Saturday night’s loss was a difficult result to digest, but also proof that this program has made significant strides this season under first year coach Steve Pikiell. While it’s easy to focus on a blown 4 point lead with 3 minutes to play, the very fact that Rutgers was in that position is a major step. It was almost exactly a year to the day that they lost by 39 points in the same building to a Northwestern team inferior to this year’s version. The Wildcats this year are almost definitely headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their program’s history. KenPom gave Rutgers an 11% chance to win against them, a team projected as a #7/8 seed in the NCAA’s, so it was a strong effort despite being able to close out the game.
Another factor to consider is that Rutgers just finished a brutal stretch that saw them play just 5 games at the RAC out of their last 17 contests. Not only did Rutgers have their 9 game road slate in Big Ten play front loaded in their first 15 scheduled, their “home” game at Madison Square Garden against Wisconsin ended up being one of the toughest environments they’ve played in all season. That means they’ve played two-thirds of their Big Ten schedule away from the RAC so far. And yet, Rutgers has gotten better. Granted, there have mostly been baby steps forward, but positive nonetheless.
Despite rarely playing at home in the past two months, Rutgers has improved on the court since they began conference play with an 0-6 record. That winless start included an average margin of defeat of 16 points per game. They had just two single digit losses and three defeats by 19+ points, all on the road. The average KenPom rankings for these six opponents is 51.
In their past 9 games, Rutgers has won twice and their average margin of defeat in their 7 losses has been 11 points, which included four single digit deficits. They had two losses by 19 or more points, but were in every other game to a varying degree. The average KenPom rankings for these nine opponents is 48.
Their wins have come against two teams with 6-8 records in Big Ten play, Nebraska and Penn State, with both ranked in the top 80 of the KenPom rankings. Coming into this season, Rutgers owned just 3 wins in the two previous years they’ve been in this conference. Two of those wins came against the 13th place teams in both seasons, Penn State in 2014-2015 and Minnesota in 2015-2016. The lone quality win in league play was the shocker at the RAC in January 2015 against a depleted Wisconsin team, missing National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky, and their point guard for most of the second half. Still, Wisconsin were conference champions and lost in the NCAA Final that season. It was the signature win of the Eddie Jordan era and I’m glad he had a moment like that. Sadly it was a fluke, as that season concluded with 15 straight losses. The program was just 1-31 in regular season conference games since that win over Wisconsin before this year’s campaign began with Steve Pikiell at the helm.
The good news is after surviving the past two months, mostly on the road, Rutgers brings some momentum into their three game home stand that concludes the regular season. Their last five games included the win at Penn State and three losses by single digits, aside from their blowout defeat at Purdue, in which they battled until the final whistle. The potential to achieve more firsts this season in Big Ten play exists, as the program has never won 3 conference games in a season.
Tomorrow night, Michigan brings the top offense in the Big Ten to the RAC. After winning three games in a row against Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin, they too are coming off a heartbreaking loss in overtime on the road to Minnesota this past Sunday. I'll have a full preview tomorrow, but the good news is the Wolverines are not a front loaded, physical team that tends to give Rutgers trouble. They are a very good shooting team, but are not a strong rebounding or defensive squad, as they are 13th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency.
After playing relatively well at Maryland in January, Rutgers will have another shot next week at the RAC. If it weren't for a 10 for 24 performance from the free throw line in that first meeting, the game would have been much closer. While the Terps have lost 3 of their last 5 games, they are still in the top 4 of the conference at 10-4 in league play. However, hope can be found in that two of those losses came to Nebraska and Penn State, teams Rutgers has beaten. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible either.
The regular season finale is against Illinois at the RAC on Saturday, March 4th. Rutgers has a chance at redemption after last season’s triple overtime loss at home to the Illini. After starting conference play at 0-5 on the road, they've now won their last two at Northwestern and Iowa. Still, Illinois ranks 11th and 12th in the Big Ten in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. No Big Ten opponent is an easy matchup, but Rutgers will have the opportunity to end the season on a high note on senior night.
In order to do that, and perhaps more, Rutgers needs to get back to playing elite defense. The way they played for most of the second half was impressive and they'll need to continue that type of defensive focus tomorrow night. Michigan is a great shooting team, so Rutgers will need close to their best defensive performance of the season to beat them. After producing an adjusted defensive rating of sub-104 in 9 of their first 12 Big Ten games, Rutgers has failed to achieve close to that number in their past three games. In fact, their defensive rating against Northwestern was their third worst in conference play all season, with only their performances in 20+ point losses to Michigan State and Iowa being worse.
Being at home now for three straight games spread over two weeks gives hope they will regain their defensive form. After playing two games a week with traveling in between, Rutgers now can catch their breath. It also allows Pikiell to get some good work in with his team, which can only help down the stretch. His ability to get the most out of his players is a major reason to be excited about the future of the program under his direction.
