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Rutgers men’s basketball searching for identity

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After a disappointing loss in Toronto, the Scarlet Knights return home with more questions than answers.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 13 Drexel at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Saturday night in Toronto, the Rutgers men’s basketball team fell behind 19 points in the first half against previously winless St. Bonaventure before mounting a comeback the rest of the way that ultimately fell short, resulting in a 80-74 defeat. It was a disappointing performance for a team that had struggled in two of its first three games of the season already. With a 3-1 record and the schedule about to ramp up in level of difficulty, it’s fair to be concerned about this team.

Losing to St. Bonaventure was not good at all, but is not nearly as bad of a loss as previous seasons to the likes of Hartford, Stony Brook and Fordham. The Bonnies beat UCLA in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, missed making March Madness last season on a missed three at the buzzer and were picked as a top half Atlantic-10 team this preseason. For some perspective, they lost by 2 points to Vermont a week ago, who went to Queens on Saturday and knocked off St. John’s. The Bonnies have been without Osun Osunniyi, who is injured, but were desperate for a win and led by two Jersey kids out to make a statement in Kyle Lofton and Justin Winston. Their Kenpom ranking is 146th, about 100 ore more spots ahead of those three teams just mentioned as bad losses in previous seasons. It was a game Rutgers should have won, but it’s not the loss itself that’s as concerning as the trends that have developed in the early going this season.

The real issue four games into the season is that this team is still searching for an identity. Head coach Steve Pikiell has typically built his teams around defense and rebounding, something they’ve done reasonably well in his first three seasons. They’ve been limited offensively during that time, but have been competitive because of making those two areas a priority. With more talent, more athletes, and more of a perimeter oriented team this season, Rutgers hasn’t benefited on the offensive end the way that Pikiell hoped they would.

There are a few issues to be concerned about and none was more glaring in the loss to the Bonnies than the fact that the departure of Eugene Omoruyi has left a huge void for Rutgers. Playing in his hometown in a game that was scheduled to honor the senior before he shocked everyone and transferred to Oregon, it was clear that Pikiell and the coaching staff have no viable replacement on the current roster for last season’s leading scorer and rebounder.

Starting center Myles Johnson, who benefited from playing inside next to Omoruyi previously, picked up two fouls in the first 78 seconds of the game on Saturday. He ended up playing just four minutes in the opening frame, scoring 2 points and grabbing 1 rebound. Shaq Carter, who had been a non-factor through the first three games, contributed with 6 first half points, but he hasn’t shown the level of development hoped for so far after the staff had raved about his improvement this offseason. The lack of production and depth with the big men, which includes Mamadou Doucoure, is a major issue so far for Rutgers. It’s clear that any game Johnson gets into foul trouble, this team is vulnerable in the interior and have few options to answer with.

It didn’t help that Ron Harper Jr. also struggled with foul trouble in the first half, picking up 3 and playing just 5 minutes while being held scoreless. His progress this offseason was lauded by everyone around the program and the hope was he was ready to take a major step forward. The reality is this team needs him to play a starring role but so far that hasn’t happened. By no means has Harper Jr. been bad, as he is tied for second in scoring with 10.3 points and leads the team in rebounding with 6.5 boards. He just hasn’t been great and with the way the current roster is shaped, Rutgers needs him to be just that in order to make a leap up in the Big Ten standings this season.

Due to the lack of depth and production in the frontcourt, Rutgers needs to score in transition and shoot well from the perimeter. While they’ve played a more up tempo style overall, they only held a 14-10 advantage with fast break points in the loss to St. Bonaventure. That’s not nearly enough of transition offense for Rutgers to succeed, especially when they shot just 43% from the floor in the game, including a horrid 32% in the first half. They shared the basketball well, assisting on 75% of its made field goals (18 of 24), but simply didn’t make enough shots.

