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Deep Thoughts On Rutgers Basketball & The Big Ten Outlook

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I spoke to Richard Kent about our December TBT moment with the 1978 Holiday Festival here. A prominent lawyer, he is also a longtime supporter of Rutgers basketball and has worked in radio and TV within college basketball for decades. He currently does color analysis for Yale basketball on the radio.

Naturally, I asked him about his assessment of the team so far this season, as well as the overall landscape of the Big Ten conference. We spoke again yesterday in the wake of the disappointing loss at home to Penn State. Here is a back and forth regarding our conversations and some thoughts on Rutgers basketball and their outlook the rest of this season.

Aaron: What are your thoughts on the upcoming Big Ten schedule?

Richard: Northwestern is for real. They went up to Penn State and I’ve never been there, but people say it can be a tough place to play. They won easily and I say that puts them in the double loss column for Rutgers ahead of their two upcoming meetings this season. I do believe that this is the year Northwestern will go to the NCAA Tournament.

I’m leery of the road for Rutgers. Michigan State, especially at home, is going to be really tough physically for Rutgers. At Indiana will be a big time loss, a 20 point loss. They’ve got thoroughbreds, they’ll play up tempo, fast tempo, as Rutgers wants to play, but just better. Iowa at the RAC is a winnable game and likely a 3-5 point game either way.

Aaron: In terms of personnel right now, what is your assessment of key players?

Richard: I think it’s clear that Mike Williams has taken the biggest step forward of any player on the team. Now Corey Sanders may have a little cloud on his shoulder, but I still believe he is the best player on the team. I still believe you need a really good Corey Sanders in order to compete with anybody.

Aaron: Do you think they’ll start playing Corey off the ball and have Nigel play the point?

Richard: I would normally say by January we would know the answer to that, but given the fact that Pikiell is playing 9-10 guys in the lineup and the rotation is in a state of flux, I do think that is a possibility. We don’t know the five guys, if there are five guys, and I’m not a fan of a 9-10 man rotation on any level. But if Pikiell wants to have a 6-8 man rotation, I could see that happening, without necessarily happening on all occasions. At the start of a second half, it could make sense to throw a different wrinkle in by starting Sanders off the ball.

Aaron: What should we make of the frontcourt struggles against stiffer competition?

Richard: I think Freeman is who he is. I think he has a tremendous difficulty finishing near the rim and it could be against Hartford or against Wisconsin. This has been an endemic for Freeman forever.

I don’t think Gettys has been rendered useless by the Big Ten schedule. I was impressed by Gettys in the NCAA Tournament against Duke. I’ve got a good friend who was the Director of Basketball Operations down at Delaware and saw Gettys play 7-8 times against them and he impressed him. I think Gettys is serviceable, but I think there will be some guys who are impossible matchups for him.

Aaron: Will Sa get more time in conference play based on his athletic and shot blocking ability?

Richard: I think he’s got to. Given everything that I have seen in him so far, yes. He is an x-factor for me.

Aaron: How important is Issa Thiam in needing to be a factor and the importance with three-point shooting for this team?

Richard: In order for Rutgers to win the majority of winnable games, he has to be making 2-3 three’s a game. Without that, besides Mike Williams, there is just not the three-point threat they need. Everybody is going to zone Rutgers and offensive rebounding is the big problem in my mind as the result of playing who they played before. The offense was derivative of second chance points and offensive rebounds. The problem is moving forward Rutgers will be looking at severe rebounding deficits. You will see a much looser defense against a Maryland, an Ohio State and a Iowa for sure. Rutgers hustled and hung in against Wisconsin.

Aaron: How do you think head coach Steve Pikiell has done so far in year one of the rebuild?

Richard: I think he has done a fabulous job so far.

Aaron: What are your initial thoughts on the Big Ten?

Richard: This is not a year in which the Big Ten will have two teams in the top 10. It’s a down year for the Big Ten at the top and it’s an up year for the Big Ten in the middle. Losing to Wisconsin by any margin doesn’t make any difference, because its not a winnable game.