The good news is their offensive rating versus Northwestern was far and away their best performance in Big Ten play. If they can build off of that, even more progress will result. Don't expect the free throw issue to magically improve, as Rutgers is dead last in every shooting category in the Big Ten. The encouraging part is they are playing smarter on offense and are getting better looks. In fact, they're taking more jump shots and making more too.
Even from behind the arc, Rutgers is shooting better. In their past 5 games, they are shooting 32% from three-point range as a team. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still not good, but it’s passable and makes them significantly more competitive by averaging 5+ three’s per game. Rutgers was shooting just 29% for the season before this recent stretch.
It’s no coincidence that Rutgers has been more competitive recently, as they are finally taking better care of the basketball. In their last four games, Rutgers is averaging just 10 turnovers per game and have had less than their opponent in each contest. That is MAJOR progress for a team that was averaging over 14 per game this season before this recent stretch. They’ve also cut down on costly one’s that lead to easy transition points for the opposition.
The tightening of the rotation has helped as players with some of the lowest offensive ratings on the team, such as Jonathan Laurent, Candido Sa, and Ibrahim's Diallo, have seen less time in the past few games. Freshmen Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam have each shown some flashes of growth and if they can continue to improve on offense during the home stand, they will give Rutgers a huge lift down the stretch. Scoring balance is key for this team, as whenever four or five players are at or near double figures, they’ve been in every game that has occurred.
One issue that continues to sink this team at the end of games is the lack of a true point guard on the floor. This is not a knock on Corey Sanders, who has gotten better in that role throughout the season. However, as I’ve written before, he is better suited playing off the ball and having less responsibility in setting up the offense. The issue is there really isn’t anyone on the roster who can play the point. A big issue at the end of games is that teams know Sanders is the best scoring option and they key in on him. The defense tightens up on him and he is struggling to create good looks for himself down the stretch. If Rutgers had a point guard to bring it up and run the offense, Sanders would likely be able to find more space, they could run more screens to set him up and it would be harder for the defense to focus on him. It’s a fundamental problem that is a major reason Rutgers hasn’t been able to win many close games in conference play.
As much as people want to lament missed free throws, and there is no denying that’s a big issue too, it’s really part of a larger issue. The roster, as it’s constructed, is severely limited in terms of offensive weapons. Most Big Ten teams have multiple low post scoring options, multiple three-point marksmen averaging over 40%, and a couple of elite free throw shooters who they can count on to close out games. Rutgers falls short in all three of those categories and they aren’t even close.
This team has been a lot of fun to watch this season, despite the frustrating losses that have accumulated. The effort and team play has been there in spades. They’ve out-rebounded 10 of 15 Big Ten opponents, which is perhaps the most shocking stat they’ve produced this season. A natural progression needs to occur and that takes time and patience. It’s why Pikiell has already achieved the biggest victory of the season, as a solid foundation has been set for the future. Adding better talent is a must for this program to improve and Pikiell has made strides on the recruiting trail as well, with a lot more still needed to be made.
With all that being said, Rutgers has a real chance to finish the season on a high note. A few weeks ago I deemed six games as winnable, with Michigan and Illinois included on that list. Rutgers has gone 1-3 in those so far. However, if Rutgers can even just win one of their remaining three at home, it will give them confidence heading into the Big Ten Tournament during the second week of March. While a third consecutive last place finish is all but assured, Rutgers needs to win at least one more to mark the significant progress they have made this season. Nothing changes perception like winning.
They also have a chance to finish with their best KenPom ranking since 2011, when they finished 78th under Mike Rice. Rutgers hasn’t finished sub-100 since then, with their 106th finish in 2013 their best since. Sitting at #127 right now, a win or two could push them close or even ahead. Michigan is ranked 27th, so an upset over them would boost their ranking significantly. Maryland is 31st and Illinois is 72nd. KenPom gives Rutgers a 30% chance tomorrow, a 31% chance against the Terps, and a 48% chance against the Illini. None of these games will be easy and, of course, it’s possible Rutgers loses them all. However, if they can continue to show improvement in areas they have recently, playing at the RAC may just be the extra push they need to close out some wins.
This team deserves a strong sendoff for their efforts this season. Starting tomorrow night, they need the fans to pack the RAC and give them a home court advantage that can make a real difference in these last games. Turnouts have been relatively strong this conference season. Sure, it’s been frustrating that a couple of times the crowd was ready to rock, but the team struggled and it never happened. With three home games to close out year one under Steve Pikiell, there is still time for the perfect storm to brew. Let’s hope the forecast changes in time for tomorrow night at home versus Michigan.