For the season, Rutgers is only shooting 44.3% as a team from the floor and 28% from three-point range. They are shooting 67.4% from the foul line, which is an improvement but not enough of one. After an inspiring 20 of 25 performance from the charity stripe in the win over Drexel, they helped cost themselves the game at the line against the Bonnies by making just 19 of 30 attempts for 63.3%.

These shooting numbers aren’t much different than last season, although their offensive efficiency rating of 102.0 is actually worse than a year ago of 105.6. Of course, we are only talking about a four game sample size so far this season, but its enough to be concerned that this team won’t be much better offensively than they were last season.

The problem with that is Rutgers is clearly worse defensively so far. While Omoruyi was an enforcer in the interior and brought the team much needed toughness, the loss of former assistant coach Jay Young is being felt as well. Defending the perimeter and shots from behind the arc was an issue at times when even Young was at Rutgers, but it’s been much worse in the early going this season. The most alarming thing about the defeat to St. Bonaventure was their ability to penetrate and score near the rim, something that is not their strong suit. If that’s happening to Rutgers against an opponent like the Bonnies, it’s fair to be worried that Big Ten teams are going to do serious damage in the paint in the future.

All of these issues lead to one question: what is the identity of this team?

Rutgers is playing more up tempo offensively on the break at times, but what happened to playing more aggressively on defense with full to three quarters court pressure? That has barely happened in the early going. It’s likely the idea of leaving Johnson vulnerable to fouls as the lone defender near the opposition’s rim has limited this, but I’m surprised we haven’t seen the guards give more ball pressure before opponents reach halfcourt.

With plenty of length and athleticism along the perimeter, why are opponents getting so many open looks from behind the arc? Is Rutgers sagging more so by design to prevent penetration, even though that hasn’t worked at times, or is it adjusting to playing at a faster pace offensively?

With having so many players well suited to run and guards like Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy who can facilitate the fast break, why does this team slow it down as much as they have and settle for running its offense in the halfcourt? They also need to attack the rim more so in the halfcourt than settling for contested three-pointers.

The idea of playing a faster pace on both ends is based on being able to force opponents into mistakes, resulting in scoring quick and easy baskets in transition. Sitting back in the halfcourt on both ends of the floor has exposed Rutgers for what it has been early on: a poor shooting team that has trouble guarding the perimeter defensively. It’s a bad combination when you struggle to shoot three-pointers, as well as struggle to defend them. Something has to change.

There are no easy answers for coach Pikiell and his staff. It has only been four games so far and there is time to right the ship. I wrote in our season predictions that I was basing optimism on what I think this team can become by season’s end, not where I thought they were at the start. However, its clear there is a long way to go.

With Stephen F. Austin, NJIT, and UMASS next, those three opponents are much more on the level of St. Bonaventure than Bryant, Niagara, and Drexel, who Rutgers beat in its first three games. What follows that stretch is a the four game, 11 day gauntlet at Pitt and Michigan State, followed by home games against Wisconsin and Seton Hall. The way that Rutgers has played in its first four games of the season, the next seven all look challenging.

While by all accounts this team works extremely hard, is committed and the leadership of Geo Baker and veteran presence of Akwasi Yeboah are positives, the bottom line is players have to step up and produce much more so than they have through four games. Pikiell has tinkered with rotations and used multiple substitutions so far, trying to find the best lineup combinations for certain matchups and situations. He might not like it, but being more experimental with different looks defensively and adjusting the game plan offensively are things he may need to consider moving forward. Mixing in some zone and a greater emphasis on attacking the rim could help.

Pikiell has proven to be able to push the right buttons in the past and get the most of out his teams. The difference this season is the team is still trying to figure out how to play a different style. It doesn’t make it easier that there are raised expectations for this group and learning how to play with more pressure is an adjustment in its own right. Rutgers has had to deal with a lot of changes since last season, but time is running out to find the right answers if they truly want to take a significant step forward this season. The margin for error is slim and the schedule is only getting harder. Whoever this team hopes to ultimately be needs to rise to the surface in the next month in order for them to achieve what they want to this season.