The opening week for Rutgers men’s basketball was a blur with three games in five days, but it was a successful one. They opened a season with three consecutive double digit victories since the 1980-1981 campaign. However, a lot happened, both positive developments and points of concern. As they are about to play a much more difficult schedule moving forward, here are ten takeaways on the the current state of this team, which maintained it’s national ranking of no. 24 in this past week’s AP Poll.
Geo Baker absence hangs over ceiling
As encouraging as it was that this team took care of business against three inferior opponents, the injury that Geo Baker suffered in the opening half of the season was at a minimum, a major buzzkill. Baker is the unquestioned leader of the program and while the team stepped up in his absence, how long he will be out looms large.
Head coach Steve Pikiell called the injury a “bad ankle sprain” and a couple days later said he “wouldn’t be playing anytime soon”, referencing him being in a walking boot. The question for now is whether Baker will be back for the December 8 meeting against Syracuse or will it be longer? Update: Pikiell confirmed on Monday that Baker has not returned to practice.
Big Ten play is set to open six days later with the Scarlet Knights playing at Maryland. Is it realistic for Baker to be ready in a few days to play and if he does, will he be limited? Will the ankle issue linger all season? How much time will he ultimately miss? There are a lot of questions and none that are fun to ask at any point in the season for a player as important as Baker, let alone this early on.
It’s unfortunate that an injury has impacted Baker so soon into what could be his last season and one in which Rutgers has such high expectations. Best case scenario at this point is Baker takes the time to fully recover, which isn’t more than the next couple of weeks and Rutgers benefits as a team that only makes them stronger once he returns at or near the start of Big Ten play. During a time that brings so much uncertainty in the midst of a global pandemic, the Baker injury only makes Rutgers fans more anxious.
The Big Three is real but not who you expected
The positive during Baker’s absence so far has been the establishment of a big three with Ron Harper Jr., Jacob Young and Montez Mathis. I expected Harper Jr. and Young to be in this group, but the play of Mathis early on has been encouraging.
They are all averaging more than 15 points per game and combining to score 52 points per contest, which is 61% of the team’s total scoring so far. Harper Jr. leads the team in rebounding, all three are in the top four for assists, only trailing Paul Mulcahy, while Mathis and Young are the top two on the team in steals.
The other positive is that Mathis is shooting over 50% from the floor, while Harper Jr. and Young have been efficient from behind the arc, shooting 37.5% and 42.9% respectively. It will be difficult to maintain the same production as a group once Big Ten play begins, but all three have looked improved and will be instrumental in how far Rutgers goes this season.
Shooting - The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Yes, free throw shooting remains abysmal through the first three games of the season. Rutgers made just 38 of 69 attempts for 55.1%. It will get somewhat better as the team shot 64.4% last season. However if anyone expects or hopes this team is going to even approach 70% from the line, I have a bridge to sell you.
Three-point shooting hasn’t been great at 29.3%, but note it ranks 171st out of 357 teams, so it’s been a slow start from behind the arc across college basketball.
The positive has been from two-point range, as Rutgers is 18th in the country at 61.4% shooting from inside the arc. They’ve held a huge size advantage inside and dominated with points in the paint at 162-92 , but they’ve capitalized in a way they haven’t in years past. Last season, they shot 50.1% from two-point range, a 4% improvement from the previous year. If Rutgers can shoot an even higher percentage from two-point range this season against the Big Ten trees, it will be a big plus. The addition of Cliff Omoruyi and improved play of Young give hope that they can.
Paul Mulcahy is a Swiss Army Knife
The sophomore has been a complete player in the early going with a stat line of 6.7 points on 53.3% shooting, 6.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 block per game. He is also leading the team with minutes played at 32.8 per game, only seconds ahead of Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis. While he has struggled early from three-point range (0-3) and from the free throw line (4-7), his confidence shooting the ball should grow as the season progresses. His passing ability, vision and unselfishness impacts the offense in a big way. How his defense holds up in Big Ten play will be key to him staying on the floor as much as he has so far, but it’s been a very encouraging start for the Bayonne Baller. His development will be even more important depending on the health status of Baker this season.
Two-Headed Monster at Center
Rutgers has a real strength at the 5 with the duo of Cliff Omoruyi and Myles Johnson. They give this team two near seven footers who can defend the rim and patrol the glass at near elite levels. Johnson already has 10 blocks and his 19.4% block rate is third best in the country.
