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KenPom Rutgers Basketball Season in Review: “Meant To Be So Much More” Edition

With the Rutgers’ men’s basketball season drawn to a premature close, we look back on how the team performed from a stats perspective

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament-Rutgers vs Michigan Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

For someone who writes frequently for his job, I am prone to writer’s block, and writing a season wrap-up for Rutgers basketball was not something I had planned on doing on March 18. I’m going to ignore the big part of my writing brain telling me this article is silly to write – how I can expand on the great words written recently by Aaron and by Dave? But I’ve been writing about this team all season long. I can’t let this season go, even though it disappeared far too soon and under incredible circumstances, without trying to write something meaningful.

I’ll get to the advanced analytics in a couple of paragraphs; for now, I just want to write about what this season meant to me. Yet to do this, I have to mention what this season meant to my 4-year-old daughter, Samantha, who became perhaps Rutgers’ biggest fan in the preschool demographic this season.

Even when Rutgers was terrible at basketball, I’d watch them play. But this season, Sam got it. All season, pretty much every morning, one of the first things she’d ask me was “Daddy, is Rutgers playing today?” If the answer was yes, she’d put on her little Rutgers hat and wear it most, if not all of the day. When timelines permitted (the kiddo has an early bedtime), we’d watch the game together, and when I was at the game with my friends, she’d ask my wife to put on the Rutgers game “so she could find Daddy”. (I sit in Section 303, so if you know the RAC at all, you know she could not find Daddy.)

I was fortunate to take Samantha to the RAC for the first time early this season, and she was amazing. Four-year-olds are not known for long attention spans, but she sat in her seat for three-quarters of the game, cheered not only for buckets but for boards, and understood after halftime to cheer with Rutgers shooting at the opposite basket. Watch out, world: when this kid learns a jump shot, she already gets basketball.

In addition to this season being the year my kiddo woke up to Rutgers basketball, it was the first season I was lucky enough to write for OTB. Aaron was kind enough to let my occasional football posting move over to basketball topics, and this season turned into the most fun we’ve had as Rutgers fans for a long time. Remember the first game of the season, when Rutgers beat Bryant by two? Who knew this would be the greatest Rutgers team sport season in at least a decade, maybe even longer? Now, as Henry Hill said at the end of “Goodfellas,” it’s all over. Now we all get to live like schnooks, without a 2020 conference tournament or March Madness to enjoy, and you know what, it really sucks and gets me angry to think about it...

A Brief Intermission (and a Season in Review)

OK, I’ve calmed down. All the above being said, I want to focus on the positive, and that’s what I plan to do for the rest of this article. How good was Rutgers basketball this season? Here are this season’s final efficiency ratings, compared with Rutgers basketball for the rest of the KenPom era:

What are my takeaways from this chart?

  1. We knew this already, but Steve Pikiell is a very good coach. While Rutgers managed some individually strong seasons earlier in the KenPom era, particularly under Gary Waters, the average season under Steve Pikiell has been far better than the average season under his four predecessors (see chart below). Specifically, Rutgers is more efficient overall (and particularly on defense) than they’ve been at any other point in this century. Note the recent numbers includes the entire Pikiell era, even though each season’s team has been better than the one which preceded it:

2. Rutgers is developing an offensive identity to match its defense identity. Looking at averages in the chart above, you’d get the impression Rutgers has always stunk on offense, even in the Pikiell era, but that ignores the trend line. Rutgers’ 2019-2020 offensive efficiency ranking of #72 puts the team in line with peak Quincy Douby-era Rutgers, and represents the second-most efficient Rutgers team of the entire KenPom era. So, what is the identity of a Steve Pikiell Rutgers team? Constant defensive intensity, offensive rebounding, and – increasingly – a top-quartile-in-the-nation offense which is more than enough to win games alongside an elite defense.

3. This season’s Rutgers team was the most complete Rutgers team in the KenPom era. I color-coded the top chart (red = less good, green = double-plus good) and if you look across the rows, you’ll see 2019-2020 is the only season where all four columns are in dark green. Without having the opportunity to win a single conference or postseason tournament game, this Rutgers team matched the highest win total of any other Rutgers team this century, ranked first in overall efficiency (28, 2nd place was 72), second in offensive efficiency (mentioned above), and first in defensive efficiency (6, 2nd place was 19 all the way back in 2002).

MVP(s) of The Season

With Rutgers basketball, it’s hard to pick.

Was it Ron Harper, Jr., the only Rutgers player to rank in the top 500 in the nation in offensive efficiency (382nd)? Was it Geo Baker, who – and what I’m about to write comes from a writer trained to hate all instances of the word clutch – provided a handful of the damn clutchiest late-game performances I’ve ever seen to secure crucial conference victories? What about Jacob Young, whose defensive intensity ticked off opposing Big Ten point guards all season and grew into a more consistent and occasionally deadly offensive weapon later in the conference slate?

Akwasi Yeboah provided steady leadership, a smooth stroke from three, and shot 78% from the charity stripe for the season. Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter held down the middle for Rutgers all season. Caleb McConnell, from my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, dropped 20 on Nebraska and 16 on Purdue back in January. Paul Mulcahy worked on his shooting confidence all season, obviously, and would have stunned someone with a late three-pointer had the season continued, without a doubt. And Montez Mathis had this sideline jam on his birthday, which I’ve already posted once but screw it, I’m posting it again:

You know what, it was all of them. They were all stars, and though things aren’t particularly fair right now in the world of college basketball (or the world as a whole), you can’t convince me had things shaken out differently that this particular team wouldn’t have won at least one, maybe even two, NCAA Tournament games. I would have filled out a $10 bracket putting them in the natty, but that’s between me and my gambling solution. ;-)

A Ranking of Rutgers’ Conference Victories, In Descending Order of (a) How Many Times my Heart Stopped, combined with (b) How Fun It Was to Watch

at Purdue, in OT (this one took three years off my life)

vs. Maryland (this one took one-and-a-half)

vs. Penn State (would rank lower, but I was courtside)

vs. Illinois

at Penn State, if not for that freakin’ moving screen

vs. Northwestern, in OT

vs. Indiana

vs. Purdue

vs. Wisconsin

vs. Nebraska

vs. Minnesota

at Nebraska

What’s Next

Besides a lot of sitting and waiting, and counting our blessings for our continued health and the health of our families, Rutgers Basketball faces a longer offseason than any of us could have possibly predicted. In the months ahead, next season’s non-conference schedule will be news (Jon Rothstein tweeted on Wednesday Merrimack will likely be one of the teams on this schedule). It will also be nice to keep an eye on preseason rankings, with the hope Rutgers will keep everyone on board and potentially be a top-25 team at the point these rankings are announced.

If any news breaks in the offseason where I can be of help from a fan and/or analytical perspective, I will try to write about it here. Otherwise, this season’s been so much fun, and though it ended awfully, I appreciate (and read) all of your comments and thank you all for reading.