Rutgers didn’t play very well in a 72-63 loss to Minnesota, but they were still in the game in the final minute of action. While it was an extremely frustrating game to watch, it does show that this team has come along way in certain respects. The fact that they were able to hang around against a Big Ten team projected to make the NCAA Tournament, despite playing poorly, is encouraging. That’s the half glass full view on this game.
The flip side is Rutgers continued to shoot themselves in the foot and sputtered with opportunities to extend runs by shooting so terribly from the free throw line. They finished an abysmal 10 of 22 from the charity stripe, including 3 of 10 in the second half. However, in my opinion, the most disappointing result was not their brick by brick performance from the line. While maddening, Rutgers has proven to be consistently awful in this area and struggle shooting the basketball in every way. It’s the fact Rutgers got pushed around in the interior and did not play tough defense for the majority of the game that was so upsetting.
It’s very hard to win games when a team doesn’t perform well in the areas that are strengths for them. When Rutgers doesn’t bring it on the defensive end, they have no chance to win against any opponent in Big Ten play. They just didn’t exhibit a lot of intensity and the guards didn’t put much ball pressure on Minnesota, giving them too much room to operate. The frontcourt as a group didn’t stand tall against the Golden Gophers and that really was the difference. Minnesota was able to penetrate and attack the rim pretty much at will in the first half, putting Rutgers in a hole they could never quite climb out of.
Make no mistake, Minnesota is a legitimate NCAA Tournament bubble team and came to the RAC on a two game winning streak. I said in the game preview, they play a similar style to Rutgers, but are just better in most of the same areas that are strengths for coach Pikiell’s team. They demonstrated that today and beat Rutgers at their own game, winning the battle inside. Minnesota dominated the paint in the first half, attacking the rim and breaking down the Rutgers defense. At the half, they held a 34-22 edge with points in the paint and held a +10 rebounding margin at the break, as well as a 13-5 edge on second chance points.
Rutgers played somewhat better in the second half, but the tone was set early on and they could never fully turn things around. Minnesota finished the game with a +6 rebounding margin, a 44-38 edge with points in the paint, and a 20-11 edge in second chance points. Those are three areas that Rutgers usually outplays their opponents in and really was the difference in the game, aside from the missed free throws. We know what Rutgers is from the line and they certainly killed any chance of building sustained runs, preventing a true comeback in the second half. However, to see them get beat at what they do best was disheartening.
Jordan Murphy was virtually unstoppable in the opening frame, putting up 15 points and 8 rebounds in the 1st half. While he fouled out in the final minutes of the game and was contained for most of the second frame, his impact early in this game really shaped the outcome of this contest. He led Minnesota with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Point guard Nate Mason picked up the slack in the second half for the Gophers and delivered a few daggers to keep Rutgers at arm’s length. He finished with 16 points and 5 assists. He hit two huge three-pointers at the start of the second half and hit a tough runner out of the under-4 timeout with the lead at just 5 points.
Overall, Minnesota shot 47% from the field and were 13 of 15 from the free throw line for 87%. Rutgers started the game shooting 19 of 40 from the field, but finished the game with an ice cold 6 of 20 down the stretch. For the game, Rutgers shot just 42% from the field, 21% from three-point range, and the previously mentioned 45% from free throw line. They did do a good job of limiting turnovers (9) and held a 16-2 in fast break points. Their lack of consistency on the boards prevented them from running more in transition.
Rutgers was paced behind solid games from Mike Williams and CJ Gettys, as both players led the team in scoring with 14 points each. Williams forced a couple of deep shots, but for the most part played with purpose and was 6 of 12 from the floor, including two made three-point field goals. Gettys bounced back from a poor game against Ohio State, making 5 of 8 shots and grabbing 8 rebounds, including 4 offensive, to lead Rutgers on the boards.
Corey Sanders finished with 13 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds, but struggled to take over down the stretch. After being held scoreless in the first 18 minutes of the game, he made the last two baskets of the first half for Rutgers and hit a three-pointer soon after the break. However, he finished just 5 of 15 from the field and 2 of 6 from the free throw line.
Deshawn Freeman, after being a consistent force on both ends of late, was not nearly as much of a factor in this game as Rutgers needed him to be. He finished with just 7 points and 2 rebounds. He was thoroughly outplayed by Jordan Murphy in this game. He did have a couple of thunderous dunks in transition, including one that resulted from a steal he forced. However, he was not a factor in the least in their halfcourt offense.
Rutgers didn’t get a lot of output from the bench either. Jonathan Laurent chipped in with a solid 5 point, 4 rebound effort in his first meaningful action since spraining his ankle a couple of weeks ago. Nigel Johnson hasn’t been much of a factor since suffering a bruise against Iowa, finishing with 4 points and 3 assists, including 0 for 3 from behind the arc. Even so, Rutgers continued to battle and were in the game down to the very end, which to be fair, is still noticeable progress from last season.
Rutgers now heads into a treacherous week with road games at Purdue and Northwestern. They will be heavy underdogs in both games. Purdue is a brutal matchup for Rutgers, as they are huge upfront and beat them by 50 points last season. Northwestern beat the Scarlet Knights at the RAC by 9 points a month ago, and getting a different result in Chicago will require their best performance of the season. If they don’t get back to playing elite defense, both outcomes could be extremely ugly.
Through it all, please don’t lose perspective on the season as a whole. While today’s game was a disappointment, the fact that Rutgers lost by single digits against a potential NCAA Tournament team when not playing close to their potential has to be viewed a positive in the long view outlook for the program. That being said, seeing them get physically beaten in the paint was tough to watch. Of course, as fans, dying with every missed free throw doesn’t exactly make this game easy to swallow either. However, there is still hope that Rutgers can win a program best three Big Ten games this season, with their final three opponents scheduled to come to the RAC. For now, it’s time to regroup and rediscover their identity on the defensive end and on the glass, the biggest reasons for their significant improvement overall this season.