Entering Steve Pikiell's second season on the banks, there is more buzz for Rutgers basketball than there has been in several years. With a veteran core of Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams, as well as an infusion of several talented newcomers, there is real hope this team can produce the first winning campaign for the program in 12 seasons.
While there is plenty of room for offensive improvement from last season, expecting a major jump in production is unrealistic. Rutgers needs to replace 22 points per game, a third of the team’s scoring from last season, with the departures of Nigel Johnson (11.3 ppg), CJ Gettys (7.7 ppg) and Johnathan Laurent (3.0 ppg). It is realistic to expect a jump in scoring production from sophomores Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi, but how much of an increase remains to be seen. Freshman Geo Baker will be a factor offensively and could be the best shooter on the team. Of course, the big three of Sanders, Freeman, and Williams will likely increase their own production as well. Even so, Rutgers still doesn’t have enough shooters and low post scoring options to all of a sudden become an above average offensive team.
In my opinion, the most realistic way for Rutgers to make a jump in the standings this season is on the defensive end. The biggest improvement made in Pikiell's first year, aside from rebounding, was with defense. There are several reasons to believe they can be even better this season. What’s important to consider is with all of the changes made under Pikiell on the court last season, none were greater from a player perspective then the increased defensive responsibilities and understanding they were required to have. The comparison I think of is is going from a basic math skills class to advanced calculus from one year to the next. What is intriguing is how much less the learning curve is this year for the returning players, improved athleticism for players in their second year of the strength and conditioning program, as well as an influx of talent with the arrivals of several newcomers. All of these factors lend hope that this team can make even more improvement defensively this season.
Let’s first review statistics from the 2015-2016 season compared to last season in regards to points allowed per game. Rutgers saw opponents score 81.0 points per game in 2015-2016, which was 335th in the country. In year one of Pikiell, Rutgers only allowed 67.1 points per game last season, which ranked 56th in the country. In regards to Big Ten play, Rutgers allowed a whopping 86.2 points per game. In 19 conference games, the Scarlet Knights had allowed 80+ points 13 times and 90+ points 7 times. Last season under Pikiell, Rutgers allowed just 70.6 points per game and opponents scored 80+ points just 3 times and 90+ once in 20 conference games. Obviously, that is major improvement on the defensive end. The biggest issue from a win/loss perspective was that Rutgers only scored 60.5 points per Big Ten contest.
Next, let’s review adjusted defensive efficiency, which is an estimate of the defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) a team would have against the average Division I offense.
In YBP (Year Before Pikiell), Rutgers had an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 106.9, which was 235th in the country out of 351 Division I teams. In Big Ten play, it was even worse, as Rutgers had a rating of 119.6, which was last out of 14 teams and was 10+ points worse than the 13th ranked team in the conference.
In YAP (Year After Pikiell), Rutgers improved tremendously overall, posting a rating of 99.2, which ranked them 69th in the country. In Big Ten play, they posted a rating of 105.0, which was 9th in Big Ten play.
It’s obvious Rutgers became a much better team defensively and you don’t need to know the stats to understand that. Watching this team on the court made it abundantly clear that their effort, organization, and fundamentals were far superior than the previous season.
Now let’s look at how opponents shot the basketball against Rutgers and a specific area they need to improve in to continue to make progress defensively this season.
In regards to effective field goal percentage, Rutgers ranked 47th in the country last season, holding opponents to 47.5% overall. In Big Ten play, they finished 7th in the conference, holding opponents to 49.5%. eFG% is the abbreviation for it and it’s a statistic that adjusts field goal percentage to account for the fact that three-point field goals count for three points while field goals only count for two points. Essentially, it gives a more complete statistic in terms of total field goal defense.
Breaking it down further, Rutgers held all opponents to 46.6% in two-point field goals last season, which was ranked 68th in the country. However, they were not as effective in Big Ten play, where opponents shot 50.1% in conference play and they ranked just 11th in the league. With three-point field goal defense, Rutgers held opponents to 32.7%, which ranked 61st in the country. In Big Ten play, Rutgers was 1st in holding conference opponents to 32.3% from behind the arc. While this is important and Rutgers needs to continue to guard well on the perimeter, there are a couple more things to consider.
As Ken Pomeroy explains so well in this article, three-point production is controlled more by the offense than the defense. As Pomeroy states in the above mentioned article, “A good three point offense will beat a good three point defense over the long run.” If you remember the heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin at the Garden, that was an example of the Badgers getting plenty of open looks behind the arc, but they simply weren’t making them. This isn’t to discredit the Rutgers defense, nor the importance of limiting opponents in three-point field goals, but rather to emphasize the greater need for Rutgers to improve in defending against two-point field goals this season.
In conference play, Rutgers struggled in defending two-point field goals much more so than three-point field goals. A big part of the reason is as successful as Rutgers was in their own offensive rebounding percentage last season (1st in the Big Ten, 7th in the country), their opponents had a lot of success with rebounding the offensive glass against them. Overall, Rutgers was just 217th in the country in allowing opponents offensive rebounds at a rate of 30.1% of the time. It was even worse in Big Ten play, as they finished 12th, allowing conference opponents to grab offensive rebounds 32.4% of the time.
This fact alone is the number one reason fans should be excited by Monday’s news that former 4-star recruit and incoming freshman, Mamadou Doucoure, was ruled eligible to play this season by the NCAA. In my opinion, Doucoure will be a major factor defensively in the paint immediately this season. He is already physically imposing, as Rutgers lists him at 6’9” and 243 pounds. He plays hard and is an active rebounder. While it will take time to develop his offensive skills at this level, Doucoure can have a big impact on this team as a rim enforcer and be a real problem for teams in the paint this season. Once he understands and is comfortable with his defensive responsibilities, I expect him to be an anchor for this team in the low post.
