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Rutgers Basketball trending up in KenPom rankings

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 14 Seton Hall at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Rutgers’ incredible, 20-point home victory vs. Seton Hall in the books and a couple of non-conference games to come prior to the New Year, we at OTB felt it made sense to take a look at the team’s performance so far this season from an analytical perspective. The analysis which follows borrows heavily from KenPom data, but also uses a dose of the eye test (both are important in evaluating college basketball).

The short story is, from an efficiency standpoint, this Rutgers team is already the most complete and balanced team we have seen on the banks in many years. The KenPom era goes back to the 2001-02 season, and to the best of my knowledge/ability to research, Rutgers has never been ranked as highly by the KenPom system as they are right now (#56, as of this writing). The scary thing is, Rutgers is still a young team (230th in the nation in experience), with the potential to improve even further as the season goes on.

Why do I say that? Let’s go deeper…

Strengths on Offense So Far

Rutgers is a very talented and balanced defensive team, perhaps a bit less balanced on offense. Where Rutgers does excel on the offensive end is in offensive rebounds (38th in the country) and 2-point field goal percentage (42nd in the country).

Attacking the boards on offense is not new for the Pikiell-era Scarlet Knights; they’ve finished in the top 50 nationwide in this metric the past two seasons. What is new, and encouraging, is the extent to which Rutgers performs well shooting the ball inside the 3-point line.

Unless something weird happens, this particular Rutgers team will never be strong from three; this makes it incredibly important, if Rutgers is to survive against top competition, for them to succeed from close range. Key to both of the abovementioned metrics is Myles Johnson, who is incredibly selective and successful with his shot choices. Myles is currently 19th in the nation with a 73% FG percentage, simply because most of his looks are either completely uncontested or only mildly contested, like this particular bucket from the Seton Hall game:

Rutgers simply did not have a presence like 2019-2020 Myles Johnson in previous seasons; in addition to being a force on the glass and an efficient offensive player, he is a nifty passer from both the paint and the top of the key. He is a perfect fit for this system, and perhaps Rutgers’ most irreplaceable player at this point in the year.

Oh My, The Offensive Efficiency

I’ll never knock specific college athletes for their performance in this space, but let’s just say the first three years of the Pikiell era at Rutgers were not known for their offensive efficiency. Specifically, his first three teams finished the season ranked #251, 270, and 152, respectively, in the nation with respect to efficiency on offense. This year, while far from elite, Rutgers is at least respectable with the ball on offense, at #88 in efficiency.

Simply put, this team is more talented and possesses more individually efficient players than the Rutgers teams of the past several seasons. For the first time in what feels like (and may be) forever, Rutgers has three – three! – individual contributors ranked among the top 500 most efficient offensive players in the nation (Akwasi Yeboah, Caleb McConnell, and the aforementioned Myles Johnson). To put this in perspective, Rutgers never had a top 500 player with respect to offensive efficiency at any other point in the Pikiell era.

What this means, particularly as the season evolves, is we are more likely to see at a bare minimum, bursts of offensive competency similar to what happened in the first eight minutes of that Seton Hall game. Taking the eye test into account, fans should expect to see Rutgers, while occasionally continuing to frustrate and leave empty possessions behind on occasion, simply look more competent on offense, even as competition stiffens.

Yeboah, in particular, deserves a paragraph for his effort so far this season. How good has Akwasi been on offense? In addition to bringing poise and leadership to the table, Yeboah is likely Rutgers’ best pure shooter – his 43.3% performance from three so far this year ranks 160th nationally. When I mentioned before Rutgers may never excel from deep this season, it’s important to put this into context – with the exceptions of Ohio State and Michigan, no team in the Big Ten excels at shooting the three this year. Many of Rutgers’ conference matchups will be against teams with maybe only one pure shooter. If Yeboah continues with his hot hand from three, he may be able to go shot-for-shot against that particular shooter.

Hey, Let’s Not Forget About Defense

Steve Pikiell’s teams hang their hat on staunch defensive performances. What we maybe did not expect at this point in the season is that this relatively inexperienced team would perform at the same level as previous seasons under Pikiell. There were legitimate concerns about how well this team would gel on defense at the start of the season, with roster changes and coaching staff changes. What’s happened over the last eleven games is, Rutgers has been just one step below elite with respect to defensive efficiency (40th in the nation, 7th in the Big Ten, as of this writing), in line with the very good defensive Rutgers teams of years past.

Rutgers is incredibly balanced on defense. They limit offensive rebounds, force opponents into bad two-point attempts, and limit free throws attempted at a top-50 national pace. In particular, though, Rutgers’ strengths so far this season have been blocking shots (24th in the nation, 2nd in the Big Ten) and forcing teams into tempo adjustments.

I feel like I’m beating a drum here, but Myles Johnson plays a significant role as a shot-blocking presence in the middle in all of this. Myles is 66th in the nation in blocking shots, and this presence also forces teams to move to Plan B or Plan C when they have the ball on offense, leading them to hold the ball for more of the shot clock than they would against a typical opponent. College teams, as we know, do not handle late shot clock situations particularly well (see Rutgers’ performance with the Izzone as an example of this), so to the extent Rutgers is able to force teams into bad shot selection situations, it can only help improve defensive efficiency.

What’s Next on the Schedule

It’s hard, from where I’m sitting writing this piece, to imagine this is the same Rutgers team which lost to St. Bonaventure and Pitt a few weeks ago. I would have signed up for those two losses every day and twice on Sunday if it meant the optimism currently circulating around the Rutgers fan base.

Up next are three consecutive games against teams that are not in the KenPom Top 100: Lafayette at home, Caldwell (non-Div I) at home, and Nebraska on the road. This is followed by Penn State at home and Illinois on the road.

According to KenPom, Rutgers is a talented enough team to potentially – maybe – if you’re feeling optimistic – go 4-1 in their next five games, with the most likely loss being the fifth game at Illinois. If this (again, optimistic scenario) were to happen, this would bring Rutgers to a best-case 12-4 (3-2) record going into mid-January. This would be, for lack of a better word, an amazing start to the season.

Another number to keep in mind is 45 – by this, I don’t mean the uniform number of future New York Yankees World Series champion pitcher Gerrit Cole, but instead where you would want to see Rutgers’ KenPom ranking at the end of the season. Traditionally, it’s very hard to be ranked that high and not make the NIT / be a NCAA bubble team. To the extent those are the expectations for this team this season, Rutgers at #56 at the present time is currently not that far off.

I’ll plan to post another similar update in five games or so, assuming this article is well-received.