Wednesday night’s upset of Ohio State was the first victory over a ranked Big Ten opponent for Rutgers with Steve Pikiell as head coach. After an 0-3 start to conference play and six straight Big Ten regular season losses, the win showcased what Rutgers is capable of. It was a gutty performance that saw multiple players contribute on a night the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Eugene Omoruyi, left the game early in the first half and never returned due to a dislocated kneecap injury.
The previous month brought lackluster performances in wins over Columbia and Maine, as well as a disappointing loss to Maryland last Saturday in which Rutgers surrendered a 33-6 run to end the first half. It was part of the predictable growing pains that such an inexperienced team goes through. However, this win gives hope that this group is turning a corner in its development.
The potential of this team was showcased in the victory over the Buckeyes, who Rutgers has now beaten twice in the past four meetings. The improvement of former 4-star recruit Montez Mathis has been dramatic the past two games and his training wheels are now officially off. He brings Rutgers an edge on the court with his play and he is the best attacking guard on the roster. While Mathis was good all night, his willingness to step up in the waning moments was the difference between Rutgers winning and losing. His two baskets in the final two minutes to give his team the lead for good was a coming of age moment for the freshman.
Before the game on a conference call on Tuesday, Pikiell said about Mathis, “I love the progress that he has made. He has come a long way. I want to make sure he stays in attack mode, but we also need him on the floor. Part of being in attack mode is you are aggressive and getting some fouls called. We are really trying to teach him how to harness that and not pick up quick fouls. I really love his progress and see it every day. I’ve seen his confidence grow with every practice and every game, so we’ve got to keep him on that trajectory.”
Mathis rewarded his coach’s confidence in him with the best game of his Rutgers career, scoring a team high 16 points on 7 of 11 shooting and adding 4 rebounds in 31 minutes of play.
Another key factor in this game was Pikiell’s willingness to adjust his rotations. Rutgers took advantage of its size inside to counter the Buckeye’s best player in big man Kaleb Wesson. The two Shaq’s, Doorson and Carter, combined to play 52 minutes and were each effective in their own way. Carter stepped up offensively in Omoruyi’s absence, scoring 11 points, grabbing a team high 7 rebounds, swiping 2 steals and perhaps most impressively, making 5 of 6 free throw attempts. Doorson was a force defensively all night and stopped Wesson on two key possessions late in the game. His development in his senior season has been huge. His mobility and footwork is much improved and it showed in those two defensive possessions where he was able to stay in front of the quicker Wesson and interfere with his shot without fouling.
Pikiell played two big men on the court at the same time much of the second half, as freshman Myles Johnson also played key minutes down the stretch along with the two Shaq’s. His only basket came late in the game after Carter lost the ball in traffic and it was an important one. His defense was solid as well and his poise has been impressive all season.
Defensively, Rutgers switched things up more so than usual, utilizing both a three-quarter court press and 2-3 zone in the halfcourt at various times in the game. Ohio State, which only had two losses coming into last night, struggled against Syracuse and its vaunted 2-3 zone earlier this season. Pikiell, who has said many times that Rutgers is a man to man team, surprised the Buckeyes by falling into the zone in certain spots.
None bigger was out of a timeout with 1:37 remaining in the game and Ohio State clinging to a 1 point lead. After reverting to man to man for much of the final minutes, Pikiell called for the 2-3 zone on this key play. It confused the Buckeyes and Andre Wesson threw the ball out of bounds for a costly turnover. Mathis gave Rutgers the lead for good on the next possession.
Pikiell’s willingness to adapt in this game was a major reason for the victory. After urging his team to reduce its three-point attempts and attack the rim more so in recent weeks, he finally saw them execute that plan without its best post player in Omoruyi. His adjustments in using personnel differently than he had all season worked and keyed that change. Starting Ron Harper Jr. for the first time in his career got him involved early, which led to him scoring an important 12 points in the game. He and fellow freshman Mathis seemed to energize each other and it sparked the team overall. Pikiell chose to sit Peter Kiss the entire game, who has struggled shooting the ball, and played a tighter eight man rotation after Omoruyi went down. Harper Jr. played 29 minutes and Mathis played 31, career highs for both. It helped Rutgers look to run and be more effective in transition, as they edged Ohio State 12-6 on fast break points.
After the game, Pikiell was asked about the change in lineups with Harper Jr. starting and the big men combinations. He said “I’m learning my team. We have good length and just thought it would give us an edge. We’ll continue to make adjustments and we have a lot in our package now, but we’ll figure out the next game.”
Pikiell has proved in 2+ seasons that he is a good in-game coach, especially with play calls out of timeouts. However, it was a simple strategy that sealed this victory. With Rutgers leading by 1 with 27 seconds to play, coming out of a timeout, Pikiell put the ball in the hands of Baker. He hadn’t scored all half, but the head coach’s confidence never wavered in his star pupil. Instead of setting screens or running an involved play, Pikiell trusted Baker. He dribbled at the top of the key to run down the clock before he created enough space from Buckeye defender Luther Muhammad to step back and knock down a big time jumper. Rutgers led by three and after one more defensive stop, the upset was complete.
On a night that Rutgers lost captain Eugene Omoruyi in the early part of the game, the team stepped up and delivered its biggest victory of the season. While many players gave big time performances, it was their head coach who steered them to victory by making several key adjustments. Like his players, Pikiell is learning along the way and he was able to dial up all the right answers in a game that now gives hope that real progress will occur this season.