The Rutgers men’s basketball team defeated Minnesota Sunday night at the RAC in a game that was typical for this team: fall behind in the first half due to too many turnovers, clean things up after the break and out tough it’s opponent in every area while still only shooting in the low 40’s from the field for the game.
The big difference in the second half on Sunday was after starting the game 0-4 from the free throw line, Rutgers made 13 of 15 free throws the rest of the way. Minnesota was 10-20 on the night, including 9-18 in the second half, which really hurt them in a road game they needed to boost its NCAA chances. Rutgers has had its struggles from the line all season and average just 62.7%, which is 342nd out of 353 Division I teams. However, when they needed them last night, they came through.
With that being said, the game was defined by the gutsy Geo Baker, who rather than get worn down by the responsibility and tough losses this season, he seems to be getting stronger. Baker scored 8 of his 13 points in the final 2:13 of the game. His steeliness was on full display Sunday night in the moment he loves the most, Rutgers with the ball and the game on the line. With the game tied and one minute remaining, Baker took his staple step back three-point shot from the top of the key, with a hand in his face no less, similar to the one he made against Iowa, making it once again and sending the RAC into a frenzy.
After Minnesota cut the lead to one point, Baker showed real poise catching his breath and settling down before calmly draining both free throws. There is no doubt that Baker presses at times which leads to mistakes, but he has really progressed the past month in becoming a smarter player and his defense continues to improve. However, his ability to make big shots in crucial moments has been a progression this team has desperately needed.
Captain Eugene Omoruyi is another key cog that has helped this team step up another level. Rutgers is now 5-5 since he returned from his kneecap injury. Gene changed the dynamic against Minnesota after missing the 18 point loss in early January. The Golden Gophers two best players, Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey, combined for 44 points on 13 of 26 shooting and 17 of 21 from the free throw line in the previous meeting. Last night, the duo was just 7 of 22 from the floor and had only 9 free throw attempts, resulting in just 17 points, 13 below their combined season average.
Shaq Doorson, Myles Johnson and even Montez Mathis contributed to their struggles with relentless defense, but Omoruyi is the guy inside that keeps Rutgers together. He tallied 14 points and 7 rebounds in the win and together with Baker, they epitomize this team with their will and toughness.
The exciting part about this team is the growth of the freshman four. They have each had moments during Big Ten play when they were the best player on the court for Rutgers. Look at these efficiency numbers in conference action for Myles Johnson: 1st in offensive rebounding rate, 15th in block rate, 16th in defensive rebounding rate, and 25th in steal rate. Ron Harper Jr. wasn’t much of a factor against Minnesota, but he is averaging 12.3 points on 49% shooting and 3.3 rebounds in the previous four games. Even after last night’s 3 point performance, he still has the 25th best offensive rating in Big Ten play, making him Rutgers most efficient player. Caleb McConnell has dazzled with his play at times and has battled through injury and sickness this season. He broke out with a team high 25 points in the OT loss at Illinois, shredding the pack line defense, and although he had just 5 points in the win over Northwestern, his steal in the second half led to a 4 point swing that changed the outcome of the game.
Last night, it was Mathis’ turn, as he showed how dangerous he can be in open space with his ability to attack the rim. What I loved about his performance last night was how he responded in the rematch versus a team he was ejected against in the last meeting. Former 4-star NYC recruit Isaiah Washington, who played only 2 minutes last night, had thrown the basketball at the back of Mathis’ head and he promptly shoved him. Both players were tossed. Last night, Mathis played with poise and led Rutgers with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting, including one huge contested three-pointer from the corner with just under three minutes left in the game and Minnesota leading by 4 points. Mathis is learning how to keep his emotions in check and after missing his first three free throw attempts, he finished 3 of 4 in this game. On the flip side, there is no question in my mind that Mathis is the most improved defensive player on this team. He was the highest touted recruit of the freshman four and although he has been up and down this season, he is getting better and when he plays well Rutgers is so much harder to beat.
The best quality of this team is how hard nosed and tough they are. Rutgers is grinding out wins in what is the best conference in college basketball according to several advanced metric sites. Their current KenPom rank is 78, which is worst in the Big Ten, and yet they sit in 10th place and are just one and a half games behind Ohio State in 7th place. They began the season at 149th. I’ll get more into this later this week, but it speaks to how good of a coaching job Steve Pikiell and his staff have done this season. The last time this program even finished in the KenPom top 100 was the 2010-2011 season, Mike Rice’s first, with a ranking of 78. They have a chance to do better this season.
With 7 KenPom top 100 wins this season, it’s the most for Rutgers since the 2005-2006 campaign. That was also the last winning season for the program. With three games remaining in the regular season, Rutgers is 13-14 overall and has a legitimate chance to finish with a .500 record before heading to the Big Ten Tournament in two weeks. They’ll head to Iowa (21-6, 10-6) on Saturday night for a rematch after the 1 point stomach punch loss in the first meeting. Then the Scarlet Knights play the last two games against teams they’ve already beaten. Penn State (11-16, 4-12) comes to the RAC next Wednesday, March 6th for senior night and it won’t be easy, as they’ve won 4 of their last 6 games. Then the regular season finale is at Indiana two Sunday’s from now. The Hoosiers are officially reeling, having lost 12 of its last 13 games after starting 3-0 in Big Ten play.
No matter what happens the rest of this season, Rutgers basketball has taken steps forward in Steve Pikiell’s third season. However, this team has an opportunity in front of them to take even more before this season is over. Not only is there a chance to finish better than the bottom four of the Big Ten standings, Rutgers could finish in the middle of the pack and as high as 7th place. For a program that’s finished dead last all four previous seasons as a member of the Big Ten, this is significant. They need to finish strong though, but the way this team plays together and has seemingly been on a mission since the Northwestern loss in mid-January, it’s fair to have confidence that they will. That alone is progress.