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Rutgers fails defensively as road struggles continue in 79-71 loss to Wisconsin

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Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker combined to score 37 points, but poor defense and a lack of contribution from the bench spelled doom.

Rutgers v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It was a Sunday to forget for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, who were beaten off the dribble most of the game and failed to generate any sustained momentum on the offensive end against Wisconsin. After being tied or within one possession of the lead in its last five conference road games, the Scarlet Knights fell flat in Madison, losing to the Badgers by the final score of 79-71. Wisconsin (17-10; 10-7) has now won four games in a row after shooting 11 of 22 for 50% from three-point range and are now 12-0 on the season when shooting 35% or better from behind the arc, including 6-0 in Big Ten play.

In a game that was expected to be a rockfight, it began as a track meet. By the time the first stoppage of play occurred almost seven minutes into the game, Wisconsin led Rutgers 15-14. Both teams shot around 70% to start and by the time the second media timeout arrived with 11:08 remaining in the opening frame, it was 22-18 Badgers. RU had made 9 of 12 shots, while Wisconsin had made 8 of 12. The Scarlet Knights were doing a good job attacking the rim, but the difference is that half of those makes for the home team were from three-point range.

The issue defensively is that Wisconsin was able to drive at will off the dribble, which led to many good looks at the basket. Once Rutgers failed on a couple of offensive possessions, it led to an 8-0 run by the Badgers who led 28-18 with just over 9 minutes left in the half. Nate Reuvers and Brevin Pritzl had been a major problem, having combined for 18 of the 28 points to begin the game.

A Jacob Young drive led to him finding Ron Harper Jr. along the baseline for a much needed basket. Geo Baker scored on a mid-range jumper off a long offensive rebound. He was 4 of 4 from the field to start the game and the lead was down to 6 points.

After a timeout, Rutgers came out defensively in a 2-3 zone, which has been a rarity this season. It led to back to back defensive stops but RU didn’t capitalize. Both teams were mired in three-plus minute scoring droughts.

After Myles Johnson made a great entry pass to Harper Jr. in the post to cut the lead to 29-24 with five minutes remaining in the first half, he soon after picked up his second foul of the game. Steve Pikiell chose to keep him in the game as he was playing very well and it came just after Shaq Carter headed to the bench with two fouls as well.

Despite a Mathis runner, Pritzl extended the lead to 33-26 after making Wisconsin’s first shot in 8 attempts. Micah Potter, who did not play in the first meeting, soon after drained a three-pointer and Pikiell called a timeout trailing by 10 points and just over two minutes left in the half.

Shaq Carter’s third foul after a Rutgers missed shot put Wisconsin in the bonus, but Tyler Wahl missed. The Scarlet Knights failed to score in the final 3:21 of the first half and the Badgers completed an 8-0 run to end it off a Micah Potter three-pointer. RU trailed 39-26 at the break.

Wisconsin was 6 of 13 from behind the arc and 5 of 7 from the foul line in the opening frame, while RU was 0 of 6 from deep and had yet to make a trip to the charity stripe. Those factors, along with 8 turnovers, were the biggest reasons Rutgers was so far behind. They looked terribly defensively, as the Badgers were consistently getting open looks along the perimeter and converting. The 20-10 edge the Scarlet Knights had with points in the paint didn’t change that fact.

Ron Harper Jr. continued to play well, as he scored 7 points before the first media timeout of the second half. That included the first three-pointer of the game for Rutgers, but they still couldn’t cut the lead to single digits. Brevin Pritzl converted two three-point plays, one the hard way and one behind the arc. He followed the timeout with a jumper and all of sudden RU was down 15 points with over 15 minutes left in the game.

The first trip to the foul line for the Scarlet Knights came soon after and Harper Jr. made 1 of 2. Soon after with Rutgers trailing a by game high 16 points, they finally showed some life with a mini 6-0 run to cut the lead to 52-42 and 12 minutes to play. However, Potter knocked down back to back triples for push the lead right back to 16 points. Wisconsin was 10 of 20 from three-point range at this stage of the game. Akwasi Yeboah soon after picked up his fourth foul of the game at the midway point of the second half, giving even less hope that a comeback was possible.

Still, back to back baskets from Montez Mathis cut the lead to 60-49, but Shaq Carter drew his fourth foul on the next defensive possession. Reuvers made 1 of 2, but Johnson turned it over on the next Rutgers offensive trip down the floor. The Badgers were in a bit of an offensvive funk, turning it over to extend its drought without a field goal to over three minutes.

