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Five Factors for Rutgers basketball to meet great expectations

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Practice began in earnest this week for the 2020-2021 season so it’s time to deep dive into the challenges ahead.

Minnesota v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Wednesday, October 14 marked the beginning of the 2020-2021 college basketball season. Teams began practice 42 days before the season is set to tip off, as the NCAA previously announced November 25 as the start date. While workouts and practices have been taking place prior to Wednesday, the shift to being in-season allows for teams to increase a maximum allowed hours of practices and workouts from 8 per week to 20.

While this is the most anticipated season for Rutgers men’s basketball in decades, it’s also possibly the most unpredictable ever due to it taking place during a global pandemic with COVID-19. With the unorthodox nature of the season ahead, here is a detailed look at five key areas for this team to handle in order to produce a special year on the court.

Schedule

Nothing proves how weird this season will be when we don’t even know who and when Rutgers will play as Halloween approaches. The schedule still hasn’t been announced and likely won’t be until November. The Big Ten needs to finalize league plans before the non-conference can be completed, so it’s been a unique process for every team in the league.

There is still hope that the Big Ten/ACC Challenge takes place and it’s likely Rutgers would be paired against an opponent as close in distance as possible. It will probably Syracuse or Boston College, but nothing has been announced. As for the Gavitt Games between the Big Ten and Big East, it’s been reported that series is unlikely to take place this season. In addition, Rutgers already dropped out of the Jimmy V Classic against Baylor due to the game being moved to Orlando, Florida.

As for another high profile non-conference game, the Garden State Hardwood Classic against Seton Hall and Rutgers is still a possibility. It’s been reported both sides want to make it happen, but the uncertainty of league scheduling has prevented it from being locked in. I don’t care if it’s a Wednesday at noon, Rutgers and Seton Hall need to figure out a way to play this season. Aside from the rivalry aspect, it’s unlikely Rutgers would be able to add another game against a high major/power five opponent. This game is important from a strength of schedule standpoint and for getting the team ready for Big Ten play.

Expect a handful of local, low major teams added to complete a non-conference schedule that can be no more than 7 games and could be less.

As for the Big Ten slate, it’s likely to remain 20 games, although Jerry Carino reported a 22 game schedule is possible. Either way the conference is loaded once again this season and it will be a rock fight on a nightly basis.

Handling travel aspects and playing in front of empty arenas will be key factors as well.

Offensive Improvement

Rutgers finished last season with an overall efficiency of 107.9, its best mark since the 2010-2011 season. It ranked 72nd nationally, the highest ranking for the program since 2006. Despite the progress and best offensive season under head coach Steve Pikiell, more improvement is needed for the Scarlet Knights to take another step forward this season.

Even though Rutgers finished Big Ten play with a program best offensive efficiency rating of 100.5 since joining the league, which ranked 10th in the conference, finishing in the top half of the conference is essential to moving up the standings this season. While they finished in the middle of the pack in most categories, there’s was one area that was near the bottom in league performance.

They struggled mightily from the free throw line, shooting just 64.4%, which was the second to worst mark in Big Ten play. Being more efficient in all three areas of shooting this season is important, but a major improvement from the charity stripe is a must. In our interview with Pikiell last month, he said “Obviously, we’ve got to become a better free throw shooting team. That’s really an important part of what we’ve tried to spend time on this summer. We’ve got to make free throws and that’ll improve our offense five or six more points a game. Then everyone will be saying it’s one of the best offenses in the league.”

Rutgers did show improvement in shooting from the field. They finished 6th in the league from two-point range at 47.6% and 8th from three-point range at 31.8%. They do need to improve on effective field goal percentage (accounts for three-pointers being worth more), which at 47.5% was just 9th best. Not bad for Rutgers versus past performance, but far from elite.

The two players that are key to offensive improvement this season from my view are Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy.

I went into detail on Young previously this offseason, but the quick take is he struggled quite a bit in the first third of last season, especially with turnovers, before steadily improving to the point that he was a key reason Rutgers played its best basketball down the stretch. His offensive rating was by far the worst of any regular last year due to his poor start after sitting out the previous season due to transfer rules. I can’t see that happening again and I think his effectiveness on the offensive end could be even better than his peak from last season.

Mulcahy has added strength this offseason and his confidence level should be much higher as well. His ability to play multiple positions while maintaining a point guard focus due to his vision, passing skills and unselfishness gives Rutgers a player difficult for opponents to matchup against. Mulcahy was especially effective in getting into the seam of zone defenses and shredding them by finding open teammates. While the loss of Caleb McConnell due to injury is significant and the newcomers needs to step up in his absence, I actually think Mulcahy could fill the gap more effectively than anyone. He gives Rutgers a different element on offense than anyone else on the team can provide. Mulcahy generates good ball movement in the halfcourt and is very good at getting teammates good looks at the basket. If he can add an occasional three to his arsenal, his impact will be even greater.

Frontcourt scoring production remains a concern, as top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi will need time to develop as a reliable scorer. However, Myles Johnson has the potential to become a double double machine. Offensive rebounding should remain a team strength due to the size and all hands on deck approach that Pikiell has instilled.

Cutting down on turnovers is crucial as well. An encouraging sign is that after Rutgers had a turnover rate of 20% or higher in 13 of the first 22 games last season, they were under 20% in the last nine games, including just one over 18%. Young’s improvement taking care of the basketball was a big reason why. He, along with Baker and Mulcahy, will have the ball in their hands the majority of the time, so limiting unforced errors will be key.