Aaron: How many Big Ten teams will make the NCAA tourney?

Richard: I would say the same number of bids as the Big East conference. Wisconsin, Indiana, and Purdue are certainly going to go to the tournament. Michigan and Maryland are probably going to go to the tournament. Then teams like Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern have work to do. It’s certainly at a minimum a 5-6 bid conference.

Aaron: Where do you rank the top conferences right now?

Richard: I think the ACC is the best conference. I think the Big East is second and I think the Big Ten and PAC-12 are tied for third.

Aaron: What are your thoughts on recruiting and how the staff is doing so far?

Richard: The New Jersey coaches seem to like him. I think Geo Baker is a big time recruit. I don’t know much about Mamadou Doucoure coming in, but when you read about him, he seems like a big time recruit. I think the recruiting dividends will really pay off next year. I think we will start to see at least a couple of 3-star recruits from New Jersey come to Rutgers in 2018.

Aaron: What are your thoughts on this team after the Penn State loss?

Richard: The last five days you have to look at with the impact of other teams, like Nebraska, winning two road games, which Rutgers is obviously not in a position to win road games like that. I penciled in Rutgers after the Stony Brook game as being ahead of Penn State and Nebraska. The only game I thought Rutgers would be a clear favorite in was against Penn State at home. Rutgers was a narrow favorite and it was a loss unfortunately. That coupled with Nebraska on the road exposed a lot of stuff. In fact, Rutgers played better against Wisconsin on the road than they did against Penn State at home.

The Penn State loss was important for a number of reasons. Number one, the building was almost filled and I’m sure there were some people who hadn’t been around during the Jordan era, or the last two years of the Jordan era and decided to come back. Listen, Rutgers laid an egg. It’s not that Penn State played great, Rutgers laid an egg on offense. I thought Rutgers played well defensively, I think it was Penn State’s worst offensive efficiency outing of the year (editor’s note: It was their 2nd worst).

But offensively, I don’t think I’ve seen Rutgers look this challenged even during the Jordan era. It was almost bizarre to me. I would have thought this would have been one game in which they did well. By the way, I’m not down on the coaching staff at all, I don’t think this team was under prepared. They didn’t seem to come out with energy for some reason and I mean the turnovers, the missed shots, the missed easy shots. Penn State opened 0-10 from the field and Rutgers should be up 8 points at that point, but they weren’t.

Once Penn State made that run in the second half, normally in college games, you see the home team comeback and cut it to 3 or something, but it was almost as if, I didn’t feel once that happened that Rutgers had any chance to come back. Even though at halftime, I still felt Rutgers was going to win the game. They just didn’t have the firepower to come back and Rutgers is now last in the Big Ten in scoring offense. That is for all 15 games, so that is coming off the ridiculously easy out of conference schedule.

I was positive Rutgers was going to beat Penn State. This game completely surprised me. I expected the Penn State game to be a lot more like the January win over them at home two years ago. But it wasn’t, it was the polar opposite. Now if you saw Penn State play against St. John’s , which all of us who went to the Garden did, you would think they were pretty good. But they’re not good. Their freshman kids from Philadelphia are talented without a doubt, but I don’t think they’re ready for prime time. I think a number of games, I think the Pitt game, showed that. They had 2 players with flu like symptoms, including Shep Garner, against Rutgers. I don’t know if it was Garner’s health or the Rutgers defense, but Garner was almost non existent.

Aaron: If you would have said before the game that Garner wouldn’t have scored in the game, we would have said Rutgers will win this game.

Richard: 10 point win at home! In a building that was waiting to erupt but never could, and no points from Shep Garner, who is pretty deadly from three, you would think they would have won easily.

Aaron: Do you think their struggle of late against tougher competition is partly a result of not having a challenging non-conference schedule?

