The Rutgers men’s basketball team is now halfway through their Big Ten schedule this season, so it’s an appropriate time to look at where things stand. While a 1-8 record in conference play doesn’t signal much progress in terms of results, those that have watched this team have seen great improvement on the court. Let’s look at some trends and advanced stats, as well as why the remaining schedule should be looked at with optimism.
Strength of Schedule & Big Ten Standings review
Halfway through, Rutgers has played the strongest schedule in Big Ten play of any conference team. Now to be fair, being the worst team in the conference obviously adds context to that, because Rutgers cannot play themselves. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the Scarlet Knights have played six of nine games against teams in the top six of the Big Ten standings, as of today. They are also the only conference team to play Wisconsin twice, who are tied for first place with Maryland and are ranked #11th in KenPom, the highest of any Big Ten team.
The only team Rutgers hasn’t played in the top six of the standings is Purdue, who is 12th in KenPom, despite losing last night on the road to Nebraska. Yes, the one Big Ten team Rutgers has beaten, owns wins over Maryland and Purdue, as well as an Indiana before they suffered injuries to key players.
The other thing to know about the schedule so far, as well as a reason for optimism, is that Rutgers hasn’t played the three teams at the bottom of the standings and KenPom rankings for the conference. Rutgers has home games against Minnesota and Illinois, as well as a road game at Ohio State scheduled for the second half of conference play. I listed all three of these opponents in my article regarding what I believe are six winnable games remaining on the schedule.
Rutgers truly has played the most difficult schedule so far and while they only notched one win, if they can continue to improve the way they have since late December, more wins will result. While the offense has struggled mightily, the defense and rebounding has more than held up in Big Ten play. Let’s look at where they stand in those categories, both within the conference and nationally.
For a full look at the Big Ten Standings, click here.
Offensive Numbers Are Painful
I like to start with bad news first. Of course, the reason Rutgers sits at just 1-8 in Big Ten play is because of their offensive struggles. Their adjusted offensive efficiency is 277th in the country, which believe it or not, is 26 spots better than where the team finished last season. In Big Ten play, Rutgers is last in adjusted offensive efficiency overall, as well as the following categories: effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, two-point percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage.
Free throws have been exceptionally frustrating, as Rutgers is shooting an abysmal 55.4% in league play. However, I think it’s important to remember this team is a terrible shooting team all the way around, and it’s unfortunately the biggest thing holding them back. It’s also something that isn’t likely to change much this season.
The one positive takeaway is that Rutgers is running much better offensive sets and taking higher percentage shots than the past couple of seasons. They are just missing a high percentage of shots, despite them being relatively good looks. Of all the statistics that scream a need for a talent upgrade, its within the shooting statistics.
The other aspect that is killing this team is turnovers, as Rutgers is averaging 14+ per game for the season. They’ve only managed less than that number in just two conference games this season. Rutgers cannot allow easy baskets in transition and their defensive statistics would be even more impressive if they took care of the basketball better.
Defensive Efficiency Ratings
The program has used the mantra “Knight And Day” since soon after head coach Steve Pikiell took over last Spring. There is nowhere it has been applied better than with the defense and rebounding for this team. It’s what has kept them in games and gotten them close to pulling off major upsets in conference play. It’s also been a major factor in changing perception of Rutgers among coaches around the league.
On the defensive side, Rutgers has improved since Big Ten play has begun. Last season, they held conference opponents below 70 points just twice in nineteen games, while Rutgers has already held Big Ten opponents below that mark in six of nine contests so far. Last season, Rutgers allowed 85 points or more in 11 of 19 games, while they’ve only allowed Michigan State over that mark this season. That is major progress.
In terms of advanced statistics, Rutgers is currently ranked 35th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and are 6th in conference play among their Big Ten peers. While Rutgers has yet to play the top two teams in the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency, Michigan and Purdue, they’ve played the next six highest ranked teams in a total of seven games.
