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Rutgers Men’s Basketball KenPom Ranking Continues To Improve

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NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

After a close and well-fought road loss to Illinois last Saturday, Rutgers currently stands at 12-4 (3-2 in the Big Ten), in a four-way tie for third place in the conference. Just as we all expected, right?

This is a far better start to conference play than expected, though. In my last KenPom ranking update from late December, I wrote:

“According to KenPom, Rutgers is a talented enough team to potentially – maybe – if you’re feeling optimistic – go 4-1 in their next five games, with the most likely loss being the fifth game at Illinois. If this (again, optimistic scenario) were to happen, this would bring Rutgers to a best-case 12-4 (3-2) record going into mid-January. This would be, for lack of a better word, an amazing start to the season.”

This is why On The Banks pays me the big bucks to write (I’m kidding!). When I wrote the article, I almost didn’t write that paragraph because it seemed too good to be true (hence all the caveats). Then it actually happened! Unbelievable start to the season for Rutgers, and as Aaron mentioned in his piece last week, it is absolutely justified for fans to savor it.

Rutgers currently stands at #32 in KenPom, a high water mark for the season and well above the #45 NCAA Tournament bubble line I mentioned in my previous article (when Rutgers was at #56). A couple notes on this:

  • Rutgers is also currently ranked #30 in the NCAA’s NET ranking, so what is happening is not a weird, KenPom-specific thing.
  • Rutgers’ KenPom ranking actually went up from #34 to #32 with the loss at Illinois. It’s possible to play well in a close loss against a good team and be rewarded by the KenPom ranking system, which is what happened with Rutgers over the weekend.

Lots can change in five games when a team goes 4-1 in December and January. Let’s go deeper into what changed…

Defense Moved From Solid to Elite

Defense has always been a strength of Steve Pikiell’s Rutgers teams – two seasons ago, the 2017-18 Rutgers team finished with an amazing #28 defensive efficiency ranking in KenPom, truly great for a team which finished the year 15-19 – but as of this writing, Rutgers stands at an elite #13 national defensive efficiency ranking. This is good for fourth in the Big Ten – only Purdue, Maryland, and Ohio State play a more staunch defense than Rutgers in the Big Ten Conference.

I wrote at some length in the last update about the reasons for Rutgers’ defensive efficiency – this was back when Rutgers was ranked 40th in the nation. But let’s talk a bit here about the eye test, because if you’ve been following this team closely, you notice Rutgers rarely allows an easy basket and forces teams to take ill-advised, wild shots (often with the shot clock winding down).

Jacob Young, in particular, deserves praise for his increased role and focus on the defensive side of the ball. He has some issues on offense (he can sometimes be wild with the ball – though, to be fair, he’s been much better recently), but man is he incredible on defense.

Young, in case you haven’t noticed, is extraordinarily fast. He seems to truly enjoy playing pressure defense and is underrated at drawing fouls (ranked 390th in the nation, best on the Rutgers team). Unfortunately, the game highlights BTN publishes, which I use to create GIFs for these updates, are biased toward showing great offensive plays, so I couldn’t find anything to document what Young does – but it doesn’t go unnoticed in this space.

To Improve Further, Offense Must Be More Efficient

If Rutgers is to improve further in its KenPom ranking, the team either needs to become another Virginia on defense, or simply improve the offensive efficiency closer to the level of its defensive efficiency. As of now, Rutgers is ranked 96th in the nation in offense efficiency; this is 12th in the Big Ten Conference, ahead of only Northwestern and Nebraska (the two teams most likely to finish last and second-to-last in the conference, if you were to ask me).

Not taking for granted how far this program has come to get to this point, to make the next leap, Rutgers simply must improve on the offensive side of the ball. Rutgers is a very good offensive rebounding team, and they make 2-point field goals at an incredibly efficient clip, but other than these two strengths, Rutgers can be a challenging team to watch on the offensive side of the ball.

I’m a firm believer that three point shot making is a matter of Jimmies and Joes, not X’s and O’s, so it’s unlikely Rutgers will turn into an elite (or even above-average) team from outside anytime soon. What Rutgers can do, however, and something which I feel is well within the bounds of what’s possible, is increase its’ assist rate and decrease its’ turnover rate.

To increase Rutgers’ assist rate, Paul Mulcahy deserves more minutes. He is an elite passer (330th in the nation in assist rate), and you don’t need me to tell you Rutgers is a different looking team when he is on the floor. Could he be more confident with his own shot? Certainly. But that will come with experience, and freshmen deserve our patience as fans. Did you know Paul has only appeared in 47% of available minutes so far this season, only above Shaq Carter among players in the regular Rutgers rotation? Expect this to increase as the season wears on.

To decrease Rutgers’ turnover rate, look to Ron Harper, Jr. as an example of a player who rarely turns the ball over (292nd in the nation in turnover rate, even after a five turnover game vs. Illinois’ stifling defense). Particularly in the second half of the Penn State game, Harper was efficient. He was also pretty much the go-to option in the last six or seven minutes of the game, when the tides truly went in Rutgers’ favor. For the first time in what feels like forever, Rutgers has a deep arsenal of players who can take the shot when it’s necessary. However, some of these players are more efficient than others with the ball, and Harper should get more than his share of these opportunities, given the advanced metrics.

A Quick Note on Big Ten Basketball

If you follow the conference as a whole with respect to basketball, you know what a weird season this has been in conference play. Home teams have been truly dominant, with only five road victories in the entire conference as of this writing. There’s a ton of parity in the conference, with only Michigan State (on the top end) and Nebraska and Northwestern (at the bottom) truly differentiating themselves as either relatively good or bad teams in the conference. And that’s with Michigan State losing at Purdue by 29 points on January 12.

The Big Ten is always a bit of a buzzsaw in conference play, but this year it’s an absolute ruckus. Some on the college basketball subreddit have referred to it as a Battle Royale, and I do not disagree with this terminology. I would argue at this point of the season, a wide range of conference tournament seedings are potentially in play for Rutgers. And in such a scenario, having as powerful a home court environment as the RAC may be a huge advantage for Rutgers — it’s not wild and crazy to consider an outcome where Rutgers only loses maybe one or two games at home all season. This would be pretty awesome.

What’s Next on the Schedule

Up next for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights men’s basketball team are the following five games:

  • Home vs. Indiana
  • Home vs. Minnesota
  • At Iowa
  • Home vs. Nebraska
  • Home vs. Purdue

I said it last time, and I’m a superstitious man, so I’ll say it again. According to KenPom, Rutgers is a talented enough team to potentially – maybe – if you’re feeling optimistic – go 4-1 in their next five games, with the most likely loss being the road game at Iowa.

If you believe the advanced analytics, and if this happens, Rutgers would be sitting pretty at 16-5 (7-3) at the very end of January. The schedule toughens considerably in February, so it is important for Rutgers to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the next five games.

Another KenPom update to come around February 1…