2021 has already been a long year for Rutgers basketball fans, as the team is mired in a four game losing streak and winless since New Year’s Day. During a season when expectations were higher than they’ve been in decades, the engine light is already blinking a red warning sign at the halfway point of the schedule. After a 6-0 start and no. 11 national ranking, the Scarlet Knights have now lost five of its last six games after falling to no. 9 Wisconsin 60-54 on Friday night.
“Wisconsin’s good, we didn’t make shots,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “I did love how we played defense; they are one of the most efficient offenses teams in the country. We finally got back to rebounding the way we want to rebound, but the ball did not fall in today. I thought we had some good looks too. That is the (2020) league champs, they’re one of the most experienced teams in the country. It’s another game where the foul line becomes a huge thing for us, but I liked that Rutgers team today. I thought we were tough, and I thought defensively and physically, and I thought our guys were connected. If we keep on that path, we’re going to be fine.”
Rutgers did do several things well, which is what makes the loss so disheartening. They dominated the Badgers on the glass with a +15 rebounding margin, including +12 on offensive rebounds, had 42-18 advantage with points in the paint, while holding the Badgers to just 35% shooting and allowing just 4 second chance points.
And yet the Scarlet Knights let a game that was winnable against a top ten team slip away. They shot just 37% for the game, including a horrific 2 of 19 from three-point range (11%). They also struggled once again from the foul line, going just 2 of 7 that included several misses on the front end of 1 and 1’s.
While Jacob Young, who has clearly been the best player for Rutgers over the past few games, led the way again with 19 points on 9 of 15 shooting, he was the only player to score in double digits. That’s not going to cut it, regardless of the opponent.
Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Montez Mathis all struggled significantly for a third straight game, as they combined for just 14 points on 7 of 30 shooting.
Harper Jr., who averaged 23.7 points per game through the first seven contests and looked like the second best player in the Big Ten, has fallen into a deep slump the past four games since he missed the Purdue game due a sprained ankle. Friday’s loss was hopefully a bottoming out, as Harper Jr. was just 2 of 13 from the floor and finished with 4 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists. He has averaged just 10.1 points on 17 of 52 from the field for 32.7% shooting.
“He’s just getting guarded,” said Pikiell. “He did a lot of things too for us today. He had to defend multiple guys on the perimeter. Ron is a good player, so I expect Ron to bounce back. Want him to get to the free-throw line a little bit more, I think that would help us a great deal.”
Young added, “We know Ron. He is a great player. It’s just one of those things. It’s really a team thing. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Ron’s shot. It’s a mental thing. When you lose four straight, that messes with your mind a little bit. We are going to get back on and Ron is going to get back on. He is a great player. I don’t want anyone to doubt him.”
As for Baker, it seems like the high ankle sprain he suffered in the season opener has affected him despite returning to action last month. He hasn’t been nearly as active offensively and hasn’t attacked the rim much at all. Baker is averaging just 5.7 points on 8 of 28 (28.6%) from the floor over the past three games.
Myles Johnson, who played well on both ends of the floor and finished with 9 points, 12 rebounds and 3 steals, isn’t worried about the multi-year captain. He said “I’ve been roommates with Geo for four years, so I know him really well. I just tell him every day if shots don’t fall, Geo is Geo. You’ve seen him hit buzzer beaters, break people down, do spectacular things. I know what he is capable of and everyone has a bad night. He always puts in his all and gives 100% everyday. Sometimes you just don’t make shots and there is nothing wrong with that.”
It’s not realistic to think that Harper Jr., Baker and Mathis, whose production has dropped considerably the past three games, will struggle like this collectively long term.
If you are looking for more reasons to believe that this team can still turn things around, there are a few.
Wisconsin entered Friday’s game with the 11th best offensive efficiency in the nation and Rutgers held them to its second worst offensive performance of the season by a wide margin. When this team plays defense at the level they are capable of, which led them to the 6th best defensive efficiency last season, they can beat anyone.
In regard to holding Wisconsin without a field goal during an almost 8 minute stretch in the second half, Pikiell said “I like the fact that we’re able to keep them scoreless, but you got to take advantage of it on the other end of the floor and the ball didn’t go in today.
