The Rutgers men’s basketball team begins the 2018-2019 season less than a week from now on Friday, November 9th. After back to back 15 win seasons, led by a trio of veteran players in Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams, this year’s roster is quite different. There are only five players that have Big Ten game experience and there is only one senior on the roster in center Shaq Doorson. The truth is we really won’t know what to expect from this team until the games begin and see how they perform early in the season. However, there are a lot of encouraging signs and for my impressions of this team so far, click here and here.
Despite the lack of experience with this team, there should be some optimism that this could become the best offensive squad of the Steve Pikiell era so far. The bar is set pretty low, as scoring has been the biggest issue in the previous two seasons. The head coach hasn’t been shy about boasting about the improved shooting on this year’s squad.
“We have a lot more pieces. We are way ahead offensively, which I don’t like. Our defense, I don’t like right now at all. We score a lot. We have a lot more guys who can shoot the ball,” said Pikiell. He added, “We are much more athletic and competitive than we have been in the past. Practices have been better. We have two guys at every spot that I feel very comfortable with. They all bring something. Our freshman class are very far ahead offensively. They really have a long way to go defensively.”
While remaining a good defensive team is a must, it makes sense that the newcomers are taking longer to adjust on that end of the floor. Playing defense in college is far more complex than high school and AAU ball and the competition is greater. There shouldn’t be any long term concerns that the defense will suffer, just that it will take time. The encouraging part of what Pikiell said is this team appears to have better shooters.
The reality is that Rutgers has been one of the least efficient offense teams in college basketball the past few seasons. Last year, the Scarlet Knights were ranked 329th out of 351 teams in offensive efficiency, according to the site team rankings. Per Kenpom, Rutgers had an adjusted offensive efficiency ranked 270th last season. The only high major programs that were worse than that was Pittsburgh and Cal, both of which only won 8 games last season.
Fortunately for Rutgers, Pikiell’s team was 28th in adjusted defensive efficiency, so they were competitive, winning 15 games last season. The flip side is that if Rutgers had just been an average offensive team, they would have probably have had a winning record. The reality is they were one of the worst shooting teams in the country, ranking 345th for 2-pt FG%, 346th for 3-pt FG%, had an effective FG% of 347th, as well as 336th in FT% per Kenpom. They are plenty of adjectives you can use for bad, but the stats are pretty clear.
The good news is that there are several reasons to believe Rutgers will be a better offensive team this season. No slight is intended for Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman, but statistically they were not efficient offensive players and it hurt the team. They combined to control 55.4% of the team’s possessions last season and had two of the lowest offensive ratings on last year’s squad, both rating below 95.
For a reference point, Purdue had the second highest adjust offensive efficiency in college basketball last season, per Kenpom. Seven of their eight regulars had an offensive rating of 108 or better.
The good news is that four out of the top five players who had the highest offensive ratings for Rutgers last season return. Only Mike Williams (100.4) is gone. Geo Baker had a rating of 100.9 and was involved in 19.5% of possessions. A key question for this season is whether Baker can improve or at worst, maintain his rating with increased responsibilities on the offensive end, as he is serving as the primary ball handler. He will definitely account for a higher percentage of possessions this season, so his ability to be efficient offensively is crucial.
The other player who figures to own a high possession rate is Eugene Omoruyi, who last season had an offensive rating of 97.6 on 22.4% of the possesions. Omoruyi has been solid in his first two seasons, but if he really wants to make a leap into becoming one of the best players in the Big Ten, his offensive rating must improve. He has worked hard on his shooting as well and Pikiell called him the most improved player on the roster for a second straight year.
If Baker and Omoruyi can become legitimately good offensive players this season, this team will benefit greatly.
In addition, Shaq Doorson (109.1) and Issa Thiam (108.1) had the two highest offensive ratings on the team last year, but were each involved in less than 12% of possessions overall, so their impact was limited. I said multiple times last season that Issa needed to be more of a focal point on the offensive end, as the numbers warranted it. He seems more confident heading into this season and with Baker running the point, I expect him to look for him more often. Both players shot 36% from three-point range last season in over 100 attempts each. They both have the ability to improve from deep this season. Dave White wrote about the importance for Rutgers to make more shots from behind the arc here.
Another key is for the fifth returning player, Mamadou Doucoure, to improve on last season. He had an offensive rating in the low 80’s. Doucoure told me at Media day he has really worked on his shot and offensive game. Big men take time to develop on the offensive end and if he can produce even just a rating in the mid-90’s, it will help this team.
Peter Kiss told me at Media day the thing he has worked on and improved on the most is being more efficient with his shot. Before sitting out last season after transferring from Quinnipiac, Kiss produced an offensive rating of 95.0 his freshman season, leading his team in being involved in 25% of total possessions. He had the potential to be an efficient scorer for Rutgers, which would be an significant addition.
The other newcomers have at least been more efficient offensively in the preseason than the players they are replacing were for most of their careers. How they ultimately produce in games remains to be seen, but Pikiell is obviously excited about their potential. I think Shaq Carter will be one player who will have a solid offensive rating, as he will focus on taking shots near the rim and he is someone who is taking minutes that Freeman had last season.
Ron Harper Jr. has the potential to be the best shooter on the team. Montez Mathis is a versatile scorer who is super athletic. Caleb McConnell will serve as the backup point guard but has the ability to make shots. All three have been billed as solid passers as well.
Two keys for Rutgers this season to be better offensively is to share the basketball in the halfcourt and look to run in transition.
They were too reliant on Sanders and Freeman last season. Granted, both made huge shots at times and were the best players on the team, but the offense became stagnant too often as well. Their are more weapons this season and ball movement needs to be better, in order to get more players involved. The more balanced the offense is, the harder Rutgers will be for opponents to defend. There is no reason to expect it won’t be and Baker seems fully bought in on making sure that it is.
Rutgers is far more athletic and has a deeper roster this season, so they could benefit from looking to score off the fast break more so than they have in years past. Of course, they’ll need to improve on the defensive end to be able to run in transition. They work on getting out on the break in practice and this team has the pieces to be effective in that area.
The season is less than a week away from tipping off and one thing is for sure, this team is hard to predict with so many new players on the roster. How they will come together and how long it will take for them to learn how to win are major questions for this season. However, there is more talent on this team than Pikiell has had since his time at Rutgers and they have the potential to be his best offensive team yet. They’ll need time to develop in this area, as it will be a process, but hopefully it will be a fun one to watch. On paper, they’ll be better offensively, it’s just a matter of how much.