After both teams failed to score after the timeout, Mathis drained a huge three from the corner and after a Badgers turnover, made a drive and dish to Johnson, who was fouled before the shot. Rutgers was able to convert on the possession though, as Young drove and found Johnson for the dunk. It was 61-54 Wisconsin with under seven minutes to play, as Rutgers refused to quit. However, Brad Davison hit a massive three-pointer for the Badgers to push the lead back to double digits.

The Scarlet Knights continued to battle, as a Yeboah layup and Harper Jr. three made it 70-64 with 2:52 to play. Rutgers had made 5 of its last 7 shots from the field. D’Mitrik Trice made both free throws after drawing a foul to push the lead back to 8 points. On the next possession, Geo Baker converted two free throws and it was back to a 6 point game. Trice made 1 of 2 attempts on after on the line, followed by Johnson scoring to cut the lead to 5 points with 2:19 to play. However, Trice hit a jumper and Baker turned it over. Rutgers forced another turnover on the other end, but missed two shots on the next possession before fouling with 51 seconds to play. They were simply too far behind to ever get within striking distance down the stretch once they finally found a rhythm offensively late in this contest. Wisconsin won the game 79-71.

The Wisconsin guards were able to get penetration mostly at will in this game and the combination of big men in Nate Reuvers (17 points) and Micah Potter (18 points, 9 rebounds) looked unstoppable at times. The defensive intensity of Rutgers was lacking and too many open shots along the perimeter were allowed. Dealing with screens was an issue once again. Brevin Pritzl (17 points on 7 of 10 shooting) outclassed the entire Rutgers backcourt, while Brad Davison finished with 15 points on 3 of 5 from deep.

Even on the glass, the Scarlet Knights were not the same. After finishing +14 against the Badgers on the boards in the first meeting, they were just +2 in this game were -1 on second chance points.

It’s amazing that Rutgers shot better in this game overall, shooting 50% from the field while Wisconsin finished at 48%. The difference was the Badgers holding a +19 advantage from behind the arc (11-22 vs. 4-14) and +13 at the free throw line (20-16 vs. 7-10). The obligatory complaint about officiating is that Rutgers was called for 9 more fouls than Wisconsin, but that should be expected for this team on the road in Big Ten play.

Ron Harper Jr. (21 points, 7 rebounds, 9 of 16 shooting) and Geo Baker (16 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 6 of 14 shooting) are clearly the best two players on the team and they played very well, but there isn’t nearly enough scoring balance/help from others for Rutgers to be able to keep up offensively. It was positive to see Montez Mathis have some moments and finish 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting after back to back scoreless games, but no other Scarlet Knights scored in double digits. Akwasi Yeboah added 8 points and 5 rebounds, as it was just the second time in the last 10 games that he didn’t score in double figures.

The scoring drop off in recent games from Jacob Young, Caleb McConnell and Myles Johnson has been a major problem. They combined for just 12 points on 5 of 15 shooting and have scored just 16 points total on 7 of 30 shooting in the past two losses. When Rutgers doesn’t have scoring balance and get much of a contribution from its bench, in combination in failing to play near an elite level on the defensive end, it’s going to be hard for them to win on the road in the Big Ten.

Paul Mulcahy, who has played well of late, was a non-factor in 11 minutes of action, registering just one rebound.

The Scarlet Knights also can’t afford to fall so far behind, especially on the road. It was another valiant effort late in the game similar to the loss at Ohio State recently, but they make it so tough on themselves to try and win in that manner. When they are able to speed up the game and get points on transition, they are so tough to defend. They held a 18-2 edge in fast break points in this game, but lost for the first time in scoring 15+ because most came after they were trailing late by double digits.

Up next, Rutgers (18-10; 9-8) remains on the road to travel to face no. 9 Penn State (20-7; 10-6), who have now lost two in a row after falling to Indiana on Sunday. While Rutgers has won two of the last three seasons in Happy Valley, it will be a difficult task on Wednesday facing an angry Penn State team they beat at the RAC earlier this season. However, I do think Rutgers matches up relatively well against the Nittany Lions and if they can get back to playing at the level of defense they are capable of, they have a chance to win. A major focus has to be playing better in the first half of road games, as they continue to make things close down the stretch, but are their own worst enemy away from the RAC.

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