Wearing their black uniforms to celebrate Black Friday, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball team welcomed the University of Massachusetts Minutemen to the RAC for a 2 pm tip-off. The former Atlantic Ten foe had raced to a 5-0 record to begin the season but dropped two straight to Virginia and St. John’s since. Rutgers was looking to win their third straight.
Both squads started out slow, illustrated by RU breaking the UMass press four times in a row but coming away with just two points due to missed layups, bad passes, and overall lack of offensive flow in their secondary break. The teams traded poor shot selection and turnovers for a solid eight minutes of game action. RU stayed afloat with some transition dunks.
UMass had their chance to put some pressure on the home team after freshman T.J. Weeks (game high 19 points) hit three straight three-pointers including a prayer off glass from 30 feet as the shot clock expired. Halfway through the first half, the visitors were up four, 18-14.
After that as we have seen often in this early season, Rutgers locked down on defense and the Minutemen struggled to get any clean looks. Defensive rotations were quick, passing lanes clogged, and a few times UMass threw the ball out of bounds or straight into the arms of Scarlet (or should I say black-clad) defenders.
On the offensive side, Rutgers stabilized after early fouls on Myles Johnson, Shaq Carter, and Mamadou Doucoure. Once Pikiell went back to Johnson and had inserted Paul Mulcahy into the lineup, RU easily moved the ball on offense and got some easy baskets in transition and the half court. Harper had 13 and Akwasi Yeboah had six at the break.
Jacob Young, Caleb McConnell, and Montez Mathis all left something to be desired on offense but to their credit were quite disruptive on defense. That led to easy baskets on the other end, most frequently for Harper. Yeboah, Young, McConnell, and Mathis all seemed to be trying to do too much on offense either by going to the hoop with their head down or attempting unnecessary risky passes. It also seemed that UMass knew this and was purposely keeping the ball out of Geo Baker’s hands.
Rutgers jumped out to a 12 point lead in the second half and the advantage stayed near that for a long stretch. Some notable highlights included an and-1 dunk from Shaq Carter in the press break, an alley-oop from Mulcahy to Johnson, and a steal turned into transition slam for Mathis. The Scarlet Knights completely locked down the Minutemen in the half court, the visitors got all their offense as a result of their press, contested threes, or long rebounds. It’s worth noting that Rutgers boxed out better than they had all season, but long shots result in long or awkward rebounds and sometimes the ball caroms to the offense.
The lead ballooned to 17 with 11 minutes left to go in the game on a Rutgers steal and second straight dunk. With Baker getting a rest, RU had several chances to blow the doors off but missed a number of easy lay-ups in transition and/or quick press breaks. A timeout with 6:24 remaining had RU leading 63-47 as the teams strategized for the final UMass comeback attempt.
With four and a half minutes to go Geo Baker went coast to coast in the press break for a dunk that surprised the visitors to give RU an 18 point lead. He followed with a three pointer that ignited the crowd in attendance and the 21 point lead and served as the dagger. Umass connected on an and-1 to follow, but the bus was already warming up.
The second daggers came in back to back possessions with a tad over a minute left. Baker hit another three with the shot clock winding down and as UMass rushed the ball upcourt Jacob Young pickpocketed the ball near midcourt and raced in for an uncontested slam. 21 point lead, game over drive home safely.
This was some of the most lock down defense I have seen from RU since Rashod Kent and Herve Lamizana roamed the paint together for one season. Whether it was 5 on 5 in the half court, 2 on 2 on a break, or even 1 on 1 situations the Minutemen labored to even get a decent shot at the rim. As critical as we can be about the RU offense at times, the defense is Big Ten quality for sure right now.
It may be nitpicking after an early start where Rutgers still got the blowout, but Myles Johnson is a single point of failure right now. The team was all out of sorts with Doucoure and Carter in the game early in the first half. Coach Steve Pikiell smartly adjusted the press break by putting Ron Harper in the middle and moving Shaq Carter to a more offensive spot. Defensively, the rest of the guys have to help Carter and Doucoure grab boards. The problem is in the half court where a better team will not allow RU to run through Johnson in the post whenever they want.
Overall on the line-up combos Pikiell is on board with what most of our commenters have been saying. When Myles Johnson is out of the game, RU really needs Paul Mulcahy and often Geo Baker both in the game for ball handling. Mulcahy is by far the best passer on the team and Baker its other most reliable ball handler. Everyone else can be a liability at times. Pressing seems pretty foolish though, but UMass probably felt they had no other choice.
The schedule really stiffens and quality of opponent jumps the next few games. RU (6-1) travels to Pitt on December 3 (ESPNU) before tipping off the Big Ten slate at #3 Michigan State on December 8.