PISCATAWAY — It goes without saying but it’s worth repeating — Rutgers is a much different team without their captain and sixth man Mike Williams.
That much was obvious when watching the Scarlet Knights get completely dominated and outhustled by Ohio State in 22-point home loss to the Buckeyes Sunday night.
“Mike has been a really important player, (but) we have to play with or without Mike,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “I really wanted to put him in the game a lot tonight because I know how he always plays.”
An ankle injury sustained in practice Saturday morning kept the guard out against the Buckeyes and will keep him out for an undisclosed amount of time, leaving a huge hole in the Scarlet Knights rotation.
“It happened yesterday, and Mike hurt his leg badly,” Pikiell said. “We don’t have the full diagnoses yet, they’re still working on that. He’s going to be out, he’s going to be out for a while ... I feel bad for him. It’s his senior year, but those things happen and other guys have to be ready to step up and take advantage of his minutes.”
Williams averaged 9.2 points on 40 percent shooting, 4.2 rebounds, an assist and a steal per game, but those statistics only tell half the story of what the boy from Brooklyn brings. Williams regularly provided a spark off the bench as the first substitute selected by Pikiell, calm leadership in clutch moments (most notably his rebound late against Seton Hall and a key free throw against Wisconsin) and an unrelenting positivity.
That’s tough to replace, but Pikiell is forced to work with what he has. He used a combination of Souf Mensah and Jake Dadika in Williams’ place and the duo failed to live up to the standard set by their teammate. The pair combined for a single point and four rebounds in 20 minutes on the court.
“We certainly have to figure that out quickly here,” Pikiell said of replacing Williams. “Having (the injury) happen with 10 minutes left in practice yesterday doesn’t give you a lot of time to figure it out, so now we have a couple of days to figure it out before Iowa ... But again, with or without Mike, we need to play better basketball. Playing Ohio State and teams like that ... we have to play better. Every guy has to step up their game a little more now with Mike not being around.”
On an individual level, injury is horrific no matter who it happens to, but especially when it happens to someone like Williams. He fought through three years of losing and terrible basketball to get to this season, through two separate 15-game losing streaks, a coaching change and countless jokes at his team’s expense. The fact the injury comes when he’s finally a prominent member of the most promising team in the program in nearly a decade makes it that much worse.
Ever the team player, Williams was on the bench supporting his teammates Sunday. While the result was the worst of the season, the outlook remains bright for Rutgers basketball in 2018. Wherever it takes the Scarlet Knights, you can be sure to find the senior guard alongside his team whether he’s on the court or not.
“Mike has been, from day one, a fighter,” Pikiell said. “Mike’s a leader. He’s a captain. He grabbed nine rebounds against Michigan State. He’s our leading rebounder at 6-2. He’s an over achiever. Mike is certainly a huge loss for us.”
Fonseca’s Four Observations
1) That Shooting Was As Ugly As It Gets
When it came to Rutgers shooting woes, most were probably under the assumption that it could not get any worse. The Scarlet Knights had the least efficient offense in the Big Ten coming into Sunday, including the worst effective, three-point and two-point field goal percentage in the league. That’s really bad, but the first half of Sunday night’s matchup was just downright ugly.
Rutgers entered the break shooting 19.4 percent (6-for-31), almost exactly half of its Big Ten worst effective field goal percentage of 38.5. At one point in the opening frame, the Scarlet Knights were 4-for-24 — good for an abysmal 16.7 percent clip.
It didn’t get much better once the game restarted, either. Rutgers missed its first seven shots of the second half, allowing Ohio State to go on a 16-3 run that all but buried the Scarlet Knights. They reacted well, going on a 13-2 run shortly after to reduce the deficit to 17, but it was much too little and far too late.
2) Steve Pikiell Was Not Happy With His Team’s Effort
The Rutgers head coach was clearly not happy with his team’s horrendous display on the offensive end of the floor — it’d be bad if he was — but that’s not what bothered him about Sunday’s performance. The issue to Pikiell was his players allowed the shooting woes to affect the other end of the floor.
“I am just disappointed,” Pikiell said. “Our offense did not do a great job, but normally, it does not matter what our offense does. Our offense should never ever affect our defense. ... I just thought we needed a great effort tonight and I did not particularly like how we let our offense effect everything we did on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Scarlet Knights held the Buckeyes to 28 first half points, a decent performance on the defense considering the Buckeyes averaged 80 points per game entering Sunday and dropped 92 and 91 points on Iowa and Maryland, respectively. Still, Pikiell nitpicked some mistakes his team committed on the defensive end.
“It was a great crowd, I’m only sorry that they didn’t see the team that was there at Michigan State that played every possession to their fullest,” Pikiell said.
The lack of effort Pikiell perceived from his players goes a long way in explaining the next observation, which is ...
3) Rutgers Got Dominated On The Glass
The strengths of this Rutgers team under Steve Pikiell are clearly defined and nearly burned in the brain of those who follow it — playing hard defense and dominating the glass.
The Scarlet Knights did a decent job with the former, holding the Buckeyes well below the 80 points per game they average, but were thoroughly beat in the latter. Ohio State outrebounded Rutgers 46-30, including 11-9 on the offensive boards, despite ranking near the bottom in the conference in both categories.
Losing the rebound margin is a common theme among Rutgers losses — the only time they lost despite winning on the boards was in a near-upset of No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann tried to take advantage of that fact.
“We really tried to emphasize it,” Holtmann said. “We tried to emphasize and not get into too much scramble because once you get in scramble mode, you’re going to get in trouble with these guys. They are really committed to outrebounding you. It’s interesting because before the game, we did show them clips of them beating us to loose balls the last time we played them and the reality is they did and we needed to correct that. If we’re going to beat Rutgers at home, we better do that again.”
4) No Players Postgame
After nearly every Rutgers game, regardless of the result, Steve Pikiell heads to the podium alongside one or two of his players who stood out from the game. The head coach often refers to it as a reward.
So naturally, after a 22-point loss where Pikiell felt the effort wasn’t completely there on the defensive end, there was no player deserving of the reward.
“I tried to go through (the box score) to see who was the star of the game,” Pikiell said. “Usually this is a reward. I’m really struggling to find a guy. So let me do it and those guys can start watching some film tonight.”
One Last Thing:
As a result of the final observation, there will be no killer quotes section in this story. Take the time you would to read that section and go for a walk around the block and clear your head.
Don’t stress out too much about today’s loss or Rutgers 1-5 record in conference play.
The five losses in Big Ten play came against the hardest slate possible — two games against the best team in the league, trips to the second and third best team in the league (Purdue and Minnesota with Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch) and a home game against the hottest team in the country.
There is still plenty of basketball to play this season — 12 Big Ten games to be exact — and other than trips to Ann Arbor and Columbus and a home game against Purdue, the remaining slate is filled with winnable games for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights won’t sweep those nine games, but they’ll win their fair share. So relax, take a breath and get ready for Iowa.
For Aaron Breitman’s recap of tonight’s game, click here.
For Dave White’s four Enjoying The Build thoughts, click here.