In a game Rutgers had to have to stay in contention for the NCAA Tournament, they played much better on the offensive end. They shot a season best 51% from the field in Big Ten play, were a respectable 8 of 22 for 36% from three-point range and despite three misses in the closing minutes, finished 12 of 17 for 71% from the foul line. The ball movement was dramatically improved from the opening tip on and all seven players who played significant minutes made at least three field goals in the game.
There is no doubt that head coach Steve Pikiell pushed the right buttons in changing up the starting lineup. Jacob Young and Montez Mathis had started every game up until Sunday, but Pikiell inserted Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell in their place. It made a difference in setting the tone in sharing the basketball and making the extra pass. Rutgers jumped out to a 15-8 lead in the first five minutes and never relinquished it the rest of the game.
“I thought it helped us on the backboards. The other guys came off the bench and responded,” Pikiell said after the victory. “You make changes when you feel like there was a need for it. We weren’t getting off to good starts at the beginning of games, but we were real connected today.”
As for the better ball movement, “We have a lot of talented guys and we are very dangerous when we share the game,” said Geo Baker. “It was a huge emphasis in practice and it showed today.”
Baker finally looked like himself on Sunday, leading Rutgers to victory with a vintage performance. It didn’t seem like a coincidence that his best game of the season came with him having the ball in his hands, playing the point the majority of this game. He finished with 19 points on 7 of 15 shooting, including 4 of 9 from three-point range, as well as 5 assists and just 1 turnover. He made several big shots to keep Rutgers in the lead and accounted for his one mistake, getting called for a technical due to talking after a made three, by hitting another run soon after to prevent an Indiana run.
About the technical, Baker said “A little talking back and forth. I think it was my first-ever technical since I’ve been here. I was a little excited that we were playing well, and that’s not a veteran move. I don’t know why I did that.”
His roommate of four years, Myles Johnson, said after the win “Geo has been here the longest. He has a lot of experience. Having him on the court performing at that high of a level leading us to victory I think is good for everybody. It definitely helped seeing him perform so well.”
Johnson was also huge in the victory, matchup against Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis. The best player for the Hoosiers finished with just 13 points and 7 rebounds, both below his season averages. Johnson delivered his most complete game of the season, finishing with 8 points on 4 of 4 shooting, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 steals. He clinched the victory with a key offensive rebound in the closing seconds with Rutgers leading by just one possession.
“That felt great to get last rebound and kicking it out, kind of like icing on the cake,” Johnson said. “We really needed this win and it felt so great to secure the game like that in my hands.”
Ron Harper Jr. was also a huge factor in the win, finishing with 15 points on 4 of 10 shooting and a career high 12 rebounds. He added 2 assists and a rebound too. It was his willingness to do the dirty work, like diving for loose balls, that showed the unselfishness that Rutgers played with on Sunday.
“Ron Harper (Jr.), the whole game was very involved vocally and 12 rebounds were a huge lift for us,” Pikiell said.
Also give credit to Jacob Young, who handled his first game of the season off the bench like a fifth year senior should. He scored 8 points and looked to pass instead of forcing the action. He dove for a loose ball that resulted in an assist to Baker in transition.
While Rutgers was much improved offensively, the key to the victory was on the defensive end. They held Indiana to just 43% shooting, despite the Hoosiers making 10 of 16 from three-point range for 63%. The Scarlet Knights made it very difficult for Indiana inside, holding them to only 24 points in the paint and just 14 of 40 for 35% from two-point range. Rebounding and turnovers were key as well, as Rutgers held a +3 margin with both.
“They didn’t let it affect them today,” Pikiell said. “If the ball went in or not, we just continued to play our defense and we rebounded and (stayed connected). That’s a really important step for us.”
As for defense triggering better offensive play, Baker said “We try to make It the other way around. Try to make defense uplift on our offense. We were really focused on being connected on defense. Once we get stops, we have a really talented team and can get out and run. As long as we share the game, our offense will come.”
Rutgers did hold a 16-13 edge in fast break points and did a good job speeding up the game against an Indiana team that plays with second to slowed tempo in Big Ten play.
Johnson added, “We played really great defense and it definitely made us play better on offense. Once things are clicking and you get a whole bunch of stops - we call three in a row a kill - we try to get a kill and everyone’s energy gets hyped up. That translates on offense. You play harder, get to the rim harder, trying to get a foul instead of being lackluster with a fadeaway. Definitely the defense amped up the offense.”
As for why Rutgers performed so much on Sunday to finally end the five game losing streak, Baker was blunt, stating “The things we have been lacking these last few games have nothing to do with skill. It had to do with effort, being a good teammate, and having positive energy. Those are the little things we need more of and today we had that. We got the victory.”
“Playing as a team, swinging the ball, making the extra pass, trusting your brother to make a shot or make the extra pass for a better shot,” Johnson added. “That was a big factor in this game. I think this is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’re definitely good enough to beat these teams. We have to make the extra pass, trust each other, be a brotherhood. This game we really pulled it together and trusted everybody. It showed. If we can keep playing like this, we can turn things around.
Rutgers is now 8-6 on the season and 4-6 halfway through Big Ten play. They sit just half a game out of seventh place in the league standings. This next week provides a huge opportunity to get the season back on track. They host Michigan State (8-4; 2-4) on Thursday in a rematch at the RAC. It will be the Spartans first game in 20 days due to a pause with COVID-19. Three days later, RU travels to play Northwestern (6-8: 3-7), who have lost seven in a row.
“It’s a long season,” said the veteran Baker. “We had a little drought. Now we have to get wins. We dug a hole, that’s on us. We have a lot of really good players with really good mindsets, so we just have to focus on the next game.”
It’s clear that Rutgers is at its best and capable of making a deep run in March when they share the basketball on offense and are fully committed on the defensive end. As we saw on Sunday, the key to getting to the postseason is the connection they build defensively, which will carry this team and lead to better offense.
This win gives Rutgers their 4th Q1 win and should get them back into the NET top 50. With the toughest part of their schedule behind them, they’re still in a good spot.— Brad Wachtel (@Brad_Wachtel) January 24, 2021