Another reason for optimism is that Friday was the first time all season that Steve Pikiell had the top eight players on the roster available for a game. Cliff Omoruyi (3 points, 3 rebounds) returned after a five game absence due to a knee sprain and had yet to play since Caleb McConnell returned to the lineup two weeks ago. The core rotation is versatile, talented and experienced, but haven’t had the chance to play together yet this season. Building continuity is so important for Rutgers to pull themselves off the mat and rebuild what they started this season.
“I think having Clifford Omoruyi back today helped us a little bit. He’s not in that kind of shape yet, but he certainly did, but we can get the ball inside more. Cliff’s the most athletic player in the program so to not have him for the last month and not be able to play him with Myles (Johnson) and do different things that I wanted to do, so that hurt us. It was a great lift to have him back with his high energy, a good teammate. I look forward to getting him back into the regular reps and have another big guy that can rebound and block shots, certainly helped us on the glass.”
Pikiell added, “We finally got a team that’s healthy back on the floor and I had a full allotment of guys, which I really like. So, we’ll take a look at everything and we’ll try to make some adjustments here, but it doesn’t get any easier in the league like this either.”
Johnson benefits from Omoruyi the most after being the lone big man to play heavy minutes without him. He was happy to have him back, saying “It’s great having Cliff back. He got in today, showed some glimpses and got some rebounds. A big thing that we needed. Having him in practice is good to have another big guy to play against. He is really going to help with rebounding. If you a are seven feet tall, you are going to be a good rebounder regardless, you just have to be around the rim. Having him around has helped a lot.”
As for having the full rotation now being available, Johnson said “Having our full lineup for this game for the first time I think attributes to playing more like us too. Caleb has practiced every single day. He sees the games and knows what we need to do. He’s been in the program a minute, so having someone like him come in is always good. He knows the plays well and everything else because he has been around. Having a full lineup, we have more guys to sub in. I think it really helps us play like us. We get more people in and can be more aggressive on defense. I think having our full lineup really helped us play like us.”
Young agreed, stating “It was a good, that’s our core. We just have to get back into the mix of things. Getting used to playing with each other again. Getting used to the rotations. We looked like we were back at full strength in this game. We just didn’t make shots. That’s all it is. Get back in the gym, talk about it. Another week of practice. Bounce back and get ready for the game on Thursday at Penn State.”
The good news is that despite the four game losing streak, there are plenty of opportunities remaining for Rutgers to pick up multiple quality wins due to the Big Ten schedule. While a 7-5 start is not great, remember it’s a unique season during a global pandemic with league schedules constantly changing and limited non-conference games. The number of wins reasonably needed to be in range to make the NCAA Tournament is unclear compared to most seasons. Regardless, the point is this team still has time to figure it out. There are no easy games in the Big Ten, but they’ve now played six of eight conference games against five teams that currently sit in the top six in the standings.
Dealing with the losing streak and the adversity that comes with it isn’t easy though, but thankfully this team also has strong veteran leadership. They held a players only meeting earlier this week. Johnson said of the meeting, “We looked at some film. We talked about ‘what do we want out of this season.’ We have to get back to what we are normally doing. Play like we are supposed to play. The past couple of games looking at film, you couldn’t tell me that was Rutgers basketball. We had an identity crisis. I think this game we got back to what we normally could do. Rebounding, playing hard. We played like Rutgers and if we keep doing that, we can beat any team in this league.”
Young added, “We looked like Rutgers again, but we have to make shots. I stay positive with my teammates. The next one is going to fall. We preach that to each other. It’s a long season and we are going to bounce back. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen.”
Yes, the offense has looked horrendous the past three games, but it will improve. If Rutgers can get back to rebounding and playing defense at a high level on a consistent basis, this team still has a chance to achieve more than any other has for the program in many years. Next week won’t be easy, as Rutgers has road games at Penn State and Indiana, but neither is playing at a level that should give this team doubt that they can’t win both if they play the way they are capable of.
“We go one game at a time,” said Pikiell. “I think we got better today with our defense. We got to continue to defend like that and rebound. We play in the best league in the country so you can go on losing streaks and hopefully we can go on a good winning streak too.”
Rutgers fans hope that’s true. There are enough reasons to believe it will still happen.