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Five Takeaways On First Five Games For Rutgers Men’s Basketball

We look at some encouraging signs as well as areas of concern

Aaron Breitman

Rutgers is 4-1 so far in the 2018-2019 season with statistically its toughest three game stretch ahead in the next week. They’ll play at Miami on Wednesday, followed by the Big Ten opener at the RAC against #9 Michigan State, ending with a road trip to #14 Wisconsin next Monday. We will learn quite a bit about this team during this brutal three game stretch, but to get ready for it, let’s review what we’ve learned so far. Here are my five takeaways through five games.

Captains & Geo Steering Ship Admirably

It’s early, but Eugene Omoruyi, Geo Baker, and Shaq Doorson have been extremely good to start the season. First the stats:

Eugene Omoruyi – 15.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 50.9% shooting

Geo Baker – 15.2 points, 5.0 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 49.1% shooting

Shaq Doorson – 5.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 92.9% shooting (13-14)

Omoruyi has very much looked the part as most improved on the roster for a second straight season as Pikiell said in the offseason. He is also drawing charges at almost a 2 per game clip so far, an uptick on his close to 1 per game last season. His continued development isn’t just making a big impact on the court, but his growth under this coaching staff is a marketable piece to use on the recruiting trail.

Geo has the most responsibility on the court with the offense and this team, and while he hasn’t been perfect, Rutgers has shared the basketball so much better than any time in the Pikiell era so far. Baker has big play ability and along with Omoruyi, gives this team a 1-2 punch inside and out that plays with swagger.

Doorson has been a revelation, moving better than we’ve ever seen him and playing with great confidence. His defense was very good last season, but being healthy he has been more of a rim defender than ever before. He’s 45th in the country in block rate and 99th in offensive rebounding rate. Incredible stuff for arguably the nicest guy in the program, which is saying something among such a solid group of people on this team.

What can’t be quantified in the stats is the leadership that these three players bring to the team. They are all extremely likeable guys and have helped unite the team in a common goal, which is to shock people and exceed all outside expectations for Rutgers this season, who was once again was universally picked to finish last in the Big Ten.

The first three players off the bench are playing college basketball for the first time ever in Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson, and Montez Mathis. Another, Caleb McConnell, is Geo’s backup at the point. All four players have struggled at times, as to be expected, but they are also playing within the team structure very well early on. This speaks volumes of the leadership that these three players are providing. This team will fight tooth and nail this season no matter what happens and it’s because of the coaching staff and the three captains.

Three-point Shooting Vastly Improved

It’s only five games, but Rutgers is shooting 40.7% from three-point range. That is a MAJOR development for this team after the previous four seasons, Rutgers only shot between 29%-32% from behind the arc. It’s not just that they are making more, but they are attempting far more per game as well, allowing their improved accuracy to make more of an impact. Last season, they shot 500 three-pointers in 34 games, just under 15 attempts per contest, making just over 4 per game. The inefficiency from three-point range put Rutgers at a major disadvantage in every Big Ten game they played.

There is hope this season will be different and it will make Rutgers more competitive in conference play. Through five games, Rutgers has attempted 118 shots from deep, just under 24 attempts and are averaging 9.8 makes per game. That’s a dramatic improvement and one that even if they drop to making around 7-8 per Big Ten game, will allow Rutgers to hang around and even upset some teams in conference play.

The biggest reason to be hopeful Rutgers will sustain their improvement from deep this season is that four players are all shooting extremely well so far. Geo Baker is 14 of 28 (50%) and Issa Thiam is 12 of 26 (46%), the two most active shooters from behind the arc and with good reason, as both led the team making 36% a year ago.

Eugene Omoruyi stressed in the preseason that shooting three’s was going to be part of his offensive repertoire moving forward. It was fair to be skeptical after he was just 0 for 16 in his first two seasons. Low and behold, he has started his junior campaign making 8 of 14 attempts (57%). More importantly, he is taking the right shots within the offense and his stroke has looked smooth.

Peter Kiss is 8 of 18 (44%) and hasn’t even looked completely comfortable yet. Consider that Ron Harper Jr. has the potential to be the best shooter in the program and he has struggled so far, making only 3 of 16 attempts. He will only improve from behind the arc over time.

This team has more legitimate options from behind the arc in probably over a decade.

Lack Of Ball Handlers Is A Problem

Geo Baker has played admirably at the point, dishing out 25 assists in five games and getting more people involved in the halfcourt than last season. However, he is logging big minutes (33.8 per game) and handles the ball the majority of the game. It’s taking a toll already, as he committed just 7 turnovers in the first three games, but has lost 9 turnovers total in the past two and looked exhausted at the end of the last game in the win over BU. This team is destined to go as Geo goes offensively and that’s a lot to ask of the sophomore.

The issue is the real help won’t arrive until next season, when Texas transfer Jacob Young is eligible to play and 2019 commit Paul Mulcahy arrives in the summer. Rutgers does have Caleb McConnell as its backup point guard this season, but he has only played 34 minutes in five games, dishing out 1 assist and committing 2 turnovers. Once Big Ten play tips off in earnest in January, the defensive game plan of opponents will be contain Geo at all costs and help will be hard to come by in terms of handling the basketball for Rutgers.

Defense & Rebounding Still A Big Question Mark

Rutgers currently has a adjusted defensive efficiency of 93.1 through five games, which is ranked 25th out of 353 Division I teams. The past two defensive performances against Eastern Michigan and BU were fantastic. That being said, it’s too early to know how Rutgers will be defensively in Big Ten play. They certainly are one of the bigger teams in the conference, but I’m more concerned about the perimeter defense. Pikiell is on the record saying the freshman have a long way to go on the defensive end and the early games show that to be true with Harper Jr., Mathis, and McConnell. Defense is not the strong suit of Baker, who is getting better but isn’t a lockdown defender like Mike Williams and even Corey Sanders were at times last season. Kiss is not a reliable defender yet either. The best perimeter defender by far is Issa Thiam, whose length, discipline and tenacity will continue to cause problems against opponents he faces. He just held Eastern Michigan’s leading scorer to 0 points last week. Expect to him to draw some top assignments in conference play.

While I have more confidence in the frontcourt, Shaq Doorson, Eugene Omoruyi and Myles Johnson have a big load to carry in conference play by defending the paint and rim against the trees of the Big Ten. Rutgers does have the 15th best block rate in the country so far, so these three have the potential to be effective in the interior this season on the defensive end. I expect Mamadou Doucoure, who has seen a bit more time of late, to have a chance to make an impact defensively this season as well.

As for rebounding, Rutgers hasn’t faced any teams yet that are particularly strong on the glass. The next three games against Miami, Michigan State and Wisconsin will tell us a lot about how these team can rebound against elite competition. They’ll also need to be effective on the offensive glass, leading to second chance point opportunities as well.

There Will Be Good, Bad & Ugly

We’ve already seen this play out so far this season. The good being performances against FDU, Drexel and Eastern Michigan, the bad against St. John’s and the ugly against BU. The key is simple, have more good performances than bad, but really for this team, it’s embracing the ability to win ugly. That’s why while sustaining the improvement from three-point range is important, they still need strong defense and rebounding to be their identity. They’ll win a game or two most likely they aren’t supposed to because they shoot lights out from three. However, they’ll make more gains in the win column the more balanced they play as a team in all phases. The positive is this team plays very well together so early in the season and are a deeper, more talented team than in the recent past. As we’ve said before, enjoy watching this team develop as the season progresses.