Recognizing positive developments during a five game losing streak, which the Rutgers men’s basketball team is currently mired in, is not always easy to do. However, when you are looking at one of the least successful college basketball programs from the past 4 years, any forward progress is notable. Although there have been many strides made by the program under first year head coach Steve Pikiell this season, most of it has been due to preparation and effort. It has showed up most visibly with defense and rebounding, two areas greatly improved from last season.
What has been missing for a good portion of the season is execution, specifically on the offensive end. Rutgers ranks dead last in Big Ten play in six of nine categories used for offensive efficiency by KenPom. Not surprisingly, shooting is a major part of the problem. The team is currently ranked 327th or worse in every shooting category KenPom evaluates out of 351 Division I teams. As you would expect, that’s not such an easily fixable problem to resolve. The harsh reality is that the roster as currently constructed, is severely limited in offensive talent.
With that being said, it is obvious that Rutgers is getting better. Their last five losses include four by single digits and their average margin of defeat is 8.4 points during this streak. Three of the losses came by 6 points or less. In their previous nine conference losses before this current stretch, their average margin of defeat was 14.9 points per game, with just three by single digits. The smallest deficit was their 6 point loss at Iowa, but they also suffered a third of these nine losses by 19 or more points.
What’s clear is that they aren’t more competitive due any significant improvement with shooting. On offense in the past five losses, they are shooting just 40.1% from the field, 31.0% from three-point range, and 54.4% from the line. Those are all very similar to their percentages for both Big Ten play and the entire season, in which they are averaging 41.2% from the field, 29.7% from three-point range, and 61.6% from the free throw line. Eerily similar stats, which make you wonder if Rutgers is simply more competitive because their defense is improving.
Actually, that’s not the case either. While Rutgers is greatly improved on the defensive end overall this season, their last four games have resulted in adjusted defensive efficiency ratings that are worse than their average in Big Ten play. In their first twelve conference games, Rutgers achieved a rating below 104 nine times. In the past five games, Rutgers has achieved a rating below 104 just once, which was the loss to Ohio State, and has registered two of their five worst defensive efficiency ratings in league play. Part of the reason can be attributed to the fact that four of their last five games came against opponents that rank in the top 8 for offensive efficiency in the conference, including the top two in Michigan and Purdue.
The biggest reason for the uptick in competitiveness is due to a significant reduction in turnovers. Rutgers has struggled mightily the entire season in taking care of the basketball. They averaged 15.6 turnovers in their first 11 Big Ten games this season. Stunningly, they’ve committed just 47 turnovers in the past five games during this losing streak. That’s an average of just 9.4 turnovers per game, which is an elite statistic. Michigan is #1 in the country in lowest turnover average per game for the season at 9.5. Impressively, Rutgers just held a +4 turnover margin against them on Wednesday.
The fact that these results have occurred against more difficult competition is most impressive. After averaging 15.6 turnovers in their previous 11 league games against opponents with an average KenPom ranking of 54th, Rutgers has reduced their turnovers by 6.2 per game in their last five contests against opponents that hold an average KenPom ranking of 34th. That’s dramatic improvement against more difficult competition.
Just as important, their opponents have committed 12 turnovers per game during this five game stretch. That results in a + 2.6 turnover margin per game for Rutgers, which is major progress and a big reason they are so much more competitive. The fact that this has happened against the three teams in the conference with the lowest turnover rate in Michigan, Minnesota, and Northwestern is astonishing.
This is what Pikiell said in a conference call after the Iowa game, their worst performance of the season, which was right before the win at Penn State and just ahead of the recent improvement with turnovers:
“They have to do some soul searching and I think that is a part of it. Leadership isn’t an easy thing. You can’t just tap someone on the shoulder and they know how to lead. It really needs to come from everybody. That has been our theme here moving forward. Everyone has to get a little better, everyone has to eliminate one turnover, everyone has to eliminate one shot, everyone has to eliminate one miscommunication. This isn’t a group that just one guy is going to be able to do that. Everyone has to get a little better. That was the theme, everyone has to get a little more committed, everyone has to be in the gym a little bit more. If everyone does a little bit more, it will make us a lot better.”
Rutgers has played their best stretch of basketball this season ever since. Credit to the players for buying in and to Pikiell and the staff for getting positive results from them. One adjustment Pikiell has made is to reduce the amount of passes Rutgers is making in the halfcourt on offense. They have incorporated hand-offs at the top of the key more and more as the season has progressed, with the guards circling around the perimeter. This has definitely had a positive impact, as aside from have issues shooting the ball, Rutgers has been a bad passing team. They must improve in this area eventually, but again, this goes back to the need to improve offensive talent on the roster.
The defense deserves credit for sure, as they’ve been forcing turnovers all season and are 5th in the Big Ten in this category. The fact is Rutgers is staying in games because they protecting the ball much better on the offensive end, while maintaining their ability to force takeaways. In all five recent losses, Rutgers has committed less turnovers than their opponents. Even in their two conference wins this season against Nebraska and Penn State, Rutgers averaged 14 turnovers, more than both opponents in those games.
With this improvement, Rutgers has moved from 14th to 12th in Big Ten play in turnover percentage on the offensive end. They still rank 265th in the country in this stat, so it will be interesting to see if Rutgers can maintain this recent improvement. No player on the roster other than Corey Sanders has averaged more than 1.5 turnovers per game during this recent 5 game improvement. Players like Deshawn Freeman, CJ Gettys and Nigel Johnson have made strides. In fairness to Sanders, he handles the ball the majority of the time, so it’s natural for him to commit more turnovers. An issue that still persists is that Rutgers is dead last in assist to turnover ratio, but that is conversation for another day.
One player who should be praised during this recent stretch of improvement is co-captain Mike Williams. He has seen an uptick in time on the floor recently and rightfully so. In averaging 33 minutes in his last six games, Williams has amazingly committed just 1 turnover total, after averaging just over 1 per game all season. He is playing more and making less mistakes. It’s one of the many positive contributions he has made this season, aside from hitting many big shots and becoming arguably the best rebounding guard in the Big Ten. His improvement this season is exhibit A when discussing the staff’s ability to develop players.
A big reason for the improved competitiveness for Rutgers, aside from the reduction of turnovers, is the reduction in easy baskets for the opposition. A good portion of their 15+ turnovers per game resulted in “pick sixes”, as Pikiell likes to call them. Uncontested fast break layups or dunks were killing them. Rutgers can’t afford to make such costly mistakes against Big Ten competition. Not only have they reduced turnovers overall, but they aren’t giving up many easy transition baskets anymore.
Rutgers must learn to close out games and after this stretch of recent close, but painful losses, they are running out of time to do that this season. After home games against Maryland and Illinois, it’s off to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament. As much progress as the program has made under Pikiell in his first year, nothing changes perception like winning. If Rutgers can continue to take care of the basketball the way they have in the past five games, they’ll have a chance to do just that.