Richard: I certainly think that the schedule played a role. I didn’t like the schedule and while I didn’t expect them to play Duke, North Carolina and Butler, I think it would have been good and I’ll say it again, to play the Princeton and GW type teams. Those teams are similar quality wise, if not a little bit better, than Penn State, so you get to play teams like that. Hartford is awful and that game was a bit alarming. The Stony Brook game, since then they’ve lost by 46 points to Hofstra after the Rutgers loss and they’ve been pretty crummy after that. But going into that game, Stony Brook was not a terrible team and Fordham certainly wasn’t a terrible team and Rutgers could have beaten Fordham by 30 points in that game. Stony Brook was a tough game in front of a hostile crowd, who was playing their super bowl.

Aaron: Is this loss to Penn State a normal bump in the road during the rebuild in year one, or is it a red flag that it’s going to be very challenging to get a even a couple of conference wins now?

Richard: Penn State at home with zero production from Shep Garner is a red flag, no doubt. There is something off with Corey Sanders. Obviously, I’m not a doctor I don’t know if he is still injured, but he showed nothing at all offensively. Freeman still can’t finish, Nigel Johnson was decent, but certainly not at the level Rutgers needs him to be. Who can you beat scoring 47 points?

Aaron: I think that is what is so frustrating, as defensively they are playing at a high level, but the fact that they took perhaps two steps back on offense was the most disappointing part. Perhaps we should have seen this coming?

Richard: Well, how do you see it coming after the Seton Hall game? Seton Hall is better than Penn State, it was on the road, yes there were 2,500 Rutgers fans there which makes it different from a lot of road games. The Big East is better than the Big Ten and Seton Hall is an upper half team in the Big East. Their win against Marquette on Sunday was a gutty win, I watched the second half. And Rutgers completely outplayed Seton Hall in the first half and outplayed them defensively virtually the entire game.

Aaron: Right, you would think the setting against Penn State was more primed for them to play off their emotions and instead they came out completely flat.

Richard: Then you could make the counter veiling argument that maybe it was too much pressure. Of all the games on the schedule, if you had to rate them based on the likelihood of wins, Penn State would not only be #1, but it would be a 55% to 60% chance of winning.

Aaron: KenPom actually had it at 61% chance of winning.

Richard: Well, that’s what I would have had it at. And we are now done in which any games that Rutgers will be favored the rest of the year. They can’t be the favorite at home against Northwestern, because I think they’ll lose big at Michigan State and I still think they’ll lose to Iowa, who did look impressive in their win over Michigan. At a minimum, Northwestern will be a 6-8 point favorite.

Aaron: Well, now Nebraska after two big road wins, they’re not going to be an underdog either at Rutgers.

Richard: No. I’m not saying Nebraska is going to continue to win road games like they did against Indiana and Maryland, but they’re certainly going to hold serve at home now.

I don’t know if Gettys can see a lot of minutes against Big Ten elite frontcourt players like Caleb Swanigan, but then again who is going to see them then?

Aaron: That’s why I am hoping Sa would can step up, because he can be a a strong rim defender and is athletic. He showed a little more assertiveness against Penn State, but they need more of it.

Richard: Yeah he did and it would be great if Gettys, who hit about a 10 footer, if he was able to hit those at even 50% efficiency, it would open up the offense more.

Aaron: I thought the frustrating part of the second half was that Gettys made two baskets right away and then Rutgers went away from him, shooting long jumpers and that was kind of the impetus for how that big Penn State run started.

Richard: Those shots by Rutgers weren’t even close to going in, it’s not like they were rimming out. They were shooting clunkers and air balls. I thought that Penn State in the first half was just horrible. Both teams were throwing passes to nobody, with passes going directly into the crowd.

Aaron: The turnovers the last few games, if you look at it, are consistently at 15+ a game right now, as the competition has ramped up, which doesn’t bode well.

Richard: It’s very difficult to go from North Texas, Central Connecticut State and Hartford to Seton Hall, Wisconsin, and Penn State. This is not a NIT or NCAA team. Yes it’s great to be 11-1, but it’s not great to be 11-1 also, because it might give you false confidence. Syracuse always played those type of games in New York (home), their first games against Cornell and those teams, so they’d have a buffer to ensure they got into the NCAA tournament, in case they went 8-8 in the Big East. There is no need for Rutgers to have done that because they aren’t going to a tournament. There are not a lot of Rutgers fans that would have been upset at 9-3, especially if you lost to GW 65-58 or lose to Princeton 67-64 or something like that. Rutgers wasn’t going to get blown out in those games, but they would have gotten to see what some quality players really look like.

