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Mid-season takeaways & future outlook on Rutgers men’s basketball

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Big Ten play resumes in less than a week and the road to the postseason is on track as of now.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers men’s basketball program is in the midst of a crucial period for the development of this team with just two games across a 16 day span. There has been significant practice time ahead of Big Ten play resuming on January 3rd. A 9-3 start to the season has featured some uneven performances, as well as several highs and lows. The bottom line is that the Scarlet Knights have played well enough so far to be in striking distance of the first winning season and first postseason appearance in 14 years. Here are ten thoughts on how they got here and what needs to happen for that to become a reality the rest of the way.

Defense better than expected

I will admit I’m stunned by the rapid improvement that Rutgers has made since the preseason on the defensive end. The impact of the loss of two key cogs to the defense, captain and forward Eugene Omoruyi former assistant Jay Young, were instrumental in Rutgers finishing with a top 50 efficiency rating the prior two seasons was apparent in November. Team defense has been much improved of late, particularly closing out opposing shooters on three-pointers. Opponents shot 32% or better from behind the arc in four of the first five games this season, but have only done so twice in the past seven contests. One was Seton Hall, who still lost by 20 points.

In addition, the Scarlet Knights are much improved in limiting opponents on the offensive glass this season, keeping foes to only a 23.3% rate, ranked 28th nationally. They’ve steadily improved in this area under Pikiell, going from a rate of 30.1%, ranking just 217th, to last season with opponents finishing with a rate of 27.0% for 117th to now.

Opponents are also turning it over at a rate of 22.0%, which is 69th best nationally.

The key of course is maintaining this type of play when conference play resumes for good in a week’s time. The past three seasons under Pikiell, Rutgers has finished 9th, 9th, and 12th best in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play. For this team to truly make a leap up the standings this season, they need to finish in the top half of defensive efficiency in league action.

Offensive Rebounding a consistent strength

In the previous three years under head coach Steve Pikiell, Rutgers has finished in the top 50 nationally in offensive rebounding rate and are 36th so far this season. The importance and focus on this area is as ingrained in the team’s culture under Pikiell as anything. The all-hands on deck approach has produced a lot of second chance scoring opportunities once again, which is even more important for a team that shoots so poorly from deep. Their ability to keep possessions alive and be more efficient in taking advantage of them has helped the offense tremendously.

Two point shooting much improved

Rutgers continues to struggle shooting from behind the arc, which is a problem, but they are significantly improved inside it. Here is how RU has been ranked out of 353 Division I in two-point shooting percentage in the Pikiell era before this season: 2016-2017 (44.5%; 330th), 2017-2018 (43.4%; 345th), 2018-2019 (47.2%; 285th). Through 12 games so far, Rutgers is shooting 54.4% from two-point range which is ranked 42nd nationally. Myles Johnson is a major reason why, as he is shooting 74.6% from two-point range (50-67), as is Ron Harper Jr. (42-76, 55.3%) and Geo Baker (38-69, 55.1%). A continued focus on attacking the rim and only taking three’s when they come naturally within the offense is a must.

Fast starts leading to success

The Scarlet Knights started games that resulted in victories over Wisconsin, Seton Hall, and Lafayette to a combined 40-0 score. It’s no surprise that they went on to win all three games and in relatively easy fashion. Rutgers coming out sharp and well prepared for its opponents have been a key in the turnaround this season so far. Remember, before December 11th, Rutgers was just 6-3 and looked very shaky away from the RAC. That’s still a valid concern, but it’s fair to have elevated hope after the two biggest wins of the season recently. While reproducing the kind of starts to games they’ve had lately is unrealistic, being able to keep up or assume control early on is a key step towards becoming a winning team.

They have to learn to win on the road

Two road games and one on a neutral court have led to two of the most disappointing performances of the season so far. The loss at Michigan State was actually somewhat encouraging and they gave the type of effort that was needed, kick starting what is now a three-game winning streak. However, Rutgers has trailed by double digits in all three contests away from the RAC, including a 17 point deficit to St. Bonaventure in Toronto. Pittsburgh was a discouraging performance as well. Coming back from so far down is impossible to do on a consistent basis on the road, especially when you are a team that struggles from three and the free throw line. Simply put, Rutgers needs to channel whatever is helping them jump off to such good starts at the RAC and bring with them on the road. While Pikiell’s team won at Miami and against a ranked Iowa team on their floor last season, they have to win several Big Ten road games this season to show growth and to move up the conference ladder.

RAC must become a legitimate home court advantage in Big Ten play

Rutgers is 9-0 at home so far and picked up marquee wins over Wisconsin and Seton Hall recently. Last season, Rutgers went 0-5 at home when the RAC was sold out, so they definitely needed to re-establish the 40+ year venue as one of the toughest homecourts to play on in the entire country. This needs to hold up in Big Ten play too, as the best way to finish .500 or better in the conference is to hold serve at home. RU probably won’t win all of their Big Ten games at the RAC this season, but they can hopefully come close to doing so, as that would worst case put Rutgers firmly in the middle of the pack within the conference standings.

