The Rutgers men's basketball team lost its third game in a row in a week’s time on Tuesday night. However, there is much more to the story than ascertaining that Rutgers isn't good enough to beat really good teams yet. The key word is yet, because the gap is certainly closing.
After playing the worst non-conference schedule in the country through its first six games of the season, Rutgers just played three teams ranked in the top 30 of the KenPom rankings. It's the toughest three game stretch that the program has faced in the Steve Pikiell era and actually, statistically the most challenging in many seasons. It was a true test to gauge where this team is less than a third into Pikiell’s second season. While Rutgers does have to play Michigan State and Purdue on the road in a three game stretch in early January, the rest of the Big Ten schedule is much less daunting.
For those hoping for some type of offensive awakening, you will surely be disappointed. Rutgers continues to struggle shooting the basketball from any distance from the rim. They shot a combined 53 of 154 from two-point range for a putrid 34.4% in the three losses. In addition, Rutgers made just 14 of 50 three-point attempts for 28%. Give them credit for making major improvement from the free throw line though, as they made 44 of 56 attempts for 78.6%, after shooting just 57.7% through the first six games this season. However, basketball is a simple game in the sense that if you can't score in an efficient enough of a manner, a loss is likely, especially against top competition. Rutgers struggling to the shoot the basketball efficiently should be no surprise. The biggest takeaway is how they performed in every other area, which should leave fans encouraged and hopeful for the rest of this season. This team plays very hard, plays together, and are fully committed on the defensive end.
Last week, Rutgers hosted Florida State, a very deep and athletic team that would have left the RAC 30+ point winners in any other season in recent memory. Instead, Rutgers battled them all night and even scored well enough to give Florida State a major challenge. It wasn't enough, but a 5 point loss and holding the high scoring Seminoles to 13 points below its season average were obvious signs that Rutgers was improving. Watching that same Florida State team blow out #5 Florida in Gainesville by 17 points on Monday night made the effort of Rutgers in that game even more impressive.
The first road game of the season was about as challenging as it gets in the Big Ten, as Minnesota is clearly one of the three best teams in the conference. The Gophers starting five is very good and extremely balanced. Rutgers was not nearly as good in that game on the defensive end and the veteran core of Deshawn Freeman, Corey Sanders, and Mike Williams struggled, making just 9 of 37 shots and combining to score only 23 points. And yet, there were the Scarlet Knights, battling on the road and keeping the game between 8-12 points with under five minutes to play, before a 15-5 run by Minnesota turned a competitive game into a 22 point loss. Corey Sanders sat on the bench the final seven minutes of the game because Pikiell continues to choose culture over convenience, something I'll get back to in a bit.
That brings us to last night. Michigan State has been murdering teams lately and not just against average competition either. In its last five games, the Spartans beat #9 Notre Dame and #13 North Carolina by 18 points each. They also beat UConn by 20 and Nebraska in the Big Ten opener by 29 points. Enter its trip to the RAC and a far different result occurred. Rutgers came out focused and even made some shots early, jumping out to an 8-0 lead. It wasn't surprising that Rutgers couldn't sustain the lead and when they fell behind 21-14 behind an 11-0 Spartans run, a familiar feeling crept in. As a Rutgers fan, if you weren’t thinking “well, that was nice while it lasted, here comes a 30 point shellacking”, something that Michigan State has routinely done against Rutgers since joining the Big Ten, then you are certainly a rarity.
Instead, behind the best defensive performance in a game that we've probably seen since Pikiell took over the program, Rutgers clawed its way back into the contest behind a 7-0 run and went into the locker room at the half tied with the #3 ranked Spartans.
The least surprising thing should be the fact that Rutgers shot just 27% from the field against the #1 team in the country in field goal percentage defense. Yes, Rutgers missed about a dozen shots within 5 feet of the rim, but that’s also something the Spartans defend well against everyone, as opponents are only making 32% of their two-point attempts against them, the best mark in the country. What is a major surprise is that Rutgers held Michigan State to 38.6% shooting, a season worst (MSU shot 50.8% from the floor in its lone loss to Duke). It was also 19 points below its season scoring average. One person that wasn't surprised about that was Spartans head coach and college basketball legend Tom Izzo. Here is what he had to say after the game:
“Their defense on us was pretty good and they executed well. That’s a good basketball team. When I watched Florida State beat the daylights out of Florida last night, then watch Rutgers playing Florida State, I was concerned. I love the way these kids play. They play hard. I love Freeman, he plays hard. The freshman Geo Baker is going to be good. I liked Eugene Omoruyi. I liked their effort and Steve’s doing a good job.”
The good news is that this challenging three game stretch is now complete. Aside from Seton Hall and Purdue, ranked 19th and 9th at the moment per KenPom, every other team that visits the RAC this season is much closer talent wise to this Rutgers team. The reality is that aside from the top three teams in the conference (Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue), the rest of the competition is much tighter, as the talent separation between fourth through fourteen is much smaller than in years past. Rutgers actually rose six spots from #116 to #110 in the KenPom rankings, based on how they played against top 30 competition, despite losing all three games.
Here is what coach Pikiell had to say about the state of the team after the loss to Michigan State:
“We’re close. I said that to them. It’s a couple of possessions. Again, playing a great team, you’ve got to play great. I thought on the defensive end we certainly did some good things. We were even on the backboards. They’ve been kind of manhandling teams on the backboards. They’re a terrific program, I said that to our guys, but we’ve got to continue the climb. It’s a process. Again, I loved our crowd here today. I love the students. I want to thank them for coming out and making this a tough place to play. Hopefully they’ll continue to do that for us.”
If this team can continue to defend at or near the level they did last night, they can be competitive in every conference game this season and win more in league play than ever before. Other keys include getting the veteran core of Sanders, Freeman and Williams going offensively, continuing to make free throws, as well as keeping everyone healthy. If they can do all of those things, regardless of the shooting struggles from the field that we know will be a constant this season, Rutgers can make some noise in the Big Ten. The fact that the RAC is becoming a true home court advantage once again is a factor and real weapon that this team can tap into and benefit from.
The Big Ten is an ugly league and Rutgers knows how to win that way. Through defense, rebounding, and playing together, they can have some success in conference play. Don’t lose patience, as this team is on schedule to do two things this season that would mark undeniable progress, finish better than last place for the first time in four tries and finish with a winning record for the first time in over a decade. The culture that Pikiell has established and has never sacrificed over anything else has made this possible. As coach said, this team is close and last night it was clear a real transformation is happening with this program. Better days are most certainly ahead.
To read Brian Fonseca’s game recap of the loss to Michigan State, click here.
To read Dave White’s Four Thoughts, click here.