Welcome to March (and the final week of the Big Ten regular season), ladies and gents. Let’s buckle in.
Before I get to the article, I have a random thought. While we all live in different places and have different abilities to travel, Rutgers fans should consider, if possible, going on a road trip to watch Rutgers basketball play an away game. I made the 3.5 hour road trip to State College for Rutgers at Penn State on Wednesday (alongside maybe 100 other Rutgers fans and maybe five or six thousand total fans). After watching a Rutgers game somewhere else, all I can say is, don’t take the RAC for granted. It’s a unique environment for road teams, and a huge home court advantage for Rutgers when it’s rocking. A true Trapezoid of Terror.
Getting down to business, the eye test and the advanced metrics don’t always see the same thing. For example, here are the changes in how Rutgers basketball is evaluated by the most popular ranking systems since my last update, which I posted on February 6:
- KenPom: #32 in the nation (down 4 spots from my last update)
- NET Ranking: #34 (down 5 spots)
- Bart Torvik: #33 (down 19 spots, which feels like a lot, but this ranking system operates differently and absolutely loved Rutgers - #14 in the country – in early February. This feels like a rational correction to me)
I find these numbers encouraging, because the eye test tells me Rutgers has played one complete game of basketball (home vs. Illinois) since the end of January. I’ll get into more specifics about this later, but I’ll remind fans who feel nervous about Rutgers’ chances of three things. First, most of the bracketologists I trust still give Rutgers a decent chance of making the NCAA tournament:
- Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracket: 11 Seed
- Jerry Palm’s CBS Bracket: First Four Out :(
- Andy Katz’s BTN Bracket: 11 Seed
- Brad Wachtel: 11 seed
Second, back in November, Rutgers fans all would have signed up for this roller coaster of emotion every day of the week and twice on Sunday. It’s fun to be a part of the national conversation and not for superficial reasons like “Wow, for a 14-17 team, Rutgers plays with heart!” Third, there is still a significant amount of basketball to be played before Selection Sunday (I hope at least four more games for Rutgers, between the regular season and the conference tournament, but who knows).
It’s important to remember the advanced metrics (which attempt to predict future performance) haven’t been saying Rutgers is playing much worse lately, while the bracketologists (which attempt to predict how the committee will select teams in mid-March) are still giving Rutgers a very good chance of making the Big Dance. It’ll be fun to see how this goes in the weeks ahead.
Now, please forgive me as I use popular Yacht Rock song titles to walk through the rest of this article.
I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)
That being said, it hasn’t been entirely pleasant watching Rutgers basketball play in the past month. Here are some recent deficits Rutgers has found itself in:
- February 9 vs. Northwestern, down 52-36 with 14 minutes to play
- February 12 at Ohio State, down 61-44 with 7 minutes to play
- February 26 at Penn State, down 40-19 at one point in the first half, down 49-35 with 15 minutes to play
And those are just the games where Rutgers came back to make things interesting! Other recent Rutgers games have been disappointing for other reasons. At home vs. Michigan, Rutgers led by nine points early in the second half, only to eventually lose by eight. At Wisconsin, Rutgers never really came close after the first ten minutes of the game. For lack of a better word, it’s been ugly out there.
What gives? To me, it’s a few factors:
- Rutgers is prone to long bouts of cold offensive production, particularly from three. Rutgers is 12th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency (ahead of only Northwestern and Nebraska), and a stout Rutgers defense can only compensate for this for so long. In each of their troubling games over the last month, Rutgers has fallen into the same trap; they allow the opposing team to go on extended runs in the first three-quarters of games (e.g., 14-2 Penn State, 19-6 Wisconsin, 17-4 Michigan runs) from which it’s nearly impossible to recover. It is especially difficult to recover when Rutgers is 324th in the nation in three-point shooting, a fact which can be painfully obvious when watching other teams drain threes and knowing Rutgers is, at times, facing a best-case 3-for-2 point situation against these opponents.
- Rutgers needs more offensive motion early in games. We can get into what changes later in games, I have a couple ideas I’ll share later, but it does seem to me that Rutgers starts games “rigid” on offense. By this, I mean they seem to game plan both from a set perspective and a substitution perspective (though it changes positively in second halves of games) in a way that feels relatively static, until Rutgers’ backs are against a wall.
