Here is an opening I never dreamed of writing before the 2019-2020 Rutgers men’s basketball season began. Barring a major snub that mathematically seems impossible after six Top 25 teams lost this weekend, Rutgers is very likely to be ranked in the national polls on Monday for the first time since 1979. A special season continued on Sunday afternoon at the RAC, where Rutgers hasn’t lost yet and was sold out for the third consecutive game. It was a game of runs, but the Scarlet Knights were able to get defensive stops and clutch baskets when they needed to and won comfortably enough by the final score of 64-56.
It was a nightmare start for Rutgers, as keeping the Gophers in check from three-point range was a must, but Ge Kalscheur hit a three on the first possession. Montez Mathis scored basket off an offensive rebound to tie it, but Minnesota’s Kalscheur hit a jumper and another three ball to give the visitors a commanding 10-2 early lead less than four minutes into the game. Rutgers started 1-10 from the floor and Pikiell called a timeout. Especially frustrating was the face that the Scarlet Knights had already grabbed seven offensive rebounds at this point, but only had 2 points off of them.
Mathis got Rutgers going after the timeout with two huge three-pointers, followed by a three-point the hard way take the lead. He amazingly scored the first 11 points of the game for the Scarlet Knights and his effort kick started a 17-2 run that gave RU a 19-12 lead with 9:02 left in the first half.
Payton Willis made three three-pointers for the Gophers, but they were unable to generate much offense otherwise. Rutgers held Minnesota to just 33.3% shooting, including 5 of 15 from three-point range. RU was up 16-4 with points in the paint, held a +10 rebounding margin, including 15 on the offensive glass that led to a 11-7 edge in second chance points. A huge difference in the game at the half was that Rutgers held an 11-0 advantage on points off of turnovers, despite Minnesota committing just four in the opening frame. It was quite the turnaround after trailing by 8 points early on and the Scarlet Knights ended the half making 12 of 26 shots after starting 1 of 10, including 4 of 9 from three-point range.
Out of the break, Rutgers continued to apply tremendous on the ball pressure and take Minnesota out of its offense. Defensive rotations have been great as well, as the team defense has been as consistently strong as I honestly can ever remember. Rutgers was able to steadily stretch the lead and were up 47-33 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game. Rutgers had made 5 of 8 shots since halftime while Minnesota was just 3 of 12 from the floor. The RAC was in peak form and despite Myles Johnson picking up his third foul, the outcome seemed inevitable. However, Minnesota responded with a 9-2 run to cut the lead to 49-42 with just under 8 minutes to play. Big man Daniel Oturu was taking over the game, scoring 14 points since halftime at this point on 5 of 6 shooting.
Pikiell needed to regroup this team out of the timeout after having not scored in almost three minutes. Minnesota started with the ball and Mathis stole it for a huge defensive stop. McConnell missed a shot, grabbed the rebound and scored on the putback, which was a big basket for a Rutgers team that needed to respond.
Both teams were in the bonus at this stage and free throws would be a factor. Marcus Carr hit two after a Mathis foul, but Ron Harper Jr. knocked down a huge three-pointer to push the lead back to 10 points. Of course, Oturu continued to dominate in the second half and scored his sixth bucket since halftime. Minnesota was calling plays in isolation for Oturu and spreading out the Rutgers defense, giving him more room to operate on the right side and he was taking advantage. He is likely going to a First Team All-Big Ten selection.
With less than six minutes to play, Minnesota missed a three and McConnell grabbed his 10th rebound of the game. On the other end, Jacob Young delivered a timely dunk and the RAC faithful were on their feet. Rutgers then got another key defensive stop as Johnson forced Oturu to take a difficult jumper and missed. The Scarlet Knights couldn’t get a score but after two missed three’s from Minnesota, Rutgers held a 56-46 lead at the final media timeout of the game with 3:38 remaining.
