The Rutgers men’s basketball team has started the season with a 6-0 record for the second consecutive year under head coach Steve Pikiell. Both starts came against inferior competition, as the non-conference schedule this season currently ranks 348th out of 351 teams, while last year’s was ranked 347th. The average KenPom rank of the Division I opponents Rutgers faced during its undefeated start was 280th last sesaon vs. 297th this season. Let’s agree that the competition faced during both 6-0 starts was not good and overall, the schedule’s were pretty similar. Agreed? Okay, now let’s look at how the two Rutgers teams compare from last season to now.
Let’s start with the many improvements that are clear in looking at the stats through six games this season compared to the first six games last year.
Margin Of Victory
To start off, I excluded the season openers from both years, as Rutgers played against non-Division I competition. Rutgers won its first five games in the 2016-2017 season against Division I teams by an average of 11.2 points per game. That included two single digit wins and just one by more than 20 points. This season, Rutgers has won all five games against Division I teams by an average of 20.8 points per game. The Scarlet Knights have had one single digit victory, but have won three games by at least 25 points.
Last season, Rutgers held its first six opponents to an average of 62.5 points per game. While that showed improvement from the previous season, it’s been drastically better this season so far. Rutgers has held it’s first six opponents this season to just 47.2 points per game, which is the top mark in the country. The defense of Rutgers will be tested in a major way on Tuesday, as Florida State comes to the RAC averaging 91 points a game. For more on the Seminoles from my Q&A with Tomahawk Nation, click here.
Three Point Defense
In the first six games last season, opponents made 51 for 136 three-point attempts for 37.5 %. This season, opponents have shot just 34 for 126 for 27.0% from behind the arc. That is a significant difference and a great sign entering the stretch ahead, as Florida State, Minnesota, and Michigan State all average better than 35% from three-point range.
Rutgers is currently 8th in Division I in turnover rate on offense, at 13.4%. On defense, Rutgers is forcing its opponents into turning it over at a rate of 25.5%, which is 12th best in Division I. Even if it has taken place against inferior competition, this is significant progress compared to last year, against similar opponents. In the first six games of the 2016-2017 season, Rutgers had a turnover rate of 18.5%, which is over 5% worse than this season. On the flip side, Rutgers was forcing its opponents into a 20.2% turnover rate, which is also just over 5% worse than this season.
Last season, Rutgers committed 15 or more turnovers in two games and committed more turnovers than their opponents in three of six games. This year, Rutgers committed a season high of 14 turnovers in the opener against CCNY, but have averaged just 9 turnovers per game in the last five contests. The CCNY game was also the worst turnover margin Rutgers has had this season (+4) and have committed at least 6 less turnovers against every other opponent.
A big reason for this is the addition of Geo Baker, whose ball handling and passing has been a major plus for this team. I also think the team in general have a better understanding of the offensive system under Pikiell in year two and have improved in taking care of the basketball. On the flip side, the defensive pressure has been better at the start of this season compared to last year and Rutgers is forcing turnovers more often. This is a very positive trend and something that last year's team improved on down the stretch and even more progress has been made early on this season.
One Major Issue
Of course, shooting is still a major issue this season, something that was a problem throughout last season as well. However, Rutgers has actually shot worse from three point range (31.5% vs. 25.7%) and the free throw line (64.4% vs. 57.7%) through six games, last season vs. this season. Shooting from two-point range is essentially a wash (49.4% vs. 49.8%). In regards to scoring, it’s slightly down from a year ago (76.6 ppg vs. 73.8 ppg), but as stated above, margin of victory and defensive scoring is way down.
It will be interesting to see how Rutgers shoots the basketball on Tuesday night against Florida State, as they are playing very good defense so far, albeit against inferior competition. This matchup is the first real test for either team. One area where Rutgers does have a clear advantage is on the offensive glass, where they can create second chance scoring opportunities, something Florida State has had trouble defending this season. Rutgers is grabbing offensive rebounds at a rate of 38.5% (15th in the country) this season. More on that in my preview tomorrow morning.
If Rutgers can continue to defend and rebound the way they have at the start of this season during Big Ten play, this team can compete and beat any team in the conference with the likely exceptions of Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota. The bottom half of the conference feels more up for grabs for positioning than in recent years. Of course, the competition ramps up considerably and Rutgers has a lot to prove regarding whether they can maintain the high levels they are operating at in those areas so far this season. Of course, the offense needs to continue to improve for Rutgers to be able to take advantage and really move up the standings this season. However, based on the numbers, as well as what we’ve witnessed on the court through six games, it’s clear that Pikiell’s second team at Rutgers is better at this point in the season versus last year’s team. What that means for the rest of the season and how things ultimately shake out are yet to be determined, but Tuesday’s night’s game against Florida State will certainly tell us a lot more about this team.