- Defending the three against wing and baseline shooters is a particular struggle. Michigan implemented this strategy twice successfully against Rutgers, as did Ohio State and Penn State for most of their respective games. Rutgers likes to sag on defense, and (probably intentionally) force other teams to shoot what really are lower-percentage shots, but when the opponent catches fire and actually makes some of these shots, the gamble backfires. Rutgers doesn’t have a three-point shooter to keep up with other Big Ten teams, so from the fan’s perspective, it looks like Rutgers is allowing their opponents to shoot wide-open threes at their own peril.
Baby, Come Back
All of the above being said, Rutgers never gives up. They frequently mount furious comebacks (see vs. Northwestern, at Ohio State, at Penn State as three examples from the past month). Were it not for Penn State’s center committing an egregious moving screen on the final play of that game (if this were college football, it’d have been a 10-yard holding penalty and replay the down), Rutgers would have been 2-1 in three Big Ten conference games where they were down a combined 54 second-half points (!).
What gives, from a comeback perspective?
- Greater defensive flexibility in second halves. For whatever reason, Rutgers has an incredible ability to lock down for extended periods of time and force their opponents to take silly-looking, contested shots. I feel part of it is Pikiell makes ingenious lineup changes in second halves of games (players can have hot hands on defense, as well as offense), and the other part is a result of solid halftime adjustments. Penn State scored 21 total points in the second half vs. Rutgers (18 if you discount the shot made after the aforementioned moving screen). Illinois scored 25 in the second half of their game, Ohio State scored 27. Project this out to an entire game, and what you’d see would be elite scoring teams playing entire games in the forties or low-fifties. This is difficult to do of course, but my point stands.
- Geo Baker taking over. Geo is just a joy to watch. From his game-tying three vs. Northwestern to his potential game-winning jumper at Penn State, Rutgers fans shouldn’t take for granted how comfortable it feels to have the ball in his hands in high-leverage, late game situations. Defenders game plan specifically for what Geo attempts to do off the dribble, and then he does it anyway and succeeds. Rutgers is not an elite offensive team, but when Geo is hot, it certainly feels like they are for periods of time.
- Getting over the mental stuff. At this point, the first half struggles have to be mental, right? It’s like a starting pitcher in baseball having first inning jitters, then shutting down the opposing team for their final five innings of work. I’m not sure what the solution is to this, but Rutgers seems to play its best basketball when fatigued and playing with a deficit.
I’m just a guy writing for a Rutgers sports blog, but I’m hoping this well timed bye week of sorts is a good opportunity for Rutgers basketball to reset and find ways to adopt the late-game approach which has worked so well later in games to a full 40 minutes of solid mental and physical basketball.
Hey Nineteen (or More Wins)
As of this writing, Rutgers is 18-11 (9-9 in conference), 9th in the Big Ten. When I wrote my last update, I plotted a path to 20-21 regular season victories for Rutgers, but given the grinder of a late season Rutgers has been through and the reality of how the games have gone lately, let’s attempt a realistic projection of what Rutgers needs in order to make the NCAA tournament and avoid the NIT (though, remember, at the beginning of the season, the NIT was supposed to be a best-case scenario for Rutgers basketball).
First, Rutgers needs to win another game. Just one more game. Last season, Ohio State looked a lot like this year’s Rutgers team from every perspective which should matter to a Selection Committee (strength of schedule, offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and conference record). Ohio State made it to the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed without a play-in game, with a 19-14 record.
Don’t be surprised if Rutgers is a mild home court favorite (maybe -1 or -1.5) against Maryland on Tuesday night. Betting lines aren’t created to match real life outcomes, but KenPom has Rutgers as a slight favorite (52%) in that game and Vegas’ open lines tend to match KenPom closely (gambling hint!). The RAC needs to be up and screaming for 40 full minutes on Tuesday night, I truly feel this may be the difference between winning and losing for Rutgers.
If Rutgers beats Maryland, I am reasonably confident they make the NCAA tournament as something like a 10 or 11 seed, regardless of what happens the rest of the way. But if Rutgers loses to Maryland, they need to either win at Purdue (which will be tough, 34% chance as of this writing) or win some Big Ten conference tournament games (games, in plural), otherwise the RAC gets to host some more games in the NIT.
Again, this is supposed to be fun. Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for Rutgers basketball!