The Rutgers men’s basketball team takes on Maryland (11-3; 2-1) on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights resume Big Ten play with a 7-5 record overall and having lost both conference games by a combined 16 points to two of the league’s best, Michigan State and Wisconsin. While Rutgers has generally played more talented teams very hard this season, with St. John’s the lone exception, there are certain areas that this team must improve on in order to have success in conference play. If Rutgers wins more regular season games and finishes better than last place in the Big Ten since joining five seasons ago, then they likely made progress in the five statistical categories discussed below.
(Note: All statistical ratings cited are per KenPom)
Turnover Rate On Both Ends
It’s pretty simple to understand regardless of what the advanced statistics show. Rutgers needs to take care of the basketball much more so than it has and they need to turn their opponent over at a higher rate as well.
On offense, Rutgers has a turnover rate of 19.4%, which is ranked just 200th out of 353 Division I teams. What’s odd is that in the two conference games they’ve played so far, they have the third best turnover rate in Big Ten play at 11.8%. Both Michigan State and Wisconsin currently have a top 25 defense nationally. It’s true that Rutgers seems to play better against more difficult competition and this stat seems to indicate it’s true. They turned it over 19 times against Columbia and after committing 7 turnovers in the first half against Maine, they finally tightened it up and turned it over just twice in the second half. If the Scarlet Knights can be more focused on offense and reduce it’s turnovers, it will help both in having more offensive opportunities and preventing easy scoring chances for its opponents.
Speaking of defense, Rutgers is forcing turnovers at a rate of 20%, which is ranked 125th in Division I. The previous two seasons under Pikiell, Rutgers had the third best turnover rate in the Big Ten last season (19.9%) and fifth best (18.8%) the season before. They need to have a similar turnover rate on defense again this season. After two games in conference play, Rutgers is last with just a 10.3% turnover rate. Limiting offensive possessions from its opponents and generating scoring chances in transition is key for a team that has been as traditionally poor on offense as Rutgers has been since joining the Big Ten, which is why turnover rate is so important.
Free Throw Rate
Yes, Rutgers needs to shoot a higher percentage from the free throw line. Actually, they are making 69.1% of its attempts in the past six games, 6+% better than its season average (62.6%). The problem is they are only averaging 17.8 free throw attempts in those six games, which is why it’s actually more important for this team to get to the free throw line at a higher rate than they do versus it’s shooting percentage from the line. The fact that Rutgers is only making just under 63% of its free throw attempts is a bigger issue because they take so few attempts overall. If they made 25 of 40 free throw attempts in a game, it would still just be 63%, but it would also account for 25 points. With such a poor free shooting team typically taking less than 20 attempts like Rutgers does (17.6), they are only netting 11 points from the charity stripe a game, which simply isn’t enough for such a poor shooting team from the field. Quantity over quality is needed in this case. This isn’t a new issue. Rutgers was last free throw rate in Big Ten play in Pikiell’s first season and 12th last year.
The focus on offense needs to be taking less three-point attempts and getting to the rim for higher percentage shots and to increase the probability of getting fouled. They are getting so many open looks from the behind the arc for a reason, because teams want them to shoot from that far away due to their lack of success shooting from the perimeter. That strategy will not change when facing Big Ten defenses, but Rutgers’ mindset on offense must include increasing its free throw rate. They are just 290th in Division I percentage of free throw attempts to field goal attempts and 294th in percentage of total points coming from the free throw line. That has to improve or the offensive production probably won’t get much better.
Serviceable from Three
In the four previous seasons that Rutgers has been in the Big Ten, they’ve finished with the second to worst three-point percentage twice and the worst twice. Similarly to free throw rate, Rutgers is at a distinct disadvantage when shooting so poorly from three-point range because their opportunities to maximize points on offensive possessions is far less than its opponents. Last season, Rutgers shot 4.2% worse from behind the arc than the second to worst three-point shooting team in the Big Ten (Minnesota 31.7%). However, just as big a disadvantage was that Minnesota took 130 more attempts from deep, so their scoring potential was far higher.
I agree with Pikiell stating Rutgers needs to shoot less three’s, which I argued for when discussing free throw rate. You don’t a high volume of low percentage shots. The issue is by doing so it widens the gap between most Big Ten offenses which are geared around the three-point shot. However, I’m not arguing that Rutgers should take 30 three-point attempts per game. There needs to be more balance in the offensive attack and Rutgers simply needs to shoot better from behind the arc. No matter how many attempts they take, they’ll be severely hindered offensively if they can’t make at least 30% of them. If Rutgers could make even 5 of 15 from three-point range per Big Ten game this season, it would mark improvement and at least make them servicable from the perimeter.
Top Ten Defense
In Pikiell’s first two seasons, Rutgers has finished with the ninth best defense in Big Ten play with a rating between 105 and 105.4. It’s no secret one of the strengths of Rutgers the past two seasons under Pikiell was defense, but it hasn’t been close to elite in conference play. However, the defensive play needs to at least be equal of what its been previously to this season as well to have a chance at winning more conference games since joining the Big Ten in 2014. In the first two games of Big Ten play so far, Rutgers has a defensive efficiency rating of 116.0, which is second to worst in the conference. For Rutgers to eventually move up the standings long term, this core group of players now on the roster need to progress to a top half defense in the conference. I don’t think that is achievable this season, but this group can’t take a significant step backward from the previous two years either.
Offensive Rebounding Rate
The biggest strength for Rutgers during the Pikiell era so far has been it’s consistently high rate of rebounding on the offensive glass. In the 2016-2017 season, Rutgers had the best offensive rebounding rate in the Big Ten (35.6%) and 7th best in the country (37,4%). Last season, Rutgers was 4th in the Big Ten (30.1%) and 43rd in the country (33.3%). This season through 12 games, Rutgers is 20th nationally with a rate of 37.3%. They were unable to be as proficient against Michigan State and Wisconsin, which was a reason why they lost those games. They produced an offensive rebounding rate of 29.6% in those losses, which is currently 9th in the Big Ten. Rutgers is a statistical underdog in all 18 conference games remaining, which means they need to exploit a variable that can help result upsetting better teams. Offensive rebounding is exactly that. Just as important is taking advantage of those extended possessions and high percentage looks by finishing as many second chance point opportunities as possible.