As good as CJ Gettys was last year starting at center, he was much more valuable on the offensive end and was a defensive liability in Big Ten play at times. Not many players had success against big men like Angel Delgado of Seton Hall, Ethan Happ of Wisconsin, and Caleb Swanigan of Purdue, but all three of those players dominated inside against Rutgers and significantly helped their teams win those games. Even against less dynamic frontcourt scorers, Rutgers struggled defending inside the paint, as evidenced by their opponent’s success in offensive rebounding and two-point field goal percentage. It wasn’t just on Gettys, as the fact is he had little help from the other Rutgers big men. This season, Rutgers needs more from the entire frontcourt.
Candido Sa struggled physically against Big Ten competition and he only played sparingly the last ten or so games of last season. The staff have made a concerted effort to develop his game and get him ready, in hopes he can be an impact player this season. He looks much bigger from footage of offseason workouts and Pikiell has praised his work ethic this summer. Sa came to Rutgers after finishing second in the country in blocked shots at the JUCO level with 3.8 swats per game. Despite playing just 13.5 minutes per game last season, he still averaged 0.9 blocks per game, tied with Deshawn Freeman for the team lead. I wrote last offseason how Sa could become an elite shot blocker at this level and while that didn't happen, his block rate of 7.8% (check) would have ranked in the top 100 of Divison I players had he registered enough minutes to qualify. He and Doucoure are a major key to Rutgers improving their two-point field goal defense and reducing the amount of offensive rebounds their opponents grab this season.
Shaq Doorson has the potential to help too, but after being in a boot most of the summer after offseason foot surgery, he will need time to get in game shape. The wide bodied, 7 footer certainly has the size to help inside, but injuries have plagued his career so far. However, if he can stay healthy this season and give this team 10-15 minutes of solid rebounding and defense off the bench, it will be a significant contribution.
As for freshman big man Myles Johnson, I love his potential, but counting on him to be a factor in Big Ten play on the defensive end is no sure thing. He could help rebounding the basketball, but he probably needs to continue to develop his body and strength to be able to consistently mix it up with the trees of the Big Ten. Even so, assistant coach Jay Young recruited Johnson and must have confidence he can turn into a capable defender in conference play at some point.
Issa Thiam had a tremendous wingspan, as evidenced by the lead photo for this article. While his potential on offense and shooting ability is discussed most, he was an above average defender at the end of last season. Even when he struggled shooting from behind the arc in the latter part of last year, his minutes increased because he was one of the best defenders on the team. He was a strong on the ball defender and moved well in containing players on the drive. With some added bulk and development time, Issa is an exciting player to keep an eye on this season.
The X factor on the interior is Omoruyi, who Pikiell has raved about this offseason. He has improved his body and the staff have worked him hard to develop his overall game. It's not a fair comparison and perhaps sells his offensive potential short, but if Omoruyi could become a defensive specialist the way Ish Sanogo is one for Seton Hall, it would help this team tremendously. Eugene played with no fear in the paint last season and is willing to mix it up on the glass against bigger players. He could be a real workhorse, as he has the versatility to play bigger wings on the perimeter and could be a factor in the middle of the press as well. Omoruyi could develop into a strong two way player, but his potential ability to shut down the opponent's player he is covering would be a real asset defensively. Just a sophomore, Omoruyi is a key piece to the rebuilding of this program.
Deshawn Freeman is a scrappy, hard working player who is fearless in battling taller players inside the paint. He is an efficient rebounder and blocked one shot a game last season in 27 minutes per game. As captain, it will be important for him to organize the rest of the frontcourt on defense and help keep the younger players focused on that end of the floor. He can serve as a great mentor to Doucoure and Johnson this season as well.
Geo Baker and Souf Mensah add size and speed in the backcourt and all accounts give the indication they will buy in on the defensive end. Rutgers needs more consistent guard play overall, but their on the ball defense needs to be better. Baker adds height and length at 6'5", while Mensah is physically bigger than any guard on the Rutgers roster. Matt Bullock took a medical redshirt last year, so it remains to be seen how much of a contribution he will make on the court this season.
Mike Williams plays well above his 6'2" frame and is one of the best rebounding guards in the Big Ten. His 9 rebound performance in the win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament was an unsung performance that shouldn't be forgotten. He is a gritty player who is committed on the defensive end and does the little things for this team that are winning qualities any coach salivates over.
It's no secret Pikiell thinks Corey Sanders can become an elite defender in the Big Ten. While his steals decreased from 1.8 per game to 1.3 last season, he was far more disciplined on the defensive end. He has the potential to shut down the opponent’s best guard and with Sanders likely playing more off the ball this season on offense, he could develop into a true defensive stopper and a more complete player.
Overall, I think Rutgers will be a better team defensively for several reasons. Assistant coach Jay Young runs the defense and is a tremendous teacher. I expect this team to be physically improved, as everyone should benefit from the improved strength and conditioning program. They are a more athletic and versatile team, which will create more lineup options for Pikiell to mix and match with throughout the game and per opponent. Whether Pikiell wants to press more to force the tempo, mix in zone to force more jump shots, or stick with man to man, he should have better suited personnel for any defensive look he chooses. There is less of a learning curve for the returning players, who should have a better understanding of their responsibilities and the defensive expectations of the coaching staff. Doucoure is an upgrade defensively at center. All of these factors should lead to progress. The question is how much better?
For Rutgers to make a climb up the Big Ten standings this season, they need to become one of the better defensive teams in the conference. The offense needs to improve as well, of course, but Rutgers proved last season they could compete against the Big Ten by playing fundamentally sound defense and rebounding the basketball. If they can improve even more and become a great defensive team, they will win more conference games this season than ever before.