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Thoughts & Trends On Rutgers Men’s Basketball

After the upset of Nebraska, time to take stock of the current state of the team with a few days before the next game

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

After Monday’s come from behind, upset victory over Nebraska, Rutgers has several days to rest and prepare for Saturday’s road game at Penn State (4:30 p.m. ET tip-off). That gives us some time to review some recent developments and trends with this team. Like Rutgers did on every loose ball in the win over the Cornhuskers, let’s dive in.

Geo Baker Is Underappreciated

There I said it. He has taken a lot of criticism this season and rightfully so. His shot selection has been poor at times, he is turning it over far too often (3.1 per game) and his defense has been inconsistent. However, it’s important as fans to take a step back and look at the big picture. He is taking on a role that isn’t a natural fit, as Baker is much better suited playing off the ball than at point guard. He is sacrificing what’s best for his individual stats for what is best for the team.

In terms of what he is bringing to the table, the answer is more than meets the eye. Baker has also played the third most minutes of any player in the Big Ten this season at 33.8 per contest. There is a certain reliability and extension of coach Pikiell that Baker brings to the floor. In addition, among Big Ten players, Baker is fifth in assists at 4.4 per game and tied for fifth with 1.4 steals per game.

Despite a significant shooting slump that he just broke out of recently, he is still shooting 36.4% from three-point range on 110 attempts. That’s not an all-conference type number, but it’s respectable, equal to his mark from last season (36.1%) and its by far the best shooting percentage from behind the arc on the team. As much as Eugene Omoruyi is the heart and soul of the team and extremely important on both ends of the floor, I’d argue losing Baker for any set of time would be a more significant loss because there isn’t anyone on the roster who can ably replace him right now.

That’s not a slight at Caleb McConnell, who has showed signs of being a very good player, but his skill set is different and it would be asking a lot of him to lead the offense on a full-time basis in his first season. There really isn’t anyone else on the roster that can play the point, except for Jacob Young who is sitting out this season due to transfer rules. Appreciate Baker’s strengths and learn to live with his issues right now because Rutgers is still better with him than without. He should be an even more complete and efficient player next season when Young and Paul Mulcahy can take on point guard responsibilities full-time and allow him to roam along the perimeter.

Montez Mathis Rising

Mathis is improving at a rapid rate and in my opinion is making it clear he is the most talented player on the roster. In his last six games, all Big Ten contests, Mathis has averaged 15.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 steal in 29.7 minutes per game. In the first 12 games prior to this stretch, Mathis averaged 5.2 points, 1.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals in 16.6 minutes per contest. The competition is consistently stiffer now, but Mathis is flourishing because he has gained more confidence in his abilities, something the coaching staff has done a good job of instilling in him.

His improvement shooting wise has been significant as well. Mathis was just 19 of 65 from the field for 29.2% in the first 12 games, but has shot 48% from the field (32-66) in the last six games. His ability to penetrate and effectiveness in getting to the rim has been profound. More importantly, he is drawing contact aside from just finishing at the rim. His free throw rate (% of possessions getting to the free throw line) is 55.7% in conference play, which is 8th best in the Big Ten.

Mathis is quickly becoming the best quick strike weapon Rutgers has offensively. His back to back baskets in the final minutes of the Ohio State game proved his worth and showed he will only improve as his confidence and comfort level continue to improve. He has been more consistent ever since and got to the basket at will against Nebraska, leading to a career high 20 points.

He has also shown improvement making 67% from the free throw line (22-33) in the past six games. Mathis needs to keep getting better in this area, but in the first 12 games he made only 61.7% from the line. Now that he is playing more minutes and taking more shots, he is learning how to play on more tired legs. Expect him to improve even more from the line as the season progresses.

The defense of Mathis was his biggest weakness entering the season. He has improved leaps and bounds from where he was at the first practice back in late September, when I first saw him play in person. It’s easy to underestimate the adjustment to this level of basketball even top recruits have to make, but Mathis has done an incredible job since the calendar turned to 2019.

Lastly, it’s hard to quantify, but Mathis brings a different element that Rutgers sorely needs. He plays with an edge and gives this team some desperately needed swagger. Mathis needs to continue to learn how to control his emotions at times and avoid foul trouble, but he is proving to Big Ten opponents that Rutgers is no longer a punching bag. Although it got him ejected in the Minnesota game, his shove of Isaiah Washington after he threw the ball off the back of his head was important long term in my opinion. It sent a message that Rutgers can’t be pushed around anymore and isn’t going to take being disrespected lightly. The good news is behind Mathis’ improved play, this team can start to back that mindset up by winning more games.

Frontcourt Scoring Now A Factor

The only positive of Eugene Omoruyi missing three-plus games due to injury is that it led to bigger roles for Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter.

In the four games that Omoruyi was injured, Carter averaged 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 61.5% from the field in 30.5 minutes per game. Carter has the highest offensive rating (124.1) on the team and no one is even close to that mark. He needs to continue to improve on his post-up game in terms of being a consistent offensive weapon, but he is proving to be a deft rebounder and strong finisher near the rim on second chance opportunities. He saw his impact lessen with Omoruyi back against Nebraska, as he scored 4 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in 19 minutes. However, he’ll have opportunities to be a factor moving forward and gives Pikiell more versatility with his lineups.

