First, let me address the title of this article, because I’m not exactly burying the lede here. What do I mean by elite, and how is Rutgers an elite college basketball team at this point in the 2020-21 season? Allow me to explain.
I build the analysis in these articles off the KenPom metric, and as of this writing, Rutgers is 18th overall in adjusted efficiency. This year’s Rutgers team would beat a replacement level D-1 college basketball team by over 20 points, on average, at a neutral site.
“Eighteenth in the country is pretty awesome, but is it truly elite?,” you might ask. Let’s go deeper into the numbers.
This season, Gonzaga and Baylor are in a class by themselves – they would beat a replacement-level D-1 team by 30+ points on a neutral court. But beneath them are about 18 other teams, including Rutgers, who I would argue are very comfortably in the second tier of sub-elite/elite basketball teams. To me, what differentiates a sub-elite basketball team from an elite one is balance – balance on both sides of the ball, and balance in terms of roster depth.
Looking at the numbers, the most balanced teams on both sides of the ball (defined by having both top-tier offensive efficiency and top-tier defensive efficiency) are*:
(*Numbers accurate as of 7pm 12/30/2020, only including teams currently top-30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency)
Looking at the table above, Rutgers is tied with Clemson for ninth place in the country on my balance metric. Twenty-five teams are more efficient than Rutgers on defense, sixteen are more efficient on offense, but the overall experience of playing Rutgers is tougher than the sum of its parts because there’s no easy part to the game. It makes game planning against Rutgers tougher.
With respect to roster depth, the last few games kind of speak for themselves, no? Rutgers exhibits true Next Man Up Mentality. Much has been written, here at On The Banks and elsewhere, about this team’s depth and complementary style of play. I don’t have much to add here except to suggest readers look at the box score for the Purdue game – and note in the absence of Ron Harper, Jr., Rutgers obtained ~30 minutes and eight points of production with a positive net plus/minus out of what are its tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-rostered players when everyone is healthy (some combination of Doucoure, Palmquist, and Reiber can be placed there).
In the 2003 book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, when Jason Giambi leaves the Oakland Athletics for a massive free agent contract with the New York Yankees, the A’s use multiple, less talented players to make up for Giambi’s production – an idea called “recreating the aggregate”. No one is in Piscataway analyzing reams of data trying to figure out how to replicate the production of a top-10 national Player of the Year candidate like Ron Harper, Jr., but ultimately, this is what Rutgers did against Purdue. (Montez Mathis having the best and most efficient game of his Rutgers career certainly helped, also!) Anyway, there are deeper teams than Rutgers in college basketball, but could you count them on two hands? I’m not sure.
Let’s Look at More Numbers
As of this writing, Rutgers is at its all-time best (lowest) KenPom efficiency rating of 18th nationally. When I look at the numbers, here’s what stands out to me:
- Rutgers’ offense has eclipsed its defense, possibly for the first time in many years and certainly for the first time in recent memory: Rutgers right now is an offensive juggernaut, at 17th nationally in offensive efficiency. Draining lots and lots of three point field goals is very helpful here – RU is now the 27th best three-point shooting team in the country, best in the Big Ten during conference play, but they’re also the 57th best two-point shooting team in the country, which – if you’ve been watching the team shoot as many long twos and almost-threes as what I’m seeing – is frankly stunning to see. Complain about the free throw shooting all you want, and it’s a valid complaint to some extent, but if you conveniently ignore the charity stripe there is no other thing a basketball team can do on offense where Rutgers is below average.
- But wait, the defense isn’t too shabby, either: Rutgers has faced the 19th-toughest schedule in the nation so far from an “opponent’s offensive efficiency perspective”, so everything considered, having the 26th most efficient defense in the country is a perfectly cromulent thing. The rest of the schedule doesn’t do Rutgers any favors in this regard, with Iowa (2), Ohio State (8), and Wisconsin (9) as offensive juggernauts Rutgers will play over the next three weeks. It’s good Rutgers has a chance to hang with these teams offensively, which leads to my next point…
- Rutgers seems capable of beating teams in multiple ways this season: Just look at Rutgers’ last three conference victories:
Maryland (W, 74-60): With the exception of the first ten minutes of the second half, when RU lit up the scoreboard, Rutgers and Maryland threw rocks at each other. At the half, the score was 28-27 Maryland. Lesson: Rutgers can win a rock fight.
Illinois (W, 91-88): In the final ten minutes of this game, Illinutgers combined for 72 (!!) points. In the first ten minutes of this game, Rutgers trailed by eight. Lesson: Rutgers can come from behind, and Rutgers can win a shootout.
Purdue (W, 81-76): We know the story here. Short its most efficient player, Rutgers rallied in the final ten minutes of the game with a complete team effort. Lesson: Rutgers can overcome adversity and play balanced team basketball even when short-handed.
It’s Been a Lot of Analysis and Numbers So Far …
Here’s one of my favorite songs from The War on Drugs, one of my favorite bands right now. I listened to this album while writing this article. It might take you 13 minutes to get through the rest of this article, so feel free to listen while reading…
An Aside on Geo Baker’s Offensive Efficiency
A common narrative around these parts is Geo Baker is not an efficient scorer, and I am here to politely disagree with this assessment, based on the below analysis – this is Geo’s game-by-game offensive efficiency by game since the Pittsburgh game in December 2019:
The two blue areas I circled are the games after the gaps – these are the Big Ten conference games he missed last season due to injury, as well as the games surrounding his most recent injury. My point in charting the numbers is in saying the narrative about Geo being an inefficient scorer isn’t necessarily as clear from an advanced analytical perspective, if you give him a pass (and I do) for the games surrounding his injuries. Are there a couple clunkers in there? Sure, Games #16 (last year, at Maryland) and #30 (at Ohio St., last week) are pretty ugly-looking. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.
It does seem to me a healthy Geo Baker is at least 10-15% more efficient on offense than the average college basketball player. Couple that with his other innate abilities and you have someone who could play this game professionally for a long time, if he wanted to. I didn’t create a best-fit line on the above chart, but eyeballing it, I’m sure it would be trending upward over time, suggesting Geo – like Montez, like RHJ, like Jacob Young – is becoming more efficient over time. The current system works, people. It works like a charm.
The Look Ahead
Here are Rutgers’ next four games, with win probabilities in percentages:
- versus Iowa (45%)
- at Michigan State (54%)
- versus Ohio State (58%)
- at Penn State (55%)
Just keep winning, that’s all. And just for giggles, Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Rutgers as 4 seed if the tournament were held right now. Crazy stuff! It is fun times to be a Rutgers basketball fan.