Last season, Rutgers trailed Penn State by 18 points at the half on February 26 before taking a lead in the closing seconds on a Geo Baker dagger, only to be undone at the buzzer. It was the team’s third straight defeat and its NCAA Tournament chances were hanging in the balance. We all know what happened next, as the Scarlet Knights closed out the regular season with impressive victories over then top ten Maryland and at Purdue on senior day. Steve Pikiell’s team responded in a way that made it clear that they deserved the program’s first invitation to March Madness in 29 years.
And then, the season faded to black. Due to the global pandemic COVID-19, the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. It was a cruel fate for Rutgers fans. The only consolation was the belief and hope that with the overwhelming majority of the team set to come back the following season, Pikiell’s fifth year on the banks would be best the program had experienced in decades. 2021 was the year that Rutgers basketball would emerge as one of the best in the Big Ten and finally end a 30 year NCAA Tournament drought.
After a fifth straight loss on Thursday, that expectation is on life support.
After a 7-1 start to this season, there was no doubt that 2021 would indeed be the year that fans had waited for, even after a two-point loss on January 2 to a top ten Iowa team that was on the ropes late in the second half. It was fair to expect that Rutgers would pick themselves off the mat and bounce back like they had so many times before under Pikiell. Three weeks and four more losses later, we are shockingly still waiting for this team to respond.
After another close loss at Penn State on Thursday night in which Rutgers cut a 18 point second half deficit to 4 late in the game, was too little, too late. The effort needed to win a Big Ten road game, regardless of the opponent, simply wasn’t close to enough to what they actually delivered. It was encouraging to see them finish the game in the way they did, but it was disheartening too because it showed they are capable but failed to put it together in time to get the much needed victory.
“We played really hard for the last 16 minutes, but that’s not enough in a game like this,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “Penn State got off to a good start and we didn’t come out with the energy that we needed to on the road. We fought back into it. They clawed back into it, this team didn’t quit. But it’s a forty-minute game. We have to play better and we’ll figure this out. When hard times hit, you see what you’re made of. There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played. I have confidence that we’ll get better.”
Let’s hope so.
What will it take for this team to finally wake up? The Nittany Lions were 0-5 in Big Ten play entering this game, were playing for the third time in five days after a three week pause due to COVID-19, and aren’t a particularly strong defensive team. PSU was supposed to be the perfect elixir for Rutgers, but they ended up ill instead.
What’s wrong with this team? It’s fair to openly wonder now that things don’t seem to be getting better, but actually getting worse. And in identifying what is wrong, is there any hope that Rutgers can still turn this season around?
Injuries have certainly been a factor this season. Geo Baker suffering a high ankle sprain on opening night was a twist of the knife from the basketball gods. He returned after three games and its fair to question whether he rushed back too soon.
Last season, he returned after missing three games with a broken thumb and struggled badly for a month before regaining his form down the stretch of the season. Since Geo returned in December, he has had fleeting moments of looking like himself, but he has also had many more where he didn’t and has been a complete non-factor at times.
Cliff Omoruyi and Caleb McConnell missed significant time as well. Thursday was just the second time the top eight players on the roster were all available for a game this season. If this core group can establish some continuity, they could potentially roll off a big winning streak. The good news is that with just two games over the last two weeks, health seems less an issue and the team is close to full strength. Injuries aren’t an acceptable excuse for how poorly this team is playing right now.
Offensively, Rutgers is more undisciplined than unprepared. They certainly don’t run the most sophisticated offense in college basketball, but it’s more detailed than it may appear to look. The issue is partly due to a lack of commitment in sticking with the offensive sets in the halfcourt before deciding to dribble out of a one on one matchup, something Dave White wisely pointed out happened early on in the loss to Penn State. Guard play is the key to success in college basketball and the truth is Rutgers isn’t getting nearly good enough performances in the backcourt right now.
When this team was at its best last season, it was when Geo had the ball in his hands. He has played off the ball far more this season, deferring to Jacob Young. This may sound a bit odd, but as good as Young has been as a offensive creator and penetrator, the best on the team by far during the losing streak, Geo and Paul Mulcahy need to get the rock more that they have been. Rutgers made its run against Penn State when it cut the lead from 18 to 4 with Baker and Mulcahy running the offense and Young on the bench.
As important as Geo is to the offense, you saw on Thursday the benefit of Mulcahy playing well and what he could be for this team.. He above everyone else generates ball movement and his unselfishness leads to the team sharing the basketball which results in better shot selection. They finally found open threes or in-rhythm looks tonight because of Mulcahy, who finished with 5 assists and 0 turnovers.
This isn’t meant as a slight at Young. He was much better than Mulcahy against Wisconsin and in almost every other game this season. He is hugely important and a proven scorer, but over the last few games the offense shifted in a way I don’t think is best for the team overall.
There has been a lack of movement without the ball and too much catch and dribble action, versus ball reversals and making the extra pass for open teammates. At the end of the day, Young still leads Rutgers in assists, but he is committing too many turnovers (4 each in the last two games) and the offensive flow is getting disrupted.
One positive is that Ron Harper Jr. finally looked like himself again in the second half in part due to much better ball movement and him being more active in getting the ball in better spots to attack from. If Rutgers wants to be a top half Big Ten team, Harper Jr. needs to be a 15-20 point scorer every game like he was on Thursday.
