For the Rutgers men’s basketball team, it’s been a frustrating season in some ways and a hopeful one in other ways. Their have been highs like beating blood rival Seton Hall, lows in losses to Hartford and Stony Brook, as well as a seven game losing streak in Big Ten play, as well as near misses in what would have been program changing victories over two of the top ten teams in the country, losing in overtime at Michigan State and falling by just two points to Purdue at the RAC. While the defense has improved even more so in Steve Pikiell’s second season, rebounding has continued to be solid, while the offense has arguably gotten worse.
The reality is Rutgers is still in the early stages of what is a massive rebuild, but suffering through some disappointing losses and frustrating offensive performances can wear on even the loyalist of fans. The Scarlet Knights have yet to produce strong performances that resulted in wins in back to back games against Big Ten or top competition this season. Whenever this team has taken steps forward, they soon after take another step or two backwards. However, after Rutgers pulled off their best win in Big Ten play in a come from behind victory over Northwestern this past Tuesday, there should be renewed hope that this team can finish the season strong for a second consecutive year. Here are five reasons to believe they can.
Corey Sanders Gives Them A Chance Against Anyone
In the eight Big Ten wins in his career with Rutgers, Sanders is averaging 19.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.8 steals and is shooting 43.6% from the floor. In every other game in his career (80 games), Sanders is averaging a solid, but unspectacular 13.8 points, 3.5 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals, while shooting just 39.3% from the field. When Corey brings his “A” game, Rutgers has a chance against any team they play.
Case in point, Rutgers almost pulled off the upset of the college basketball season in conference play against then #3 Purdue two weeks ago, losing by 2 points WITHOUT its two best bench players in Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi. Sanders scored 31 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 3 assists, and swiped 1 steal in 39 minutes of action. In beating Seton Hall back in December, which was the biggest win for the program in years, Corey had a game high 22 points on 9 of 16 from the floor, as well as 4 rebounds and 4 steals. His ability to hit big shots down the stretch and be the cold blooded playmaker Rutgers so desperately needs, gives them a shot to win every game they play.
There are plenty of other factors that help determine the outcome, but for a team that is brutally inefficient on the offensive end, Sanders gives the Scarlet Knights legitimate hope every time he touches the basketball. Consistency has been an issue, but unlike last year, when Sanders wore down in the last few games, he is playing the best basketball of his career right now on the banks, which includes his defense.
Rutgers ranks 15th in defensive efficiency in all of Division I (351 teams). While that statistic is a bit deceiving due to the weak non-conference schedule they played (ranked 348th per KenPom), it’s obvious to those who follow the team that they’ve improved this season on the defensive end. While they are ninth in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play, they have still had some very strong performances against conference teams this season. In fact, Rutgers has held league opponents below their season scoring average in 13 of its 15 Big Ten contests. The only games they did not accomplish that feat was the conference opener at Minnesota and the disaster at Illinois, when Eugene Omoruyi got injured in the first half. They just held Northwestern 12 points below its season average, despite playing an overtime session. #2 Michigan State is scoring an average of 83 points a game, but averaged just 69 points in two meetings against Rutgers, one of which went into overtime. Even though they lost to #22 Michigan by 15 points, they held them 12 points below their scoring average and it was on their home court. Their ability to force turnovers has been another plus, as well as improved interior defense from big men Shaq Doorson and Candido Sa. When Rutgers plays defense at a high level for most of the game, it gives them a chance to beat any Big Ten team.
Rutgers has three conference games remaining in the regular season and two of them are on the road. The first is this Saturday at Maryland, which won’t be easy, but isn’t impossible either. While the Terps have the fourth highest offensive efficiency in Big Ten play, they are just 12th in defensive efficiency. If Rutgers can deliver on the point I just mentioned with a great defensive effort, they may be able to generate enough points to pull off the upset.
Illinois at home for the regular season finale is a chance for redemption after their worst performance in Big Ten play this season was against them just over two weeks ago. Something to note is that the Illini play Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan State, all in the week leading up to a road trip Rutgers. That’s three of the top four teams in the conference, all within a five day stretch. That leaves them just have two days off before taking the court at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights do have a tough matchup at Ohio State before as well, but they’ll have four days off before facing the Illini. A win over the visitors would most likely assure Rutgers finishes better than last place in league play for the first time since joining the Big Ten four seasons ago.
Of course, Rutgers is likely to play on the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament in two weeks, which will give them another chance for a victory. Will it be déjà vu all over again in beating Illinois and then winning its Big Ten Tourney opener last season? Let’s hope so, as it would give the program it’s most Big Ten wins ever in a season, as well as give Steve Pikiell much needed momentum on the recruiting trail heading into his third offseason, all while keeping the rebuild moving in the right direction at the end of year two.
Steve Pikiell’s tenure has seen improvement with the program in many areas, including strength & conditioning, practice habits, defense, rebounding, and toughness. However, his unwavering emphasis on the culture he is building above all else has been the defining trait of his regime so far. The latest example was choosing not to play senior captain Deshawn Freeman on Tuesday against Northwestern. It resulted in the team’s best win since they upset Seton Hall in December. Pikiell has also benched Corey Sanders three separate times this season for various reasons, as well as named senior walk-on Jake Dadika a captain in mid-season. He did the same in promoting Mike Williams as captain last year in mid-season.
Pikiell holds his players accountable and rewards those who buy into the culture that he is establishing. It may seem simple, but I wrote here how various issues with culture was the undoing of the previous five coaches of this program. The culture that Pikiell has established and continues to strengthen is a big reason why I believe he will ultimately succeed here. Ending the seven game losing streak in dramatic fashion, all while benching one of his leaders, was a huge statement. Again, Pikiell made a point to say in the postgame that Freeman wasn’t benched for any rules violation, but rather “Just a coach’s decision, trying to get some energy and trying to change the lineup. I went with the guys that I thought could win us the game.” Having two important players that have fully bought into his culture back into the lineup in Williams and Eugene Omoruyi has also provided a major boost in toughness, leadership, offense and defense for this team.
Mike Williams' Last Hurrah
By all accounts, Williams is a respected and beloved leader of this team. He brings toughness, poise, and experience to this team in a way no other player can. It’s no coincidence that Rutgers worst extended stretch of play this season came during the four weeks he was out with an ankle injury. It’s uncommon to return so quickly from that type of injury and while it’s not surprising, he appears to be playing at less than 100% physically. However, his presence on the court, as well as his heart and determination in how he plays are a driving force for this team. Williams wants to finish the season and his Rutgers career as strong as possible. Know he is in the ears of his teammates trying to motivate them and keep everyone focused down the stretch of this season. He can be a rallying force around this team in a way that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet and should have a major impact on the court the rest of the season.
The bottom line is this team hasn’t given up and either should its fans. It’s a long season and although the 2017-2018 campaign is almost over, a lot of positive things can still happen. This is a flawed team, as they currently have the second to worst effective field goal percentage in Division I basketball. It’s painful to watch them shoot from anywhere on the court at times. And yet, this team continues to play hard and play together.
They’ve overcome a lot of adversity this season, between the multiple benching’s of Sanders and Freeman, the injuries to Williams and Omoruyi, a brutal start to the Big Ten schedule, which is currently the third most difficult in league play so far, as well as always seeming to get the short end of the stick when it comes to officiating in conference play. Mired in a seven game losing streak and their captain out due to their head coach’s decision, they came from behind by as much as 11 points in the second half and six points with less than a minute to play to beat Northwestern. If Rutgers can continue to battle with the same spirit they did on Tuesday night and have at various times throughout this season, more victories are possible before the clock strikes midnight on this team.