Let’s start off with some trivia. Who was the last Rutgers men’s basketball player to average five or more assists per game for a single season? For even legitimate diehard fans, I have to believe that is a difficult question to answer correctly. Notable past floor generals, including Corey Sanders, Myles Mack, Mike Coburn, James Beatty, Mike Sherrod, Anthony Farmer, Marquis Webb, the brothers Billet, Earl Johnson, Damon Santiago and Earl Duncan all failed to ever achieve that mark during their careers on the banks.
The answer? You have to go all the way back to the 1984-1985 season, when point guard Brian Ellerbee dished out 6.2 assists. He actually did it twice, averaging 5.0 assists per game the season before.
Producing assists is a major factor in determining efficient offenses and it’s something Rutgers hasn’t been doing at a high rate in some time. The assist to field goals ratio last season was 50.6%, which was ranked 220th out of 353 Division I teams, per KenPom. That was actually a huge improvement from the 2017-2018 season, when Rutgers assisted on just 39.9% of field goals made, ranking 347th in Division I. In Pikiell’s first season, the rate was 44.2% which was ranked 329th in the nation. The offense has struggled under Pikiell, but last season’s offensive efficiency rating of 105.6 was ranked 152nd in Division I, the best result in five years.
In fact, the last time Rutgers had an assist to field goal ratio better than last season, which was still below average, was the 2012-2013 season when it was 52.2% and ranked 198th nationally. The season before that was slightly better at 53.3%, ranking 181st. The last time Rutgers had a assist to field goal rate ranked in the top half of the country was the 2010-2011 season, when they did so 55.4% of the time, ranking 123rd in Division I. It’s no coincidence that was the same season Rutgers produced its best offensive efficiency rate this decade at 108.6, which was ranked 82nd in the nation.
Getting to the point of the original trivia question, a lack of point guard who's top priority is dishing out assists and being effective at it has long been a void Rutgers basketball has had. Ken Pomeroy wrote a few years ago that “assist rate is positively correlated with offensive efficiency.” He also made the point that a strong defensive assist rate leads to good defense because it forces opponents to score off the dribble, which is less efficient that scoring off an assist. The stats show that ball movement and sharing the basketball lead to better scoring opportunities.
Why did I ask about the last time Rutgers had a player who averaged 5.0 assists per game for an entire season? Because I think the current 34 year streak is close to coming to an end, whether it be this coming season or soon after, due to the arrival of freshman Paul Mulcahy.
The 6’6” floor general is a pass first point guard, something Rutgers hasn’t had in decades. It’s not a criticism of any previous ones that Rutgers has had, but all of those previously mentioned were primary shooters/scorers on their respective teams. Even the great Eddie Jordan, who ran the offense for the best Rutgers team ever and whose 7.2 assists per game average in the 1976-1977 season is the program’s all-time best mark, he still led the team in scoring and shots attempted. Fast Eddie is currently sixth all-time in program history in both field goals attempted and made.
Mulcahy arrives on the banks with specific skillset that is a very good fit for the current roster. A big problem over the years has been Rutgers’ inability to score in transition and create high percentage scoring chances. Head coach Steve Pikiell has stockpiled this team with athletic, multi-positional guards and wings who are built to run an up tempo offense. The nucleus of Geo Baker, Jacob Young, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell, and Akwasi Yeboah are well suited to play this style, as each can score from the perimeter or by attacking the rim. What they need is help getting the basketball in a good position to score. Enter Mulcahy, who’s IQ, vision, passing ability and perhaps most importantly, his unselfishness, gives hope that Mulcahy will be a point guard who will make his teammates better on the court and change the offense for the better in a way we haven’t witnessed in a long time. Those players I just mentioned will deserve the lion share of the shots and Mulcahy will have no problem spreading out the scoring chances and deferring to his teammates.
Better looks at the basket should lead to a higher shooting percentage for players. The sophomore quartet of Myles Johnson, Mathis, Harper Jr., and McConnel could potentially benefit significantly from Mulcahy’s direction of the offense. Johnson, in particular, shouldn’t be discounted in regard to seeing a potential jump in his production in part due to Mulcahy. Aside from already being a very good offensive rebounder, Johnson can run the floor, has great hands, and is an athletic scorer around the rim. He will likely become a favorite target for Mulcahy, who has a knack for delivering difficult passes in traffic and will have a big target in Johnson to take advantage of.
Mulcahy’s ability to break opponents down off the dribble with a quick first step and having the presence/feel to find the open man will be a major key to next season and beyond for Rutgers. It’s what makes him so dangerous in transition and beginning next season, he will have plenty of capable options to choose from on the break. He will be a challenging matchup for most opponents due to his size at the point guard position and his relentless pace in which he plays. Attacking the rim and shooting the basketball, both within rhythm of the offense, is something players will benefit from, as Mulcahy can dictate the flow through his style of play. With the three-point line distance being moved back, there will be even more space along the perimeter for him to operate.
There are other parts of Mulcahy’s game that he must be capable in order to maximize his contribution next season. Most notably, perimeter shooting and his on the ball defense are areas he needs to prove he can hold his own with, aside from learning from experience and adjusting to the pace of the college game as a freshman next season.
While the amount of minutes Mulcahy plays next season is something to watch for, it seems only a matter of time before the talented guard breaks the long streak of a Rutgers player averaging 5+ assists per game in his career. Eclipsing that mark won’t guarantee a more efficient offense, but the way Mulcahy plays gives confidence that his pass-first mentality, along with his ability to find open teammates, will lead to both happening.
Bonus: Watch highlights of Mulcahy in a 28 point win from last December over Trenton Catholic and Butler freshman Khalif Battle. He delivered a triple-double performance, which included him dishing out 18 assists. There are several times in this game when a Mulcahy pass to start the possession triggered great ball movement and led to his teammates knocking down open looks, aside from his assists. His unselfishness is contagious and his potential to improve the Rutgers offense is immense.