Specific defensive categories that Rutgers is near or at the top during conference play is three-point percentage (1st), block percentage (2nd), and effective field goal percentage (3rd). If they can maintain or build on their defensive numbers in the second half of the Big Ten schedule, they will finish the season as an elite defensive team.
With advanced stats overall for the season, Rutgers has the following national ranks: 13th in block percentage, 16th in effective field goal defense, 27th in three-point defense, and 32nd in two-point defense. Rutgers is 39th in scoring defense in the country, allowing just 65.1 points per game.
Rutgers currently has an offensive rebounding percentage of 35.8% in Big Ten play, which is best in the conference. For the entire season, Rutgers has a mark of 38.4%, which is 9th best in the country. It was fair to be concerned they would be unable to hold their own on the boards in Big Ten play, but Rutgers is proving to be a legitimate force on the glass, regardless of who they play.
Of 351 Division I teams, Rutgers is 4th in total rebounds per game, offensive rebounds per game, and 19th in rebounding margin. While Rutgers does have five players at 6’9” or taller, making them one of the biggest teams in the country, the guards have been tremendous on the boards this season, as well. Mike Williams, Nigel Johnson, and Corey Sanders are 3rd, 4th, and 6th, respectively, on the team in rebounding average and all are grabbing 3.5 or more per game.
Three Predictions For Second Half
Now that we have looked at all the statistics so far for this season and in Big Ten play, I’ll close with three predictions for the rest of the conference schedule.
They Will Win Three More Regular Season Games
I predicted a 4-14 record before the season in Big Ten play and I really believe this team will get there. Tomorrow night at home against Iowa is a tremendous opportunity to move past Saturday’s heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin. In addition, Illinois and Minnesota still have to venture to the RAC. Road games at Ohio State and Penn State will not be easy, but they aren’t impossible either.
Even Michigan, who is the top offensive team in the conference, are heavily reliant on three-point shooting and are dead last in Big Ten play in offensive rebounding percentage. They are a finesse team that relies on outside shooting. Rutgers almost knocked off Wisconsin, who play a similar type offensive game, but are far superior to Michigan on the defensive end, who rank 13th in league play. This game though, will be played at the RAC, which will only help.
If Rutgers can continue to rebound and play great defense, something has to give against the middle to bottom tier teams left on the schedule. I think this program will gain much deserved momentum in finishing the season strong.
They Will Finish As An Elite Defense Team
I believe Rutgers will only get better defensively and finish in the top 5 of the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency, as well as top 30 nationally. This is important, not just in helping to lead to more victories, but having these types of rankings gives Pikiell tangible evidence that this team is both greatly improved and elite on the defensive end.
Rutgers Will Finish With Highest KenPom Ranking Since 2011
They are currently at #129, with a 12-10 record overall and 1-8 in Big Ten play. They are the only Big Ten team that is ranked outside of the top 100, so if they can pick up 3 or more conference victories the rest of the way, they will jump quite a bit. They even moved up 7 spots since Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin.
In former head coach Mike Rice’s first season in 2010-2011, Rutgers finished 78th in the KenPom rankings with a 15-17 record. The best finish since was the 2012-2013 season, when a 15-16 Rutgers team finished 106th. If Rutgers can get those three victories, I think they can get close to 100, as those wins will all be against sub-100 teams and result in a regular season finish of 15-16.
This season is all about progress in year 1 of the Steve Pikiell era and progress we have seen. We know this team is a bad offensive unit, but they are proving to be close to an elite defensive and rebounding team. With a more manageable schedule remaining, it’s fair to expect better results to follow in the second half of Big Ten play. Shooting and turnovers has cost them dearly in pulling off much needed and perception changing upsets. However, considering this team was arguably the worst high major team in history just one season ago, the improvement under Pikiell so far this year has been incredible. Continue to stay positive and support this team, who despite their limitations, really have been a pleasure to root for this season. Indifference and anger prevailed in recent seasons, while hope and heartbreak have been overriding themes this season. That’s progress in of itself.