Part of the reason Carter played less against Nebraska is that Pikiell rode the hot hand of Myles Johnson. The big freshman showed signs of being unstoppable in the low post for flashes in that game and against Minnesota. He scored 13 points in both contests and combined for 19 rebounds in those outings as well. His development since arriving at Rutgers a year and a half ago has been impressive and he hasn’t even reached his full potential yet. Consistency is an issue, but that is to be expected with a young player. Still, he is already a great example for the coaching staff to use on the recruiting trail in terms of developing players. Johnson is showing legitimate signs of becoming the best post player Rutgers has had since Kadeem Jack.

We already knew how important Omoruyi was before he was injured, as he led Rutgers in scoring and rebounding. However in the win over Nebraska, he proved his worth on two huge plays in the game. Rutgers was trailing 31-18 late in the first half and was in danger of getting blown out in similar fashion that they did against Maryland and Purdue. Instead, Omoruyi converted a three-point play in the paint, which sparked a 15-0 run that changed the game. Then with the game tied at 67, he delivered a perfect pass to Johnson in traffic, who laid it in to give Rutgers the lead for good.

With Omoruyi back, Pikiell now has three legitimate frontcourt scoring options. Shaq Doorson has also been a valuable piece and steady all season, but his defense and rebounding are his strengths. Even so, Pikiell will have a good problem moving forward of having to decide on minutes for each of the four players the rest of the way.

A Team Approach To Rebounding

Steve Pikiell has made rebounding a priority since the day he arrived on the banks. While his first two teams rebounded very well, it was fair to be concerned about how an inexperienced roster as this would hold up with rebounding this season. Instead, it’s business as usual, as eight players are averaging right around 3 rebounds or more. In fact, Rutgers is actually rebounding better in Big Ten play than ever before. They have had rebounding margins of +10 against Nebraska, +3 against Wisconsin, +2 against Minnesota and were even against Northwestern. In games they didn’t hold an advantage, they still hung close on the boards in games against Ohio State (-1), Maryland (-3), and Michigan State (-4). The only Big Ten game they got handled on the glass was against Purdue (-8). This is a major step forward, as Rutgers has consistently struggled to rebound at a high level in league play since joining the Big Ten.

Winning Formula

In the three biggest wins this season, Rutgers has proven they can beat good teams without shooting particularly well. Against Miami, they shot just 40.7% from the field and 25% from three-point range. Against Ohio State, Rutgers shot 41.5% from the floor and 31.3% from behind the arc. Monday against Nebraska was their best shooting performance of the three, making 44.3% from the field and 38.5% from three-point range. While you could argue it’s disappointing Rutgers hasn’t been able to shoot closer to 50% in the victories, it’s also very encouraging that they are winning games while only shooting in the low 40’s percent-wise.

The reason is they are playing defense at a high level, as they held Miami to 33.8% shooting, Ohio State to 39.7%, and Nebraska to 41.8%. That has been the biggest difference in those victories. In at least one of these triumphs, Rutgers has lost the rebounding battle, shot less than 60% from the free throw line and committed more turnovers than the opposition. And yet, they have been able to win by being locked in defensively and playing a smart and attacking style on the offensive end. It gives hope that Rutgers will win more Big Ten regular season games than ever before and proves they can win in this league without shooting at a high clip.

How To Measure Progress & Expectations

Expectations in the preseason are important to remember as losses occur, as more will certainly happen this season. KenPom predicted a 10 win season and not one Rutgers beat writer expected a winning season. In our preseason prediction post, our contributors foresaw between 11 and 16 wins overall. According to KenPom, Rutgers is 321st experience wise out of 351 Division I teams. Finishing better than last place in the conference and winning more Big Ten games than ever before should be the goal for this season. If you want a dream goal, hope for the first winning season in 13 years, which is still a long shot. Hoping for a potential NIT bid this season is not realistic. It’s not having a loser mentality, as some fans have complained, it’s about having reasonable expectations for this current team. Certain achievements have to occur first before bigger one’s can be accomplished. Here are two that show progress is occurring:

  1. Rutgers men’s basketball won just 13% of its first 76 Big Ten games (includes conference tournament), going 10-66 since joining the league for the 2014-2015 season. In its last 11 league games, they’ve gone 4-7 dating back to last year’s Big Ten Tournament. It’s incremental progress, but it’s an obvious step in the right direction under Steve Pikiell.
  2. Under Pikiell in two-plus seasons, Rutgers now has 11 victories over KenPom top 100 opponents. In the previous five seasons, three under Eddie Jordan and two under Mike Rice, Rutgers had 13 victories over top 100 teams.

Before the Northwestern game, Steve Pikiell said, “This is a team that’s growing and getting better. We’re a young team and we’re exciting. Some nights we’re going to look young, some nights we’re going to look good.”

Rutgers has a major opportunity ahead of them on Saturday at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are winless at 0-8 in Big Ten play and a Rutgers win would put them three games ahead of PSU in the standings. It would go along way in ensuring a finish out of the Big Ten basement for the first time ever. For Rutgers to truly move up the conference ladder, they need to learn to win on the road. They are 1-38 away from the RAC in Big Ten play since joining the league. The one road win came at Penn State two seasons ago. If Rutgers can win there once again on Saturday, another small step forward will be achieved, the first regular season winning streak in Big Ten play.