Aaron: In terms of where do we go from here, obviously Pikiell has made a lot of positives changes already, including laying the foundation for the future and the vast improvement on defense. However, with the offensive limitations we are seeing now, what should we be looking for regarding positive results the rest of the season?

Richard: You want to avoid blowout losses for sure, especially at home, and I think the team is pretty much built that way, although I worry about Indiana on the road. I’m also worried about Michigan State on the road, because they are as improved a team in the last 30 days as any team in the country. They’re freshman are now sophomores basically, they really physically strong. Izzo is obviously a good coach and I think Rutgers could get hammered at Michigan State, but not as much at Iowa.

I thought there was a path, as I’ve said to you before, for Rutgers to win 5 games in the conference, but I think that would be the absolute max now and perhaps pie in the sky thinking. 3 wins is a more realistic number in the regular season, not counting the Big Ten tournament, which they could win that first game. But where will the 3 come from? Everyone says there will be an upset, but I guess Ohio State is beatable on the road. Northwestern is beatable a week from Thursday at home.

Penn State of course is beatable on the road. You can’t say just because Rutgers lost to Penn State there is no way they can compete with them on the road, as they competed with Seton Hall on the road. They beat Stony Brook on the road and beat Fordham at neutral site without a lot of Rutgers fans there. They could win at Penn State and could certainly beat Nebraska at home, although it looks less likely today than it did a week ago.

Aaron: I like your point that maybe the pressure did get to them. Maybe that’s part of the negative of the hot start with the inflated easy schedule, but expectations did increase, perhaps unfairly, and maybe going on the road to Penn State after failing miserably at home, there will not be any pressure in that game.

Richard: Yes, that’s true and might have it been better to play Penn State in the 5th game of conference play, after seeing teams like Michigan State and Iowa and then all of sudden seeing Penn State at home, who are nowhere near quality wise those teams. That’s not Rutgers fault, that’s how the Big Ten set the schedule. What do you think the record is going to be in conference play?

Aaron: I think 3 is the likely number right now. I’m hopeful they can do it or perhaps slightly more, but I am worried it could be less.

Richard: I hate to say this but it’s also possible it could be zero.

Aaron: It’s absolutely possible, like you said, there is no game left they will be favored. I’m hoping there is some soul searching with certain players on offense, as I felt there was a little bit of a let me get mine mentality going on and forcing shots against Penn State, which hurt them. I think that needs to go away. I think 3 is possible and I said 4 before the season, but their loss to Penn State has me less positive about that now, as I counted that as their best chance to win a conference game, other than the Nebraska game. This is the first time all season that I worry they may only win a game or two in the Big Ten.

I think going into the season, I felt they could show progress, but it still might not show up in final scores. I think we may be at that point now, where the hope got up a little bit that Rutgers is going to show positive results in the box score too by winning, but like you said, I do think the loss to Penn State is a red flag.

Richard: Yes, a bunch of 8 point losses juxtaposed to last year’s many blowout losses is not horrible. It’s just that if the team is god forbid, 1-13, will there be a lot of people in the stands for the Illinois game at the end of the year?

Aaron: True and I think the upsetting part is, although maybe at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, but perception is not going to change around the Big Ten on this team. There was an article written after the Wisconsin loss and Rutgers was treated like a joke. It was basically like he didn’t even watch the game and my concern is the casual Big Ten fan will assume the worst based on box scores.

Richard: Every one of my friends who I have touted Rutgers to wrote me and said same old, same old. It’s there and also within the fan base too. I’m sure there were 1,000 people at that game who won’t come back again.

Aaron: Right and that’s the upsetting part. Thanks Richard!

Rutgers is back at it on the road tomorrow night against Michigan State and we will have plenty of coverage leading up to tip-off.