Bob Knight, Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan.
There are certain head coaches affiliated with the Big Ten that require all ears when they speak. John Beilein is certainly in that conversation.
Beilein was head coach of Michigan for 12 years. During his tenure, the Wolverines won the Big Ten regular season title twice, won back-to-back conference tournament titles from 2016-2018, appeared in two National Championship games, and qualified for the tournament nine times. He finished with a record of 278-150 and is arguably the best head coach in the history of Michigan basketball.
On Wednesday, Beilein took some time to acknowledge the rise of Rutgers’ basketball.
“Rutgers has been [at] the bottom of the league for awhile now,” Beilein said. “And all of a sudden now, they’re in position to win a championship. They can contend for a Big Ten championship, if they stay healthy, get some breaks, all these things. They’re always going to play defense. So that’s always been a constant with them. But now they have multiple ways to score the ball and that’s what’s going to make them so dangerous.”
These comments were made prior to the Scarlet Knights’ matchup with Illinois on Sunday. Rutgers showed up big time with a 91-88 victory over the Illini. This earned the Knights their highest ranking since the 1975-1976 season at No. 11.
The Big Ten is loaded this year with basketball talent. They currently have seven teams ranked in the top 25, including four in the top 12. Rutgers is off to a 6-0 start with wins in their two Big Ten contests. They are looking like a team that can contend for a Big Ten title early on.
"All of the sudden, now, they're in position to win a championship. They can contend for a Big Ten championship."— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) December 16, 2020
You'll want to hear everything @JohnBeilein says about @RutgersMBB. pic.twitter.com/3riRXUNtBy
Rutgers would have qualified for the big dance last season if it was not shut down due to COVID. Early on, the talk has not been about Rutgers making the tournament, it has been about whether they can make it to the second weekend. Let’s take a closer look.
There are certain aspects of a basketball team that are important come tournament time. The Scarlet Knights seem to check all the boxes.
First, a superstar.
If it was not for Luka Garza running away with the award during the early part of the season, Ron Harper Jr. would be a strong contender for National Player of the Year. Through six games, the junior is scoring 24 points per contest on 60% shooting from the field and 52.5% from three-point range. He has scored 25 or more points in four of the six games this season.
Harper Jr. has improved each year for Rutgers but he has taken his game to a completely new level this season. He is proving to be a big-game player who is not afraid of the big moment. This was evident on Sunday when he scored 28 points against Illinois on 9-15 shooting, including 5-8 from beyond the arc. He was named ESPN’s National Player of the Week on Monday.
Superstar, check. Next, second weekend teams feature an inside presence.
The college basketball game has quickly eliminated the midrange shot. Teams have begun to rely on their guards and the three-point line. This should not downplay the importance of having size and skill in the paint. Just look at the impact that players like Daniel Ochefu and Omari Spellman had for those Villanova championship teams. Or Mamadi Diakite for Virginia. Or Jahlil Okafor for Duke. The list goes on and on.
Rutgers is equipped with two bigs. Both Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi stand at 6’11 and have been labeled the twin towers. Steve Pikiell has been able to get both of them on the court at the same time which is an advantage on both ends. Omoruyi was forced to leave the game against Illinois early in the second half because of a knee injury, updates will be provided soon.
Third, Rutgers has a great group of role players.
Geo Baker missed time with a high-ankle sprain but has returned to action. During his absence, players like Jacob Young and Montez Mathis stepped up. Young is currently second on the team with 16 points per game and leads the team with 5.7 assists and 2.7 steals per contest. Mathis is the third Scarlet Knight averaging double-digits with 14 per game.
“Nothing’s ever going to change about Steve’s defense,” Beilein said. “It’s always going to be tough to score. But right now, they can win a game in the 50’s or they can win a game in the 80’s now by the way they can play at both ends of the floor.”
This brings us to the final point. The Scarlet Knights are allowing 68.5 points per game which is eighth in the Big Ten. They have struggled at times on that end of the floor but have the ability to outscore their opponent if needed.
We learned a lot about Rutgers on Sunday afternoon and will continue to over the next three weeks during a tough stretch. They have two meetings with No. 23 Ohio State and one matchup with No. 4 Iowa and No. 12 Michigan State from now until Jan. 9. Next up will be a trip to Columbus on Wednesday to take on the Buckeyes.