Out of the timeout, Tre’ Williams hit a huge three-pointer for the Gophers to cut the lead to 7 points and Pikiell wisely called a timeout to reset the offense with 2:41 remaining. They got a good look out of the timeout, as Mulcahy drove but had his shot blocked by Oturu. Geo Baker, who struggled all day, checked back in with 1 second on the shot clock and promptly knocked down a massive three-pointer on the inbounds pass from Mulcahy. It was Geo’s first field goal of the game and it couldn’t have come at a better time than it did. After Ron Harper Jr. made two free throws, Minnesota waved the white flag in not fouling with a minute to play on the next possession. Harper Jr. soon after dunked it home on an assist from Geo. Marcus Carr made two three-pointers for Minnesota in the final seconds, but the Scarlet Knights won the game by the final score of 64-56.
Oturu finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks, he worked hard for everything and only shot 6 of 16 from the floor.
Montez Mathis didn’t score after starting the game with the first 11 points for Rutgers, but that effort was crucial after the Scarlet Knights fell down 10-2 at the start. If he hadn’t stepped up, the outcome could have been very different. His defense also kept Marcus Carr at bay, as the Gophers star finished with just 8 points on 2 of 8 shooting, nothing coming at the end of the game with issue no longer in doubt.
Caleb McConnell personifies the never say die attitude of this team as he delivered another gutty performance, this time a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He grabbed 7 boards on the offensive end, which is incredible. He continues to make winning plays and is an unsung hero of this team.
Myles Johnson slowed down Daniel Oturu in the first half and finished with 7 points and 10 rebounds. He also stayed on the floor for 30 minutes and finished with the second best +/- on the team at 13. It was a good outing for the big man.
Paul Mulcahy continues to contribute off the bench and although he had just 4 points and 2 assists, he grabbed 9 rebounds. His ability to find different ways to help out game to game has been so important for this team.
Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young each scored 11 points including several key baskets down the stretch. Their defense remained stellar as well and Harper Jr. had the best +/- on the team at 17.
The Scarlet Knights held Minnesota to just 36% shooting in the game and 9 of 28 from three-point range (32%), which was so important to keep the Gophers from breaking out from behind the arc. Rutgers shot just 39% but were an efficient 6 of 13 from behind the arc for 46%. Both teams shot between 59% and 60% on similar attempts, so that was a wash.
A major difference in the game was the all hands on deck approach to rebounding for Rutgers, who held a +10 rebounding margin, including 20 boards on the offensive glass that led to a 18-13 advantage in second chance points. The Scarlet Knights also dominated points in the paint, holding an unthinkable 34-12 edge for the game.
While each team only committed 7 turnovers in the game, Rutgers produced a 16-2 edge in points off of turnovers. Their athleticism on the break and mindset of getting out in transition off of turnovers is really an asset for this team.
This team is special. They aren’t a great offensive team, but they have a knack for making big baskets in clutch situations while playing lockdown defense for 40 minutes and crash the boards relentlessly. Rutgers has now held three consecutive Big Ten opponents to 56 points or less. Minnesota came into the game with the third best offensive efficiency in the league but could never get going on Sunday at the RAC. That’s a testament to the quality of the defense that Rutgers plays game in and game out.
They also play unselfishly as four players scored in double figures. Geo Baker came off the bench for a second straight game, as Pikiell said in his radio postgame interview that he was willing to do whatever the team needed. Baker gave this team a big basket when it needed it down the stretch for his only field goal of the game, as he continues to round back into form following the thumb injury.
Rutgers is now 14-4 overall and 5-2 in Big Ten play, tied with Illinois in second place one game behind Michigan State. That fact alone is simply amazing. The Scarlet Knights have now won 8 of its last 9 games and have begun 13-0 at the RAC for the first time in program history. Their NET ranking was 18 entering today and KenPom was 28. Both will only improve now and believe it or not after an almost three decade NCAA Tournament drought, this team is well positioned to go dancing this coming March.
Up next, Rutgers has a tremendous opportunity on the road at Iowa on Wednesday night. They go to Iowa City with great confidence due to their recent play, as well due to the fact they blew the Hawkeyes out at Carver last season. Notching another road win in Big Ten play would continue to boost this team’s NCAA Tournament resume and firm up their place near the top of the Big Ten standings. For now, Rutgers fans should revel in the fact that this team is for real and head coach Steve Pikiell continues to have this group focused and prepared game after game.