Of course, free throws are killing this team and I think the mental aspect has worsened in that Rutgers isn’t being aggressive in drawing contact, thus failing to get to the line nearly enough. It’s now a double edged issue, not getting to the line on top of not making them once they get there.
The most disturbing part of all of this is how out of character this team has played during the losing streak. This is the third game over the last four where they had a negative rebounding margin in double digits. Rutgers also hasn’t played to its potential defensively all season, but particularly during this losing streak, as they’ve been bad for long stretches.
Under Pikiell, defense and rebounding has been the unquestioned identity of the program. It’s what made his teams overachievers and dangerous against any Big Ten opponent during his first few seasons when the talent level was less than what’s on the current roster. The lack of defense and rebounding right now is why the season is on the verge of slipping away. The soul of this team is missing.
Pikiell knows that to be true and said after the game that “The narrative of our program has always been that we defend and we rebound. We have to be more consistent with what we do. I have to do a better job and I do have confidence in our guys.”
As of right now, Rutgers has gone from college basketball darlings at the national level to the biggest disappointment in the Big Ten not named Michigan State. It’s easy to say they were playing above their heads earlier in the season, but the fact was Rutgers was actually playing like a top 15 team. They handled Maryland easily before the Terps beat Wisconsin and Illinois, both of whom are KenPom top ten teams. Rutgers also beat Illinois before the bottom fell out and lost to Iowa by one possession.
Pikiell deserves criticism for how things stand now, as Rutgers is 3-6 in Big Ten play a year removed from starting 7-3 in league action. The road to a second consecutive season with a winning record in Big Ten play gets steeper with every loss. Pretty soon, the hill be too high to climb.
“I got to figure it out,” Pikiell said. “It’s on me as the head coach. I have to do a better job of getting these guys ready to go. I didn’t, so this 100% on coach Pikiell.”
He’s right. Whatever he has been doing, he hasn’t been pushing the right buttons. Pikiell has done a tremendous job elevating Rutgers from the depths of college basketball hell. Making them into a consistent winner and regular NCAA Tournament team is a more difficult challenge.
Did Pikiell allow Geo to come back too soon for a second season in a row? There were a couple times during the loss to Penn State that he was beaten badly on defense to the point that Baker looked like he lacked significant mobility. Maybe its not the injury to the ankle and the issue isn’t physical, but it’s fair to say that Geo hasn’t looked like himself for much of this season. He is a warrior, but the results haven’t been there.
Was inserting Caleb McConnell into the rotation against Iowa the right move after not having played all season previously? Rutgers is 0-5 with him back in the lineup. It’s certainly not McConnell’s fault and there is no question they needed more depth in the rotation. His toughness and defense is needed, but it’s fair to wonder how it’s affected the rhythm of the rotation? Montez Mathis scored in double figures in eight of the first nine games, averaging over 15 points per game. He has failed to hit double digits in his last four games and has averaged only 5 points per game during that stretch.
Why isn’t this team responding to Pikiell the way they have so many times in the past? Is team chemistry suddenly an issue? The buy-in from the players was complete last season but perhaps early success this season has made things more complicated?
Another key question is why the leaders of this team haven’t stepped up in a way that is pushing the team forward? Myles Johnson, along with Harper Jr., Baker, Mathis, Young and McConnell are all veteran players who have been together for three years now. Were veterans like Akwasi Yeboah and Shaq Carter on last year’s team the glue that held it all together? It’s strange to see the players so disconnected during this losing streak and you have to hope they’ll click soon once the rotation gets more consistent now that everyone is healthy. But what if they don’t?
One thing that is worth contemplating is whether this team’s personality is struggling to cope effectively in a global pandemic as the season wears on. While Pikiell has focused on adding players with a gym rat mentality, not having any outlet outside of basketball other than taking classes online can be a grind in and of itself. Obviously, every team is dealing with this same adjustment, but some are better suited for it than others. As Pikiell noted this week, he thinks about his players being isolated on campus since last June and appears to be concerned on the impact that the grind is having on them.
Rutgers has players full of big personalities that also fed off the fans at the RAC last season better than almost any team in program history. The lack of emotion they are experiencing in games and on campus as part of normal college life seems to be having a negative impact. Rutgers looks like a team failing to fill that void and its impacting their performance. Their defensive intensity in particular has not been anywhere at the level or as consistent as it was last season. The body language of this team has been troubling at times and their confidence, once sky high, appears torn to shreds at the moment. It’s on Pikiell to figure it out and fix it.
“You are going to be frustrated when you don’t make shots and play the way that you like,” Pikiell said. “That’s expected. We haven’t played well and it’s my job to change it. We had guys in the game there at the end who played with great energy. They clawed back in. This team didn’t quit. We just have to play better and they won’t be as frustrated. They weren’t frustrated when we were winning.”
And there in lies the dilemma. How can Rutgers pull themselves up, dust themselves off and get back on track? Rutgers was playing like a Top 15 team. They beat Illinois (KenPom no. 10) and a good Purdue team (KenPom no. 26) without two starters. They lost to Iowa (KenPom no. 3) by one possession. The hype and hope was warranted. Now they are playing like a bottom Big Ten team. It’s baffling.
If they don’t figure it out quick, the 2020-2021 campaign that started with legitimate hopes for a special season will end as a colossal failure. 2021 is the year that Rutgers fans have dreamed about for a long time, but right now, it’s descending into a full blown nightmare. A full recovery is still possible, but the clock is ticking on this season.