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Rutgers Plays Big When It Goes Small

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The Scarlet Knights thrive with their three-guard line-up on the floor.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Rutgers
Deshawn Freeman, Mike Williams and Geo Baker —three-fifths of the three-guard, small ball line-up which Rutgers has seen success using this season.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Small ball created sweeping changes throughout the NBA when Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors revolutionized the way professional basketball is played midway through the current decade.

On a much, much smaller scale, Steve Pikiell is using some of those ideas with his Rutgers men’s basketball team. In his second season at the helm in Piscataway, Pikiell invests more minutes in a three-guard, small-ball line-up than he did last season.

Per KenPom, through the final five games of last season, Rutgers used a three-guard line-up of Corey Sanders, Nigel Johnson and Mike Williams in just under nine percent of the Scarlet Knights possessions. According to the same database, Pikiell is using a three-guard line-up of Sanders, Williams and freshman Geo Baker around 20 percent of possessions this season.

For proof of that line-up’s success, look no further than Rutgers last outing. Pikiell stuck with those three guards alongside Eugene Omoruyi and Deshawn Freeman for the last six minutes against No. 15 Seton Hall on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights closed the game on a 17-2 run and upset the Pirates, 71-65.

For those who missed it — or those who want to see it for the 100th time this week (I’m looking at you, Dave) — I cut together a video of the entire sequence.

It wasn’t all pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but some of the best basketball Rutgers played all year on both ends of the floor came in those final minutes. It showed the potential of the Scarlet Knights going small and how Pikiell can utilize it as they approach the (re)start of Big Ten play.

And to further prove it wasn’t a one-time deal where the line-up played out of their minds against the Pirates, I’m throwing in some clips of the three-guard line-up in action against Florida State and No. 3 Michigan State.

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DEFENSE

Steve Pikiell’s brand of defense is a staple of his Scarlet Knights team — an aggressive, man-to-man defense where his players leave the opponents with as little room to operate as possible. This vision is shown best when Rutgers is at its smallest and most agile.

The quintessential example is this clip in the first half of the Scarlet Knights matchup with Big Ten favorites Michigan State.

Watch the way the five on the floor swarm Michigan State in unison, first to get a block on a Matt McQuaid three-point attempt and then to force a turnover that leads immediately to a fast-break bucket.

One thing to point out from this clip that is a recurring strength of this Rutgers defense is the weakside help provided by its bigs. Freeman’s ability to recognize when to leave his man and defend the weakside is impressive and provides a great safety net for the guards when they get beat on the dribble or on ball screens.

That skill came in clutch for Rutgers in the clutch against Seton Hall.

Freeman’s recognition to seal the weakside from Desi Rodriguez after he blew past Mike Williams on the perimeter forced the wing to panic and throw the ball away. Credit also goes to Williams earlier in the play, as he was quick to close out on the perimeter and make Rodriguez hesitate and eventually forgo a shot attempt.

One clear issue which comes up on the defensive end when playing small ball is height. At 6-foot-2, Williams give up plenty of size to many of the wings he’ll defend in conference play. Moving the 6-foot-4 Baker over to guard the wing doesn’t help too much in that department.

For example, when Rutgers faced Michigan State, Williams matched up with national player of the year contender Miles Bridges on a couple of occasions.

In the above example, Bridges doesn’t knock down his shot, but even with Williams in his grill on the perimeter, his height advantage alone gave him a decently open look.

“(Miles Bridges), preseason player of the year, he can play the 2, the 3, and the 4. He causes problems. If you go too small, then, you know, they’ve got big guys,” Pikiell said after the game against MSU. “So, we had to adjust a lot and move some people around too. Guys were tired too. So, you have to substitute. It’s a high-paced game. They put a lot of pressure on you defensively and offensively. We’re trying every lineup that we can and the ones I feel good about.”

The obvious fix is substituting Williams for 6-foot-9 Issa Thiam, but that takes away the advantages this line-up provides on the offensive end.

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OFFENSE

Rutgers is not a good shooting team — that’s a fact.

The Scarlet Knights rank 334th in the country in effective field goal percentage (44 percent, worst among Power Five programs) and 321st in three-point field goal percentage (29.4 percent). The only Power Five programs worse at shooting from downtown are Vanderbilt (28.5 percent) and Texas (27.9 percent).

And yet, teams defend the perimeter against the Scarlet Knights.

That is especially true when Rutgers goes small and leaves its three guards hanging around the perimeter.

This forces teams to stretch out and leaves space inside for their bigs to work, an area where Omoruyi thrives. My first article for On the Banks explained how the sophomore dominated in the middle of Florida State’s two-three zone. You can read what I wrote then here, but just a quick reminder of what he did against the Seminoles:

Omoruyi grew in his offensive aggressiveness in his second season, much to the pleasure of Pikiell.

“Eugene took it right to the rim in that zone,” Pikiell said that night. “I like when he plays aggressive like that. He’s a matchup problem and will be a matchup problem the rest of the year too as we keep moving forward. I’m going to keep moving him around the board a little bit.”

The Canadian forward showed another level to his aggressiveness late down the stretch against Seton Hall, when he penetrated the paint and forced Angel Delgado to come up and help at the rim. Omoruyi showed his intelligence from there, dishing a smart pass to Freeman instead of going up himself and likely getting stuffed as the shot clock winded down to the final second.

Having a big who can provide versatility with both his scoring and his vision is huge for this small ball set-up. In a similar way to the Warriors’ Draymond Green, Omoruyi provides the perfect mold for a four in this system.

Along with his assists and buckets, Omoruyi adds a lot that can’t be tracked on the statsheet with his screens.

They came up huge down the stretch against the Pirates, when a couple screens freed his teammate Sanders from his defender, be it point guard Khadeen Carrington or shooting guard Myles Powell. Delgado was forced to switch onto Sanders at the top of the key, a matchup the Scarlet Knights point guard was hoping for coming into the game.

“We’ve been watching tape on Delgado and he doesn’t come out on screens and I feel like that’s a part of the game I’ve been working on very urgently,” Sanders said of his late-game heroics. “I’ve been in the gym every day working on those pull-up shots and he was leaving them open, leaving on the table so I stepped in, took the big-time shot. Big-time players make big-time plays. I did that today and hopefully I can keep doing that.”

In other words, this doesn’t happen without Omoruyi.

It also doesn’t happen without Baker. The recently named Big Ten Freshman of the Week provides Sanders relief from his ball-handling duties, allowing him to work off the ball more than he did last season. The positive results of this for both players were evident against Seton Hall, when they combined for 39 points, eight rebounds, five steals and four assists.

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Before you hit the comment section blasting me for comparing Rutgers to the Warriors or Omoruyi to Draymond Green, let’s get this out of the way — that isn’t the point.

The point is the Scarlet Knights and Pikiell are becoming increasingly more comfortable with going small for long stretches, many of which saw success. There are flaws with the style, of course, but that is true of Rutgers traditional five with two guards, a wing and two forwards as well.

It’s an added wrinkle which provides a boost for the Scarlet Knights, one which fans can expect to see plenty for the rest of the season.

“Coach is always trying to switch around line-ups looking to confuse the defense and that line-up happened to work a little bit in the end of the first half,” Baker said following Michigan State. “The spacing was really good with that and that’s definitely something we’re going to keep doing.”