The Rutgers men’s basketball team improved dramatically in several key areas under Steve Pikiell in his first season leading the program. Defense and rebounding were the two most obvious and consistent throughout the season. On the other hand, the offense struggled mightily most of the year.
Per KenPom, they finished last by a wide margin in adjusted offensive rating in Big Ten play at 89.3. Penn State was 13th at 97.2 and was the only other squad to finish below 100. In terms of shooting percentages, Rutgers finished 330th or worse out of 351 Division I teams in effective field goal percentage, 2-point shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage, and free throw shooting percentage.
In looking at their painfully poor offensive numbers, it’s hard not to gain even more appreciation for what this team was able to accomplish this season under Pikiell. Rutgers more than doubled the previous year’s win total, equaled the most wins for the program since 2006, as well as won more Big Ten games this past season than the previous two years combined, capped by the B1G Tournament victory over Ohio State. Major progress was achieved.
While Rutgers needs to improve in every facet ahead of next season, there were actually some encouraging trends on the offensive end from the last stretch of games. With every key player from this season expected to return, with the exception of CJ Gettys, there should be real hope this team will be better offensively, based on how they ended this season. Let’s look at some key statistics here.
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Rating
As I mentioned at the top, Rutgers finished the season with a dismal 89.3 offensive rating in Big Ten play this season. However, after only producing one game with an adjusted offensive efficiency over 100 in their first 14 Big Ten games, Rutgers eclipsed the century mark 5 times in their last 6 games, including both tournament contests. They did it twice against Northwestern, who finished 4th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency. Improved shot selection led to higher shooting percentages and Rutgers learned to take better care of the basketball. These are major steps forward and let’s examine them further.
While Rutgers shot just 30% from behind the arc as a team this season, they shot 35% from three-point range in their last seven games. They were spurred by the scorching hot shooting of Nigel Johnson, who finished 20 of 35 for 57% during that seven game stretch to close the season. After suffering a leg bruise against Iowa in February, Johnson missed the Penn State game and was ineffective in his two games once he returned from his injury. What followed was his most productive shooting stretch of the season. What is significant and gives hope for next season, is that Nigel was working off some rust with his long range shooting after sitting out the season before. He made only 6 of 28 for 21% in his first eight games this season, but behind his strong finish, ended up shooting 35% from three-point range for the year, the best mark of his career. With his strong finish, there should be optimism he can shoot even better next season.
Another key development was the play of Issa Thiam in the Big Ten Tournament. He started his freshman campaign relatively strong from behind the arc, as he made multiple three-pointers in seven of his first eleven games. However, he got sick and was less than 100% health wise for several weeks. He struggled to get back into rhythm and had just two Big Ten regular season games when he made multiple shots from deep. He finished the regular season making just 1 of 12 from three-point range. The good news is he looked like a completely different player in the Big Ten Tournament, making 5 of 10 shots from the behind the arc and playing with a lot more confidence. One underrated aspect of Issa’s play down the stretch this season was his strong defense, which kept on the floor for big minutes in February and March. His potential for improvement is the greatest of any player on the roster and he is a player to be very excited about next season and beyond.
Free Throw Shooting
After Dave White and I reviewed the good and bad from this season here, a lot of the comments from readers harped on how Rutgers must improve from the free throw line. That is very true, but there is reason to believe this team will be better from the line next season. In their last five games of the year, Rutgers made 49 of 69 from the line for 71%, after shooting 61% the entire season before that closing stretch. Two key players were the biggest reasons why. Deshawn Freeman was a sparkling 12 of 13 for 92%, after shooting just 59% for the season before those last five games. Nigel Johnson was 10 of 13 for 77%, including a clutch 8 of 8 performance to close out the win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tourney. It’s reasonable to hope the core of Freeman, Johnson, Mike Williams (77% for his career), and Corey Sanders (71% in his freshman season v. 61% in his sophomore season) could help bump Rutgers close to 70% as a team next year, after shooting just 62.3% as a team in this campaign. If they can make that jump, it will improve the offense greatly.
Sustained Turnover Reduction
After experiencing over a 20% turnover rate in 14 of 16 games dating back to Central Connecticut State, Rutgers finished better than that percentage in seven of their last nine contests. They committed just 93 turnovers in their last 9 games for 10.3 per game, after committing 344 for 14.3 turnovers in the 24 contests before that stretch. They only had more than 12 in one contest during that nine game stretch, when they had 13 versus Ohio State, after committing 9 in the first half when they were noticeably nervous. As coach Pikiell emphasized a lot in his press conferences at the end of the season, Rutgers did a much better job limiting bad turnovers that led to easy baskets for their opponents. To finish the last 27% of the season with so few turnovers, it bodes well to think Rutgers will be much improved in this area for the 2017-2018 campaign.
Experience Gained & Lessons Learned
While there is no denying this team has a long way still to go on the offensive end, they’ve also made significant progress this season. After learning a new system and style of play under Pikiell, as well as the players learning how to operate with each other within the offense, it took time to see the positive gains that ultimately resulted at the end of the season. Rutgers lost a lot of close games in February, but we saw the growth they experienced in two key March victories. They won in dramatic fashion over Illinois at the RAC and methodically broke the will of Ohio State, winning going away in a 9 point victory. With every key player with the exception of Gettys expected to return, the hope that Rutgers can improve even more next season is a fair thought. The Big Ten will be a better league too, with many teams returning their core players as well. Regardless, the learning curve in year 1 under Steve Pikiell is in the past and now the players know what is expected of them moving forward. If they can maximize the opportunity to improve themselves this off-season, Rutgers will certainly be starting on higher ground at the beginning of next season.