 5% higher than Sanders or Johnson.
Williams was shooting 38% from three-point range after the Penn State game, but he has gone 0 for 12 in the past six contests. He is still Rutgers’ best shooter from behind the arc, averaging 33% on the season. He is also the best free throw shooter on the team, as he has made more than 70% for his entire career and is second with a 73% mark this season. Johnathan Laurent has the highest percentage at 78%, but has only taken 18 attempts versus 51 attempts for Williams.
It’s not just long range or from the charity stripe that Williams is valuable as a shooter. Aside from Gettys, Williams is the only other player shooting above 50% from two-point range. The issue is Williams is only fourth on the team in overall shot attempts, so getting him more involved is important to improving the offense long term.
I understand the argument that Williams had most of his statistical success before conference play began and one thought is he struggles against better competition. However, my counterpoint he is plain struggling to regain the groove he was in for the entire first half of the season. It happens to every shooter and he needs to find his rhythm on the offensive end. There are a couple of reasons I think he is close.
His energy was the best it’s been the past two games since his cold streak began. He is still contributing on the floor, as he was diving for loose balls and has grabbed 5 rebounds in both games against Nebraska and Maryland, including 4 on the offensive glass versus the Terps. He is playing solid defense as well and finding ways to be productive, despite his shot not falling. He did force it a bit against Maryland, but he was also open at other times and needs to be looked at more often.
Believe it or not, Wisconsin being next up is another reason to be hopeful Williams is about to break out. In the first game of conference play this season, Williams led Rutgers with 18 points on 6 of 10 shooting and 4 of 5 from three-point range, while adding 8 rebounds and 2 steals. Last season, also on the road against Wisconsin, Williams scored 20 points on 7 of 12 shooting and 2 of 3 from behind the arc, while adding 3 rebounds. Sometimes players just perform well against specific teams, whether it be matchup related or them just having an opponent’s number. Mike appears to play at his optimum level against the Badgers, so perhaps he can get back on a roll against them Saturday.
Another factor is that Williams has played at Madison Square Garden more than any other player who will be on the court Saturday. He practically grew up in the Garden, where he was a ball boy for the New York Knicks and played games in the fabled arena as pre-teen, before returning as a star for Bishop Loughlin in high school. He looked very comfortable in late December when he led Rutgers with 19 points on 7 of 12 from the field, including 2 of 4 from three-point range, in a 15 point victory over Fordham.
With all that being said, Williams is all heart and the soft spoken guard is a prominent leader on the team, with Pikiell naming him co-captain earlier this month. Here is what Pikiell had to say about Mike in a conference call on Thursday:
“He was on a good stretch for awhile there and it happens to players. It’s not as much what Mike is doing, but I think other teams are doing a great job guarding him. So we are really working on getting his shot off the dribble too, he is more of a standstill shooter right now. We have to do a better job of screening for him. Mike has been great all year, he has to keep playing hard and keep doing what he is doing. He’s in the gym, he’s efficient, he’s well prepared for games. He is figuring out ways when he’s not shooting the ball to help us. He’s done that. It would be nice if he could get into that groove like he was earlier on in the season.”
He is the longest tenured member of the program and was unquestionably the most consistent performer in the first half of the season. If Williams can break through his shooting slump and return to form, he will add much needed scoring punch to this offense. With Sanders, Johnson, and Freeman playing better of late, an increase in production from Williams could be the extra edge this team needs to get over the hump and win a few more games in the Big Ten. Watch this feature on Williams below, who has been a class act throughout his career. Hopefully, there will be plenty of reasons to cheer for him the rest of the season, starting on Saturday against Wisconsin in his return home to the Garden.