Neither is going to take over a game with their post up ability in the paint, but they will both be on the receiving end of plenty of passes in the air to close out highlight reel dunks. They can both clean up on the offensive glass and will give Rutgers plenty of second chance scoring opportunities. Both are shooting at a high clip to start the season (Omoruyi 10 of 12, Johnson 9 of 14), but how they perform in Big Ten play will obviously define their success. Omoruyi will need time to adjust to that level of play, while Johnson’s steadiness and experience will be key, especially during the brutal start to the conference schedule.
It really doesn’t matter who starts, but more so that they can stay out of foul trouble on a consistent basis to keep them together as a rotation that can wear down opponents throughout the game.
Depth now a concern
Rutgers was considered a deep team in the offseason with seven of the top eight contributors from last season returning. Caleb McConnell announced in the preseason his intent to sit out as a medical redshirt, which certainly is a significant loss to this team in several areas. Now that Baker is injured, Rutgers is down to just 10 scholarship players and the backend of the likely 7-8 man rotation is much less experienced.
It’s still a very talented group, but freshman Mawot Mag, although capable, will be counted on for more than initially expected. He is tough and versatile player, but until you’ve been through the Big Ten wars on a regular basis, it’s going to be an adjustment for him. How much Pikiell can count on him on a nightly basis remains to be seen, although I do think he could end up being a reliable player off the bench for this team.
The long term concern this season is that Rutgers is one rotation player away from being seriously compromised from a depth issue during conference play, even after Baker ultimately returns.
Every game is a mental toll like never before
You can tell in hearing Steve Pikiell talk after games that the additional measures in place and constant containment needed to prevent COVID-19 issues within the program are adding to the weight of this season. Not knowing if a game is even going to happen the morning of the day its scheduled to be played is a mental challenge never experienced before. Of course, every college basketball team is dealing with that issue, but Rutgers is highly sensitive to the uncertainty of it all. Being pulled off the court in the Big Ten Tournament during warmups and seeing their March dreams taken away help drive this team and prevent them from taking anything for granted. However, it also makes the uncertainty of how this season ultimately unfolds a bigger burden for a team with great expectations and unfinished business to complete.
Maturity is a strength
The core players of Baker, Harper Jr., Mathis, Young, Johnson and Mulcahy give Rutgers an extremely experienced and mature group to lead this program. It showed in how they handled themselves in the opening week. The Baker injury didn’t phase them and they never allowed for any of the games to be close enough that they were vulnerable. Last season started off with a win over Bryant after they missed a three to tie the game. They beat Drexel by just 5 points in the third game of the season. This group has been through a lot since then and they are used to handling adversity. It’s only been three games, but if Rutgers can stay level as a team in handling the pressure and expectations of this season, they can fulfill their potential and go far.
Defense not where it needs to be
A concern with the schedule ramping up quickly and not having the traditional slate of non-conference games before Big Ten play begins is whether the defense will be ready at the start. They had stretches of dominant play, but overall Rutgers was not playing nearly at the level they did last season and are capable of in the first week of this season. They were fouling too much, a step slow at times, and lacked cohesion in its halfcourt defense. All are fixable problems. Their length and versatility on the defensive end will be an asset. It’s not really a concern of if they will play close to or near the level they did last season, but how long will it take them to get back to that level? They can’t afford to be a step or two below their potential during the difficult seven game stretch to begin Big Ten play or it could spell trouble.
Non-conference schedule gap an issue
It’s a season like no other as coaches are literally calling around looking for games in a matter of days. After beginning the season with three games in five days, Rutgers is now set to play Syracuse on Tuesday, December 8 (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2) on nine days rest. While it gives them plenty of time to catch their breath and practice against the famed Boeheim zone defense, it’s fair to be concerned they could struggle to find a shooting rhythm against the Orange after such a long break between games. They need to come out with energy for the opening tip on by playing with a sense of urgency and an attacking mindset against Syracuse. The Scarlet Knights can’t settle for contested jump shots or they could struggle. They need to prioritize Young’s ability as a penetrator and Mulcahy’s ability to pick apart the zone with his passing,
As to whether Rutgers adds another non-conference game during the season, it’s certainly possible but seems less likely once Big Ten play begins. Of course, depending on the schedule, if a conference opponent has to cancel a game due to COVID-19 issues, its possible that Rutgers find an out of conference foe on short notice. While Seton Hall could happen this season, I’d bet against it. Jerry Carino gave a very thorough explanation as to why in our podcast preview for the season here.
An important thing to remember is that from a NCAA Tournament perspective, non-conference play will be less important than previous years due to less games played. The same can be said for road games due to no fans being in attendance. Perhaps going through this first stretch with a long break between games could help this team down the road, as it seems bound to happen again with cancellations happening frequently during the first week plus of the season. If Rutgers can stay healthy and take care of business in Big Ten play, they’ll have a chance to go far this season.