Rutgers (9-6; 5-6) at Northwestern (6-8; 3-7)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois
Tip-off: Sunday, January 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Lisa Byington and Stephen Bardo
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 28, which is 12 spots better since the 30 point win over Michigan State on Thursday; Northwestern is 72, the same as it was before a 3 point loss to Penn State on Saturday, January 23.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 110.2 (57th) Defense 91.5 (20th); Northwestern - Offense 108.8 (68th) Defense 97.0 (82nd)
KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 72 Northwestern 69; Rutgers is given a 59% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Rutgers -4
Series History: Northwestern leads the all-time series 10-4, but Rutgers won the last meeting 77-73 on February 9, 2020 at the RAC.
Northwestern SB Nation Site: Inside NU
Northwestern - 6’7” junior Miller Kopp (13.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 45.3% 3-pt FG); 6’4” redshirt sophomore Chase Audige (12.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steal); 6’10” junior Pete Nance (11.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 35.9% 3-pt FG); 6’2” sophomore Boo Buie (10.5 points, 4.6 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 39.7% 3-pt FG); 6’10” redshirt sophomore Ryan Young (7.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 60.3% FG); 6’9” sophomore Robbie Beran (6.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists); 6’3” freshman Ty Berry (5.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, 39.0% 3-pt FG); 6’4” redshirt junior Anthony Gaines (4.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists); 6’2” junior Ryan Greer (2.9 points, 1.8 assists, 1.4 rebounds, 53.8% 3-pt FG)
Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (17.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 37.5% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (14.3 points, 3.9 assists, 2.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 40.0% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (11.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 39.6 % 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (9.8 points, 3.0 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.4 steals, 63.6% FG); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (6.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 37.0% 3-pt FG); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (5.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.3 assists) 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (4.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 64.3% FG)
Neither team has any significant injury issues.
The Wildcats started off the season with a 6-1 record and stunning 3-0 start in Big Ten play with wins over Michigan State (KenPom no. 60), Indiana (KenPom no. 23) and Ohio State (KenPom no.12). However, Chris Collins’ team has come back to earth and is mired in a seven game losing streak. They did have a brutal stretch of playing six consecutive games against opponents ranked in the top 12 of KenPom, losing them all by double digits and an average of 18 points. In its last game, NU lost by one possession at Penn State (KenPom no. 41).
Northwestern is averaging 76.1 points per game and are allowing 72.5 points per game. They are shooting 45.1% from the field, 37.4% from three-point range and 73.0% from the foul line. NU is a dangerous team from behind the arc and they take 24 attempts from three per game.
In Big Ten play, the Wildcats are 9th in offensive efficiency and 13th in defensive efficiency. Offensively, they have the 5th lowest turnover rate, but they are last in conference action in offensive rebounding rate and free throw rate. On the defensive end, they are also 5th in turnover rate, but are last in effective field goal percentage and block rate.
This is a team that has length but its style is more finesse than physical. They are battle tested after a brutal schedule so far and will enter Sunday’s game coming off an eight day break, so expect them to be well rested and well prepared.
Keys to Victory
On paper, this is a game that Rutgers absolutely should win. Northwestern is a perimeter oriented team that doesn’t attack the rim, is not a strong rebounding team nor a defense that forces many turnovers.
This is a game that the Scarlet Knights need to continue to bring it on the defensive end and focus on limiting Northwestern to as many one shot possessions as possible. The Wildcats are averaging under 66 points per game during its current seven game losing streak, while Rutgers has held opponents to just over 60 points in the past four games. Northwestern has a tendency to take contested jump shots behind the arc or right inside it, as well as force shots on isolation plays. If RU stays disciplined defensively and continues to pressure the ball along the perimeter, Northwestern should struggle offensively once again. They need to be aware of the shooters at all times and not allow any open looks or they could get burned.
Offensively, Geo Baker running the offense has made a world of difference the past two games. Even though Rutgers didn’t shoot particularly well against Michigan State, the more they moved the ball in the halfcourt, the better looks they got. Attacking the rim is a must against Northwestern, who are not an imposing unit in the paint. Rutgers has the potential to dominate inside like they did against MSU and making a high percentage of layups would make them tough to beat.
I was happy to see Rutgers make a concerted effort against Michigan State to feed Myles Johnson in the low post. Northwestern should have little answers for him similarly to MSU, so getting him active and involved early on is important. Ron Harper Jr. should have an easier time getting position near the blocks as well. He has struggled shooting from the outside of late, so he needs to focus on getting higher percentage shots off near the rim to help him get back in rhythm.
Rutgers has thrived since the changes to the starting lineup, but part of that has been the production that Jacob Young and Montez Mathis have provided off the bench. They have an opportunity to make a big impact in this game, both with penetration on the offensive end and on the ball defense.
Expect head coach Steve Pikiell to mix-in some fullcourt pressure and zone throughout the game, something else that has helped the past two games in keeping opponents off balance.
While taking opportunities in transition when they make sense is important, Rutgers has to play under control and not let Northwestern speed them up, which could lead to sloppy play, Rutgers has the second lowest offensive turnover rate and best defensive turnover rate in Big Ten play, so continuing to force turnovers and taking advantage of them by converting them into easy baskets remains a major key.
Rutgers has gotten off to fast starts the past two games and it’s important in this matchup as well. They can’t let Northwestern get comfortable and build confidence by making a few threes early on. Relentless defensive pressure and making them defend by attacking the rim is the way to control the action. Northwestern may need a few runs to get back into the pace after the long layoff, so jumping on them right away is critical. There are no easy games in the Big Ten and this is no exception. Hopefully, RU has learned from how poorly they started at Penn State and avoids falling into such a big hole in the first half. When Rutgers is the aggressor, they usually play its best basketball.
Appropriate Music Selection
For the sixteenth game of the season, I selected “Working on the Highway” by Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band. This is from the iconic Born in the USA album and epitomizes Springsteen’s career in my opinion. The ultimate grinder in rock music serves as ] good inspiration for Rutgers heading into this game.
The chorus applies for this game in a figurative sense:
“Working on the highway, laying down the blacktop. Working on the highway, all day long. I don’t stop. Working on the highway, blasting through the bedrock. Working on the highway, working on the highway.”
Rutgers needs to impose its will from the opening tip on and take care of business. Otherwise, they could end up on the wrong side of a dogfight on a cold Sunday night in Chicago in a game they really need to win. Play together, keep grinding until the final buzzer and Rutgers should head home to a snowstorm riding high on a three game winning streak. If they don’t, they’ll only have themselves to blame. Style points are irrelevant. Go to work and get it done.