Winning is a beautiful thing, no matter how ugly you play. The Rutgers men’s basketball team proved that on Saturday night in a hard fought 64-60 win over Penn State. Shooting 35% on the road is usually a recipe for disaster but Rutgers pulled it out for several reasons:
- They were fully committed on the defensive end, holding Penn State to 35% shooting as well and just 6 of 24 (25%) from three-point range.
- Despite Rutgers struggling from the floor overall, they had timely shooting and made shots when they needed it most. Shooting 7 of 16 for 44% from three-point range and 15 of 21 for 71% from the free throw line is winning basketball.
- The leadership and big play ability of Geo Baker and Eugene Omoruyi were huge in this win. Omoruyi set the tone early by drawing two charges and coming close to a third, falling over the floor despite playing less than 100%. He was clutch down the stretch in stopping Penn State’s best player in Lamar Stevens on a key late possession and making all four of his free throw attempts in the final minutes. Baker made big shot after big shot, keeping the offense focused on attacking and he continues to play well defensively. At the end of the day, it was simply apparent that Rutgers wanted it more than Penn State and it was largely due to the will of these two players.
- With Rutgers up 2 points in the final seconds and struggling to inbounds the basketball, its head coach adjusted the play to ensure his best ball handler and free throw shooter got the ball. It was a winning move by Pikiell when his team needed it most.
After a week that Rutgers won back to back regular season Big Ten games for the first time since joining the conference, as well as just its second league road win, the identity of this team is stronger than ever. After a disappointing loss to Northwestern on January 18th, a players only meeting was called and the difference in this team since has been obvious. They are playing selflessly and together on both ends of the floor. It resulted in beating a senior laden Nebraska team whose core finished in fourth place in the Big Ten last year with NCAA expectations this season, as well as last place Penn State who still have plenty of talent remaining from their NIT championship team from last season.
The good news is that Rutgers hasn’t played close to it’s maximum potential yet this season. In its four best victories, all over teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100, Rutgers has shot 40.7% against Miami, 41.5% against Ohio State, 44.3% against Nebraska and 35.0% against Penn State. This team is still finding its way offensively, but the positive is that they have adjusted their style in recent weeks and are learning how to play winning basketball.
Attacking the basket through drives and entry passes, drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, improved shot selection and making the extra pass, as well as looking to run in transition after defensive stops has been a key development in their style of play. In Big Ten action so far, Rutgers has the 11th best offensive efficiency rating at 95.2. That isn’t great by any stretch, but its a major improvement nonetheless. In the previous four seasons since being in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have finished conference play with the worst offensive efficiency rating by a significant margin every year, with the best rating in Eddie Jordan’s last season at 91.2.
With 11 regular season league games remaining, Rutgers (10-9; 3-6) has plenty of opportunity to exceed expectations from the start of this season (KenPom predicted 10 wins overall) and accomplish plenty of more firsts since joining the Big Ten. While Rutgers will likely continue to be underdogs by the oddsmakers in almost every conference game remaining, they have plenty of chances to pick up more victories.
This coming week brings two as Rutgers hosts Indiana at the RAC on Wednesday night and travels to Ohio State for a rematch on Saturday at noon. Rutgers beat both teams the last time they met, which includes the 16 point comeback win over the Hoosiers during last season’s Big Ten Tournament. Indiana comes to the RAC on a six game losing streak, while Ohio State had lost three straight since losing to RU before upsetting Nebraska on Saturday.
The bottom half of the Big Ten is wide open and Rutgers has three conference wins, which is the same amount as the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, as well as Northwestern and Nebraska. Rutgers has four games remaining against those teams, as well as one more each against Illinois and Penn State, who are currently behind them all in the standings. In addition, there are two games to play against high powered but a defensively poor Iowa team and a rematch at home against Minnesota. It seems clear there are only two daunting games remaining on the regular season slate, a February 5th home date against Michigan and a road game on February 20th at Michigan State, both of which are top ten teams.
Rutgers has a real chance to not only exceed its previous best win total of three Big Ten regular season games, which it has already matched before the halfway point of conference play, but they could potentially double that mark or better. After finishing in last place the previous four seasons in the Big Ten and being unanimously picked to do so again this year, Rutgers has an opportunity to far exceed expectations in this regard. If they manage to finish better than the bottom four of the Big Ten standings, Rutgers would become one of the best stories of the season in what is the top ranked conference in the country per KenPom rankings.
Now it’s also important to stay grounded with expectations, as this team is still a work in progress. KenPom shows them as ranked 322nd experience wise in Division I and frustrating, uneven performances will still occur. This team is still learning how to play together and how to close out games. Shooting overall is still a major issue and their defensive play needs to become more consistent. The positive is they are applying lessons learned along the way this season and its resulting in significant progress. While plenty more needs to occur before this becomes a winning program, the signs are pointing in the right direction. After winning just 10 of it’s first 76 Big Ten games overall, including postseason, the Scarlet Knights have now won 5 of its last 12.
Rutgers hasn’t played a great game all season, but it’s coming. A clunker or two are probably as well. This season has been a bit of a roller coaster and it’s likely to continue that way. That’s okay and if you were being realistic from the start of this season, it’s what you should have expected. The biggest takeaway from this season so far is the core of this team is developing in a positive way and the big picture future for this program is trending up because of it. In the long term, recruiting needs to continue to improve and more player development is needed. However, under Steve Pikiell, Rutgers fans have a team they can be proud of and believe in. Real hope exists that this team is close to taking a big step forward, both in this season and beyond, which is major progress already and it’s not even February.