Defensive Dominance

Rutgers finished second in Big Ten play in defensive efficiency last season, which is more impressive than finishing sixth nationally in my opinion. 35% of its league games came against Big Ten teams that finished in the top 20 nationally in offensive efficiency. 80% of league games were against teams that finished in the top 50 nationally. As good as the defense has been under Pikiell since coming to Rutgers, the program never finished better than 9th in Big Ten play before last season. The Scarlet Knights finished in the top 4 in the conference in seven of eight defensive efficiency categories with free throw rate the only weakness (12th). Perhaps after producing a winning campaign and there not being fans at road games this season will help lead to less foul calls against Rutgers, along with more disciplined on the ball defense as well.

While McConnell and Akwasi Yeboah were solid defenders last season, the addition of top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi could help Rutgers be even better defensively this year. His ability as a rebounder and shot blocker could make him an elite rim defender in the Big Ten this season. In addition, Ron Harper Jr., who I’ll touch on more in a bit, became the best defender on the team last season. His performance and ability to defend multiple positions led Lindy’s to name Harper Jr. their preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

In addition to Omoruyi, fellow freshman Oskar Palmquist and Mawot Mag should fit in right away on the defensive end with their ability to guard multiple positions. Mag could become a surprise impact freshman in the league with his physical style and athleticism.

Rutgers must find a way to harness the same type of defensive intensity they were able to reach last season without having fans this year, especially at the RAC. However, their ability to take away opponents strengths and force difficult, contested shots should remain it’s best quality. On paper, this team could be even better defensively, which is a pretty exciting thought.

Managing the coronavirus

A great unknown is how the season will actually play out from a scheduling perspective. College football is experiencing major challenges this season with team outbreaks and games being cancelled. Obviously, there are far more players on a team in football versus basketball. However, all it takes for one player in basketball for an entire team to be shutdown, not to mention having a potentially greater impact with the loss of that player on the court for an extended period of time. There is a reason the minimum number of games played to qualify for the NCAA Tournament was reduced to just 13.

The Big Ten should be as well equipped as any league in handling COVID-19 with a comprehensive testing program, but that doesn’t guarantee there won’t be issues. Pikiell told host Lance Glinn on episode no. 78 of the On The Banks podcast about the importance of “managing the virus” this season.

The hope should be that for a team hungry to earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 30 years after painfully having that opportunity taken away due to the global pandemic last season, the players will place their health and safety as a top priority. Also, if any boosters have the extra cash flow to provide individual bubbles for each player to reside in off the court, please step up.

The reality is this season will present unique challenges. The teams that best handle the increased responsibilities that competing during a global pandemic brings will allow for an opportunity to produce a special year on the court.

Handling Expectations

This another great unknown about this season for Rutgers. Pikiell routinely barked about being picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten in postgame press conferences after victories last year. They are now poised to be ranked in the preseason polls for the first time in 42 years when the season tips off on Thanksgiving eve. While perception might be that Rutgers has shifted from the hunter to the hunted, Pikiell’s ability as a motivator should not be underestimated. Despite winning 20 regular season games for the first time in 37 years, the Scarlet Knights were unable to end the three decade NCAA Tournament drought due the global pandemic cancelling it last March. Expect Pikiell to remind them of this multiple times a day. That fact alone should make this team even hungrier to not just go dancing, but bust a move once they are there. Pikiell is a master in regard to knowing how to read and react based on the current state of his team, which will be an asset again this season.

Another important part of handling increased expectations is having stars to lean on. Geo Baker is the unquestioned leader of this team and is one of the best big shot makers in college basketball. However, he can’t be solely relied upon down the stretch this season as teams will continue to look to take him out of the offense with the game on the line. The good new for Rutgers is that Ron Harper Jr. poised for stardom. Last season in Big Ten play, he somewhat quietly finished in the top 25 in the following categories: effective field goal percentage (15th), turnover rate (15th), block percentage (16th), three-point shooting percentage (16th), free throw shooting (19th), true shooting percentage (20th), and defensive rebounding rate (22nd). Harper Jr.’s ability to be more consistent from game to game this season and having more of a killer instinct down the stretch are keys to him emerging as one of the top ten players in the Big Ten.

It’s a valid concern to have for Rutgers regarding whether they are ready for prime time this season. They won’t have the RAC faithful to provide one of, if not the best, homecourt advantages in the country. They also won’t have a full non-conference schedule to help ramp up for Big Ten play. However, Pikiell has built a program full of players that are gym rats and have a chip on their shoulders. They suffered several heartbreaking losses last season and the toughest, a 1 point defeat at Penn State at the buzzer, saw them respond with the two of the best performances of the season in wins over a top ten Maryland team and over Purdue on the road which was senior day for the Boilermakers.

Rutgers proved to be a resilient and mentally tough team last season and with so many core players returning, those qualities should show up once again and help them navigate great expectations this season.

In a year that the Scarlet Knights are being given serious consideration as a Final Four sleeper, it’s fair for Rutgers fans to be nervous based on the previous 30 years. However, it’s time to enjoy the reality that this program has entered. In year five of the Steve Pikiell era, the team is elite defensively and features a senior leader that is an elite closer, a junior who is on the brink of being one of the best players in the league, a top 50 recruit leading a top 50 recruiting class as freshmen, as well as a deep and versatile roster that will allow for multiple lineup and rotation combinations that will create matchup problems for every opponent.

With the uncertainty that this season will bring across college basketball due to the global pandemic, having a veteran team with depth and a chip on its shoulder bodes well for Rutgers. It’s not a matter of whether this team will be good, but rather a question of how good? In six weeks from now, that answer will begin to take shape.