The 2018-2019 season for the Rutgers basketball team is officially over, ending with a three game losing streak and falling short of the program’s first winning season in 13 years. In Steve Pikiell’s third year at the helm, the Scarlet Knights won more than double the amount of Big Ten regular season games than ever before. They finished in a three-way tie for 10th place after four consecutive last place finishes. However, there were missed opportunities as well and more progress that could have been made. Looking ahead to next season, here are five areas that Rutgers needs to improve on to continue to make progress and move up the Big Ten ladder.
Although Rutgers has been known for defense in the Pikiell era, this team was inconsistent and not nearly good enough defensively to be a winning team in Big Ten play. They ranked 12th in the conference in defensive efficiency. In order to win games in this league on a consistent basis, Rutgers needs to be a top half of the conference team defensively. Interior defense, guarding the perimeter, and generating offense through creating more turnovers are all areas they can improve on. It was obvious this season when Rutgers was playing well on the defensive end, they were much harder to beat. They need to be at that level on a more consistent basis next season to have more success. I’m sure Pikiell and the staff will make this a major focus in the offseason.
This seems obvious after last night’s season ending loss that was in large part due to a season high 22 turnovers, but it was a problem all year. There were too many games this season where Rutgers fell into disastrous stretches by committing a turnover on consecutive possessions or even at a rate of one a minute for a 6-8 minute period. The issue of not having a true point guard was glaringly obvious at times, although Geo Baker did improve in taking care of the basketball for a large part of Big Ten play. Still, this team should improve significantly with the addition of Paul Mulcahy and Jacob Young next season, as they should immediately be the best two ball handlers on the team. Ball movement needs to improve in the halfcourt and the entire team needs to improve its passing and decision making as well. If Rutgers can limit mistakes and improve their halfcourt offense, they’ll be a much harder team to beat.
Also obvious, but Rutgers remained a poor shooting team this season. They went 41.9% from the field, 31.2% from three-point range, and 63.7% from the free throw line. The good news is despite not being a great shooting team, they showed significant improvement in offensive efficiency, which I’ll detail more in a upcoming article. However, their struggles from the free throw line cost them some wins and their lack of consistency from three-point range put them at a disadvantage, making it hard to have enough firepower to keep up against top half Big Ten opponents. Speaking of Young, he has the potential to be a valuable weapon and bring instant offense next season. Having him and Mulcahy should improve ball movement and shot selection, leading to players getting more open looks and shots in rhythm more often. They have the ability to draw defenders in through penetration and help Rutgers attack the rim even more than this season. Still with the majority of this team set to return, they need to keep shooting throughout the offseason in order to get better. Of course, this can be addressed partly in recruiting as well, as who Rutgers fills the two current open scholarships will be fascinating to watch.
Rutgers was a tough team at times, but they really wilted down the stretch in the last three games. It’s easy to forget how young most of the players are and it’s clear the adversity they faced wore them down mentally. Losing a teammate due to disturbing circumstances like the arrest and dismissal of Issa Thiam seemed to take a big toll, which immediately followed the last second loss to Penn State. They weren’t the same team the last two games of the season. The human element is hard to quantify, but it is understandable that this was a factor.
To a lesser degree, I think the entire team and coaching staff was frustrated by some of the officiating this season, which is completely understandable. However, they need to grow from the challenges they faced and get stronger mentally. The Big Ten season was already a gauntlet and adding two more league games was brutal. Remember, the freshmen four had never played close to this many games in a season before, let alone at this level of competition. Geo Baker played more minutes than almost anyone in the Big Ten and was the top target of opposing defenses night in and night out. In the last two games, Baker and several teammates looked exhausted.
It’s a long season, but hopefully it will be even longer next year with postseason play the goal. The good news is I have confidence this group will channel the negative things that happened at the end of this season to help them grow stronger and get tougher for next season.
Closing Out Games & Seizing The Moment
I wasn’t the least bit surprised that Rutgers lost the last three games of the season and it’s because this team is still learning how to win. Inconsistency is par for the course at this stage of the rebuild. The biggest difference between Rutgers and Nebraska on Wednesday night was that the Huskers had a legitimate closer and shot maker in James Palmer Jr. He took over the game and Rutgers had no response. Baker and even Mathis at times this season made some big plays down the stretch that closed out victories. However, they both are a bit one dimensional (Baker with step back jumpers and Mathis driving with his head down) and teams took their strengths away from them as the season progressed. Both have the potential to become better closers in the future, but perhaps someone else on the roster will develop into that role instead. Whoever it is, Rutgers needs that player who can make big shots on a consistent basis at the end of games. That’s what good to great teams have.
On top of the emotional toll the adversity mentioned above took on them at the end of the season, Rutgers needs to improve on handling success and the pressure that comes with it as well. I think the win at Iowa showed that. After losing on a fluke bank three from the corner at the RAC, the players made it their mission to get revenge in the rematch. They did just that, a credit to them, but I think that it also zapped them of some energy and they had a hard time responding emotionally after that. They laid an egg in the first half on senior night in front of a sold out RAC against Penn State and it cost them the game. Credit this team for fighting all the way back before losing in the final seconds, but they never should have been in that position. It snowballed from there in the losses to Indiana and Nebraska. There will be more expectations for next season and this young group needs to be ready for that and learn how to work through it. Having Eugene Omoruyi and Baker back, two true battle tested and successful Big Ten players, will certainly help with that development.
Can They Get There?
The positive is that Rutgers basketball is trending in the right direction and took a clear step forward this season. There is still a long way to go and it’s frustrating this team didn’t make more progress than they did after being on the cusp of breaking through with a winning season. However, there is a lot to be optimistic about and the fact that so many fans are disappointed with how this season ended shows progress too. This team inspired and gave hope that Rutgers basketball is getting a lot better and going to be not only relevant, but a dangerous team in the Big Ten moving forward. There is a young core of players that are talented, but are still developing. The potential for them to become the best team Rutgers has had in many years is definitely there and Pikiell has proven to be a very good coach. Despite the three losses to end the season, I think that hope should still be high regarding this program and if they can make strides in the areas mentioned above, this will be a much improved team next season, which is an exciting prospect for Rutgers fans.
The 2019-20 college basketball season will be one of the more anticipated ones Rutgers has seen in a long time. Strong returning nucleus in place. Expectations.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 14, 2019