Can you believe we’re already a quarter of the way through the basketball season? A frontloaded schedule meant Rutgers had to grow up quickly, and play eight games before Santa even started to receive Christmas lists yet. (Mine asked for a postseason birth. Let’s see the elves work on that. Might take them a year). Anyway, I think there’s enough here to have at least four thoughts about the season. Do you agree? Take a look.
Rutgers is Better Than Last Year Offensively: The threes may not fall every night, but Rutgers is a step ahead of where they were on offensive now vs. last season. There are multiple players on this team that can hit the three consistently: Geo Baker, Peter Kiss, Issa Thiam, and—most surprisingly—Eugene Omoruyi. They also seem to be better around the basket. Eugene Omoruyi hasn’t missed to many chip shots and after the Wisconsin game, Shaq Carter was a revelation. The freshman—Ron Harper, Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell—are showing sings that they’re getting comfortable too. When the light clicks for them, Rutgers has the potential to be very deep with only a little slip up. That’s key. When Montez Mathis goes for ten or fifteen points at some point in January—don’t say I didn’t warn you. They have their feet wet and are now wading further into the pool. The opposing defenses are going to get better once we get further into the conference slate—Michigan State and Wisconsin showed that—but it appears that Rutgers has enough firepower to stay close.
Rutgers is Still a Defensive and Rebounding First Team, but Isn’t Quite There Yet: Okay, this thought is controversial because the numbers don’t back it up. This is what is missing from last year’s team: Deshawn Freeman, Mike Williams and Corey Sanders. Rutgers seems to have made up for them scoring-wise due to ball sharing and better looks at the basket. But to my eye, Rutgers isn’t getting the key stops it used to. Overall, the defense is top twenty in the country (per KenPom), but remember last year, when Rutgers would get the stop it needed time after time after time only to fail on the offensive end? Besides Lykes from Miami, Rutgers is a real tough time stopping the best players on the other team. Nick Ward and Cassius Winston went off and got baskets when the Spartans needed them. Ethan Happ had a monster night around the hoop against Wisconsin. Finding a lockdown defender to go against the other team’s best player is part of the development process, and I know Steve Pikiell and Jay Young will find it… but it’s still a work in progress.
Geo Baker Is the Leader of this Team: Shaq Doorson and Eugene Omoruyi may be the captains, but Baker is the leader. Not only is Baker the go to scorer, but he’s also the face of the team. If you are at a game, watch him on the court (because I don’t think the television cameras pick this up enough). Baker is always talking to his teammates during stoppages. Whether it’s calming someone down after a bad foul, or on-the-court coaching a player to be in the right spot, he’s who the rest of the team looks to when they need fixing. Baker may not be a pure point guard, and he’ll be even better next year off the ball next to Paul Mulcahy, but he’s leading the team like a point guard should. There are plenty of intangibles with this kid, and it’s starting to look like he might grow into a Rutgers legend.
They Are Good Enough to Beat Anybody, and Bad Enough to Lose to Anyone: As invigorating as the past three games have been—particularly stealing that game against Miami—Rutgers is not good enough to take anyone lightly. Boston University tried to take it to them in the second half of a sleepy game, and nearly pulled it off before Rutgers woke up and survived. There are some bad teams in the Big Ten that Rutgers can potentially finish ahead of in the standings, but they have to bring it every night. Illinois hasn’t rounded into form yet, but in two games last year they gave the Scarlet Knight fits and came away with two big wins. Northwestern is a smart team that can play dangerous any night of the week. Rutgers is getting better, but to do that, they have to leapfrog a bunch of squads. That means bringing it every night. Rutgers is going to beat someone—maybe a couple of someones—you don’t expect before the year is out. That said, I think there’ll also be a night or two where the fans go home unhappy because Rutgers tries to sleepwalk through one.