The Rutgers men’s basketball team heads into Christmas with a 6-5 record and lots of progress still to be made. It’s been an a bit of a roller coaster season so far, solet’s look at five aspects of this team trending up and five trending down at the moment.
Trending Down: Offensive Balance As Too Many Three’s, Not Enough Inside Looks
Steve Pikiell spoke about the need for less shots from behind the arc in last Thursday’s conference call with the media and after the win over Columbia. Rutgers shot 2 of 19 from three-point range in the overtime win on Saturday and has made just 12 of 64 for an awful 19% in the past three contests. They are missing some wide open looks, but this team that has a tendency to force them as well. They aren’t rotating the ball around the perimeter enough and they’re aren’t enough players posting up in the paint. Rutgers isn’t attacking the rim with dribble penetration nearly enough, which hasn’t helped open up shooters either. The bottom line is Rutgers needs more points in the paint on a consistent basis to be able to be more productive on the offensive end, which should generate more free throw attempts and ultimately get better shot opportunities from the perimeter as well.
Trending Up: Shaq Carter & Caleb McConnell
Both of these players directly help combat the issue just mentioned. McConnell is looking like the best threat to drive to the rim and Carter has been very efficient scoring near the rim. It’s not a coincidence that Rutgers came back in the second half down 13 points to Columbia once Carter and McConnell became more involved offensively.
Carter scored all 13 of his points in the second half on 6 of 7 shooting and is now 17 of 24 for 71% from the floor this season. In the only three games he has played more than 5 minutes, Carter is averaging 10.0 points and 5.7 rebounds. His offensive rating of 131.0 is the highest on the team.
McConnell finished Saturday’s game with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and made four clutch free throws at the end of overtime to seal the victory. His ability to run the point makes him an asset. Tapping McConnell to run the offense more would allow Geo Baker to play more off the ball, which would suit his game better.
Through the first third of the season, Shaq is averaging 10.1 minutes per game and McConnell just 8.6 minutes. After Pikiell stuck with both quite a bit after halftime against Columbia, both logged a season high 25 minutes, expect both players to see more time moving forward.
Trending Down: Playing To Competition
Since the first three games of the season, Rutgers has outplayed a top 50 Miami team, played a top ten Michigan State team tough for a half and gave a top 15 team inWisconsin and rival Seton Hall a dogfight despite not shooting very well at all. On the flip side, Rutgers played its worst half of the season in the loss to Fordham and escaped the jaws of defeat by gutting out a win over Columbia on Saturday. It’s not that surprising that a relatively young team (307th experience rating per KenPom) has played to its competition thus far, but it’s a dangerous way to play. This will hopefully change as this team grows and matures this season and beyond.
The good news is that other than Maine next Saturday, this team only has Big Ten teams left on the schedule. They’ve shown an ability to play well in important games and they start again with Maryland at the RAC on January 5th, already announced as a sellout. I still believe this team will win more conference regular season games since joining the Big Ten and finish better than last place. Their performance in big games so far is a major reason why, but the key is learning to win those games down the stretch in conference play.
Trending Up: Rebounding
Dont take it for granted that Rutgers has been a strong rebounding team ever since Steve Pikiell has been in charge. Since KenPom began in 2002, Rutgers has only finished in the top 50 for offensive rebounding rate four times total, including both seasons under Pikiell and they trending for a third straight this season. They currently have an offensive rebounding rate of 36.5%, which is 21st in Division I. In addition this season, Rutgers is 11th in offensive rebounds per game, 27th in total rebounds per game, and 51st in rebounding margin. Eight players average 2.5 or more rebounds per game. Pikiell has made a point to stress that that all hands are on deck to rebound on this team and it’s truly a part of the identity of the program under his watch.
Trending Down: Harper Jr. & Mathis Consistent Production
Pikiell has talked about the freshman wall before and Geo Baker has spoken about his experience with it from last season as well. Harper Jr. made just 2 of 13 shots in his last two games and was held scoreless against Columbia. He also has as many turnover as points in this two game stretch (5). Mathis has been more streaky, scoring 8 or more points in four games, while also have four games with 2 points or less. It has been positive to see him improve from the free throw line, as since he started the season just 7 of 16, he has now made 11 of 14. Still, Mathis is trying to find his comfort zone on the court and continues to press at times.
Both players have tremendous upside and it’s important to remember they are both just one year removed from high school. With their first semester and finals just concluding, they’ll have more time to focus on basketball for a few weeks and catch their breath after their first few months of college. If they can become more consistent contributors on both ends of the floor, the ceiling for Rutgers this season goes up because of them.
