The Rutgers men’s basketball heads home after an eventful two game road trip in the state of Illinois. After producing its best offensive performance of the season that still resulted in a stomach punch overtime loss against the Illini last Saturday, Rutgers scratched and clawed its way to victory against one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten in Northwestern on Wednesday night. As they now prepare to host no. 21/17 Iowa (19-5; 8-5) on Saturday night (6 p.m.) in front of a sold out crowd at the RAC, here are some facts to chew on:
- Rutgers won just its third road game in Big Ten play since joining the league five seasons ago, but is now 2-5 this season.
- With five regular season conference wins, Rutgers continues to establish a program best victory mark since joining the Big Ten.
- After starting Big Ten play including conference tournaments at 13-73 in four plus seasons, Rutgers is 4-3 in its last 7 league games with the 326th most experienced team in college basketball per KenPom.
- With a current KenPom ranking of 88, its the highest Rutgers has been since January 17th, 2013.
- After finishing the 2016 season with a KenPom ranking of 279, by far the worst of any high major program, Rutgers is currently ranked ahead of 21 high major teams as of today.
- At 5-9 in Big Ten play, Rutgers is in sole possession of 10th place and one game behind 8th place Minnesota, who visit the RAC in a week and a half.
While there are a lot of reasons for why Rutgers is hanging out in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten this season, after four consecutive last place finishes and unanimously picked to do so again this year, one constant has emerged during this recent seven game stretch. The Scarlet Knights have become one of the best rebounding teams in the Big Ten. They have won the rebounding battle in nine conference games this season, including the last seven straight.
It’s true that Rutgers has overall been a good rebounding team since Pikiell has arrived, but this season they’ve shown improvement in a key area. While Rutgers finished 7th and 43rd nationally in Pikiell’s first two seasons with offensive rebounding rate, their rankings for opponent’s offensive rebounding rate were just 217th and 200th. In Big Ten play during the Pikiell era, Rutgers finished with the top offensive rebounding rate of 35.6% his first season and fourth at 30.1% his second. However, RU finished just 12th in limiting opponents on the offensive glass in year one (32.4%) and 11th in year two (30.4%). The big difference this season is on this end of the floor.
Rutgers continues to be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in Big Ten play, as they are currently 4th with a rate of 30.6% and 35th nationally overall this season at 34.6%. However, on the defensive end, they are limiting opponents to an offensive rebounding rate of only 24.7%, which is 3rd best in the conference. It’s produced an overall rebounding margin of +55 over the last seven games. For the season, they are ranked 73rd nationally (26.0%) in opponent offensive rebounding rate.
In the win over Northwestern, as Dave White wisely pointed out, Rutgers limited them to just 5 offensive rebounds the entire game. By limiting opponents on the offensive glass, its reducing second chance scoring opportunities and giving Rutgers more offensive possessions to work with. It’s also allowed them to have more opportunities to score in transition, which has translated well as this team is more athletic than in the past. They exploited this against Northwestern, outscoring them 25-5 in fast break points. While overall offensive efficiency has improved for the Scarlet Knights (11th in Big Ten play, 177th nationally), they need as many chances to score as possible and limiting their opponents at the same time has made them more competitive overall.
Last week, I asked coach Pikiell about the importance of rebounding and specifically how the freshman four have embraced the all hands on deck approach he instills in the team. He had this to say:
“We preach it all the time. I don’t know if they realize how important it is, but we emphasize it in practice and we have to. We need to be an elite rebounding team to compete in this league. It’s something they hear often. The more we watch film with them, the more they are realizing how important it is to get second opportunities, to limit teams from having more opportunities to score. I like the fact that we rebound as a team. Everyone chips in. Caleb McConnell has been a guy that is exciting and he rebounds. Myles (Johnson) is rebounding. Tez (Mathis) sticks his nose in there. Ron (Harper Jr.) at times has shown a level of being a good rebounder. We need everyone to do it. We are one of those teams that doesn’t have one great rebounder. After Gene, everyone chips in. Shaq Carter needs to do his thing as well. Rebounding is obviously important.”
In understanding why Rutgers has become an even better rebounding team this season, the impact of the freshmen four is obvious. Look at last night for example. Six players grabbed 4+ rebounds in the game and three of the first year players were part of that group. McConnell and Mathis grabbed six boards each, while Johnson pulled down four. For the season so far, Johnson averages 5.1 per game, Mathis is at 3.1, Harper Jr. averages 3.0 and McConnell is at 2.5 per contest.
It’s not just the freshmen though, as all ten players in the rotation are averaging 2.5 rebounds or more per game, with seven at 3+ and four players at 4.1 or better. As a team, Rutgers is grabbing 40 rebounds per game and now have a legitimate strength they can consistently be better in against Big Ten opponents.
From a national ranking perspective, Myles Johnson is posting an offensive rebounding rate of 15.0%, which is 13th best of all Division I players. The under appreciated Shaq Doorson ranks 57th nationally at 13.2%, while Eugene Omoruyi ranks 314th at 9.0%. In regard to defensive rebound rate, Omoruyi is 291st at 19.5% and Johnson is 326th at 19.0%.
Iowa is next up for Rutgers and are the top scoring team in Big Ten play (77.8 ppg), as well as 3rd in offensive efficiency and 7th nationally for the season. It will be vital to limit second chance opportunities for the Hawkeyes if Rutgers wants to knock off a second ranked opponent at the RAC this season. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights will need to guard the perimeter effectively, as Iowa is making 38.9% from behind the arc in conference play. However, continuing to impose its will on the glass and produce one shot possessions for Iowa will be very important as well.
While Rutgers (12-12; 5-9) has emerged as the tough, gritty team that no one in the Big Ten wants to play, their ability and consistency with rebounding has also made them a team that poses legitimate problems for the opposition. It’s a big reason they’ve won four of its last seven games and if they can continue to rebound at a high rate, they’ll have six more chances to add to the win column before the regular season concludes.