Turnover % is a concern

Coming off a dominating 63-44 win over Lafayette almost a week ago, the only disappointing part of that performance was Rutgers committing 18 turnovers against a team not proficient in forcing takeaways. The Scarlet Knights now sit with a 20.5% turnover rate, which only ranks 238th in Division I. While there are more ball handlers on this roster than previous seasons, the only player holding a turnover rate under 17.0% is Ron Harper Jr., who at just 11.0% ranks 153rd best in the nation. Overall, Rutgers has had some bad stretches with turnovers that will cost them games down the road in Big Ten play if they can’t clean things up.

Sophomore class development the key

Myles Johnson has the best offensive rating on the team at 117.0, which ranks 222nd nationally, while ranking 14th in offensive rebounding rate, 55th in defensive rebounding rate, and 64th in block rate. He is the most indispensable player on the team and has improved tremendously since his high school days.

With redshirt sophomore Mamadou Doucoure officially part of this class now, his importance in backing up Johnson can’t be understated. While Duke is coming off a back injury that kept him out most of last season, missing plenty of developmental time, he needs to become a reliable defender and rebounder off the bench.

Caleb McConnell has a top 500 national offensive rating (112.3) and has the innate ability to make a big play near the end of games, one way or another, despite whether he’s had an overall bad performance or not. He also has been very good defensively for the most part and even though he lost his starting spot, his importance to this team doesn’t really change. I also think McConnell is the type of player that performs better coming off the bench, for whatever reason.

Montez Mathis is not highly efficient on the offensive end and still looks tentative at times, but he continues to be one of, if not the best defensive player on the team. Remember, this is a guy who drove to the basket to score on two key possessions near the end to knock off a ranked Ohio State team a season ago. I truly believe Mathis, a former 4-star recruit, will click offensively at some point in the near future and it will really elevate his game.

Ron Harper Jr. has the potential to be a star and while he hasn’t reached that ceiling as of yet, he has showed enough signs to believe he will eventually. He has improved his production this season, going from 7.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in 22.4 minutes to 11.9 points and 6.2 rebounds, second in both categories on the team, in 26.8 minutes per contest.

While the sophomore class has been up and down this season, there is a lot of potential for them to still reach and I’d be lying if I didn’t state what a disappointment it would be if this group didn’t bring Rutgers back to the NCAA Tournament before their careers on the banks are over.

Free throw shooting is a problem

The most frustrating part of this team is the continued struggles from the charity stripe, as they are shooting just 65.2% this season. That ranks just 303rd best in the country, which sounds alarming, until you realize Rutgers hasn’t finished better than 336th previously under Pikiell. Geo Baker is the best free throw shooter on the team at 84.0%, but is only tied for fifth in shot attempts. For a player who has the ball in his hands so much, it highlights the need for Baker to attack the rim more and draw more fouls, because he is the team’s best option to improve in this area. Echo this sentiment with Caleb McConnell as well, who is second on the team shooting 78.9% from the line but is just seventh in attempts. Both players were the best free throw shooters on last year’s team as well and need to find a way to get to the line more often. As for the rest of group, more consistency and coming through down the stretch is very important to the teams success moving forward.

Must stay healthy

With everything I’ve written above, nothing is more important for future success than the health of this team. They simply can’t accomplish what they want to this season if they are without 1-2 key pieces for an extended period of time. Rutgers is already thin in the frontcourt and losing Myles Johnson would be catastrophic. Geo Baker and Akwasi Yeboah would be players whose leadership and production would be almost impossible to replace as well. Really though, losing any player in the ten man rotation would be a challenge for this team to overcome that hopefully never presents itself this season.

Outlook

Rutgers enters the week that opens 2020 with high hopes for the rest of the season. As of December 28th, they have a program best KenPom ranking of 53rd, as well as a best NET ranking of 40, which is what the NCAA Tournament selection committee utilizes in making their choices at the end of the season. In addition, Busting Brackets included Rutgers in their latest bracketology released on Friday, selecting them in the 12 seed play-in game against an up and coming program named Kentucky. Maybe you’ve heard of them?

While all of this is exciting, it’s important to stay level and know the Big Ten, while seemingly wide open, also appears to be the best conference in college basketball this season. Anyone can beat anyone and while that presents a tremendous opportunity for Rutgers, they need to prove they are ready to take that next step.

KenPom projects a 6-3 start in Big Ten play, but whether RU can deliver remains to be seen. If they do and the Scarlet Knights can finish at 10-10 in Big Ten play, giving them an overall record of 19-12 entering the conference tournament, they’ll be playing in Indy the second week of March for a chance to break a 29 year NCAA Tournament drought. It won’t be easy, as the last five regular season games could all be losses (Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Penn State, Maryland, at Purdue), with every opponent but Wisconsin currently ranked 24th or better in KenPom as of this writing. However, this team has started to mature on the court in the past couple of weeks and seem to be figuring out how to effectively play together.

Steve Pikiell has done a good coaching job so far this season and you can see the rebuild is steadily progressing. How it all unfolds almost three months from now remains to be seen, but it’s going to be a fun journey along the way, even if it only results in the first winning campaign in a decade and a half with no postseason appearance. However, hoping for more is actually realistic and not just a pipe dream, which hasn’t been the case in a long time.