Trending Up: Shaq Doorson Coming Through As A Senior
Consider yourself warned, do not miss the opportunity to appreciate Shaq Doorson in the last months of his Rutgers career. After fighting injuries and being a role player for his previous four seasons, Doorson has been a revelation this season. While his averages of 4.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 19.4 minutes is solid yet not spectacular, he has been a highly efficient player this season. Shaq Doorson is 9th in Division I with two-point shooting (21-28, 75%), 41st in offensive rebounding rate, 61st in block rate, and 79th in offensive rating. The fact that Shaq entered his senior season never averaging more than 3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block, and 12 minutes per game, his production this season has been huge. He has already had three games with double digit rebounds and has only come up with less than 5 just a third of the time. In addition, his leadership on the team and in the frontcourt has been important as well. Appreciate the biggest man on the team while you can, he is having a great last hurrah in scarlet.
Trending Down: Geo Baker’s Shooting
After starting the season shooting 26 of 53 (49.1%) from the floor overall and 14 of 28 (50%) from three-point rage, Baker has fallen off quite a bit. He has made just 30 of 93 shots (32.3%) from the floor, including only 13 of 44 attempts for 29.5% from behind the arc. Baker is not a natural point guard and while he has had some great moments this season, it seems the added responsibility is catching up to him. He still averages close to 5 assists per game and he hasn’t seen a rise in turnovers, but hasn’t declined either. The offense hasn’t flowed as well as needed lately and Baker sometimes takes too much on himself, often forcing the issue and leading to mistakes. Attacking the rim is not his strength and while he can create his own shot, playing off the ball suits his game better. There won’t be any major fix with that this season, but if McConnell can contribute more like mentioned above, it can only help Baker become a more efficient player the rest of the way.
Trending Up: Free Throw Shooting
Don’t look now but Rutgers has made 58 of its last 83 free throw attempts for 69.8% in the past five games. The Scarlet Knights still have a long way to go before being labeled a good free throw shooting team, but there is tangible progress occurring. For the season, McConnell, Baker, Peter Kiss, Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam are all shooting 69% or better from the line. The key is them getting to the charity stripe more often. Give Omoruyi a lot of credit, as he made just 54% of his 3.4 attempts per game last season. He not only has improved his attempts per game to 3.8, but he is shooting 69.%, a significant jump. Mathis is trending up as mentioned above and it’s only a matter of time before Harper Jr. improved from the line as he gets more comfortable. The long term outlook at this team being a 70% or better shooting team from the line is trending up!
Trending Down: Fans Patience
Rutgers started the season 5-1, including an upset win at Miami, after a disappointing loss at Fordham, the tenor among a portion of the fan base has grown disgruntled. It’s as if the clear warning signs that this season would be full of growing pains was muted out when early positives against inferior competition presented itself. KenPom predicted just 10 wins this season before it began. Despite the recent losing streak, Rutgers is now projected to win 12 games by the advanced statistics site and they have a current team ranking of #114, which is one spot better than Rutgers was in Pikiell’s first season heading into Christmas with an 11-2 record.
This team has a bench made up of Division I and Big Ten neophytes, is lacking a natural point guard, and has already played four road games. Yet the anger that Rutgers is just 6-5, exactly where I thought they’d be at this point, is surprising. Yes, the Fordham loss was a bad one, but it could serve a learning experience that benefits this team in the long run. Teams lose to inferior opponents on the road a lot in college basketball. Rutgers needs to eliminate a slip up like that loss in the future for sure, but it was part of the roller coaster ride this season was expected to be.
The defense has been good overall (28th in adjusted defensive efficiency) and there are plenty of intriguing young pieces on the roster, which returns the entire core except Doorson next season. Perhaps the worst football season since 2002 has made some Rutgers fans yearning for success faster than expected with the men’s basketball team, but there are still enough signs to warrant optimism about the rest of this season and the future.
Trending Up: The Future Floor General
Speaking of the future, Rutgers commit and Pikiell’s ideal pick at point guard, Paul Mulcahy, continues to shine since pledging to become a Scarlet Knight. He wowed the competition at the Hoop Group Fall Showcase, where he won MVP honors, and since signing his letter of intent in November, Mulcahy is off to a fast start in his senior season. On Sunday night, Mulcahy led Gill St. Bernard to a blowout win over a very good program in Trenton Catholic. The 6’6” playmaker registered an impressive triple-double, scoring 15 points, dishing out an incredible 18 assists, and grabbing 10 rebounds. It’s hard to know for sure how much better Mulcahy will make the Rutgers offense, but he will allow Baker and others to play in positions that better suit them. He relishes setting up his teammates for easy baskets and he’ll give Rutgers the ability to push the basketball in transition on a more consistent basis. Frustration with the Rutgers offense at times is fair, but we won’t really see the full potential of the offense until Mulcahy is running it. The good news is his time on the banks is rapidly approaching.