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When the offense failed, the identity of Rutgers was missing

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The Scarlet Knights have lost their way after an impressive start to the season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 05 Rutgers at Michigan State

The worst performance of the season, a 23 point shellacking at the hands of Michigan State, was alarming for several reasons.

Rutgers shot an abysmal 31% from the field, was just 3 of 12 from three-point range and once again struggled from the foul line, making just 6 of 17 for 35%. Overall, it was by far the worst shooting performance of the season.

They forced Michigan State into 18 turnovers, a high number, but failed to take advantage, as they only scored 19 points off of them.

While the defense was really good for stretches, particularly in the first half, it was non-existent late in the game and MSU finished up shooting 47%, including 43% from three. The transition defense was not good enough and they were -4 in fast break points in the game.

However, the real red flag was that Michigan State held a 45-25 advantage on the glass. In both road losses this season, the rebounding totals and margin were the same. The difference against Ohio State was that Myles Johnson only played 15 minutes and had just 2 rebounds due to being in foul trouble all night. In this loss, he played 29 minutes while grabbing 7 rebounds, just 2 below his season average.

Yes, shooting so poorly certainly adds to the negative rebounding margin, but just looking at defensive rebounds, there was a major discrepancy. Rutgers had 16 defensive rebounds off of 26 missed shots by MSU, which is 61.5% efficiency. On the flip side, the Spartans grabbed 37 defensive rebounds off of 41 missed shots by RU, which is 90.2% efficiency. Big difference. Joey Hauser, a perimeter first big man, had 14 rebounds in the game. Aaron Henry had 8 and Thomas Kithier had 7 for Sparty.

The bigger problem for Rutgers was that no one else on the team had more than 3 boards after Johnson’s 7. Ron Harper Jr. and Mathis average a combined 12 rebounds per game and totaled 3 in this game. The “all hands on deck” approach to rebounding that has made Rutgers so tough on the boards in recent seasons was lost at sea.

Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said, “Got to give Michigan State a ton of credit. Coach (Tom Izzo) had them ready. I didn’t have my guys ready and that’s on me. We certainly have to play better than this. They beat us in every area tonight and it’s just disappointing.”

In nine losses last season in Big Ten play, Rutgers lost by double digits just once. It was to Michigan State in East Lansing by 12 points in the first conference game of the season. They’ve now lost by double digits twice already in just six Big Ten games and both those losses had one glaring commonality, a -20 rebounding margin.

That stat highlighted what’s been truly missing.....toughness. Against Ohio State, it was mental toughness that got the best of Rutgers, who got caught up in poor officiating and after Jacob Young left after a hard fall, stopped attacking on both ends of the floor.

This loss to Michigan State was due to a lack of mental toughness, but they also lacked physicality. They almost seemed intimidated playing against a powerhouse program that Rutgers has never beaten. The aggressiveness and attacking mindset we’ve grown to love and expect was absent. The body language from this team was alarming.

“We’ve got to be more mature than that,” Pikiell said. “I didn’t like that, especially from veteran guys. But that’s on me, I’ve got to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We’ll learn from this. This Ieague we play in, it’s a humbling league.”

When Pikiell took over the worst high major program in college basketball when he arrived at Rutgers five years ago, the most impactful immediate change he made was a cultural one with rebounding. It was and has remained one of his core principles in being successful as a team.

In Eddie Jordan’s last season, when he admitted teaching rebounding was not in his skill set as a coach, Rutgers was 299th in offensive rebounding rate nationally and 13th in Big Ten play. In Pikiell’s first season, Rutgers had a stunning reversal, finishing 7th national in offensive rebounding rate and 1st in Big Ten play. They still finished in last place in the standings, but it was a sign that Rutgers was being well coached and it seemed like only a matter of time before better days would arrive once more talent was on the roster.

Outworking opponents on the glass and profiting off of second chance scoring opportunities is a way to beat teams despite having off shooting nights. The Scarlet Knights hadn’t needed to rely on that aspect much this season due to being dramatically improved in offensive efficiency.

Rutgers worst finish nationally in offensive rebounding rate under Pikiell came last year at 53rd, which is still well above average. After Tuesday’s loss, Rutgers is currently ranked 134th nationally in offensive rebounding rate.

Better days have been present for most of the season, but Tuesday night’s embarrassing defeat has put this current team on notice. They’ve now lost three of its last four conference games. Figure things out quickly or the hope for a dream season could turn into a nightmare quickly.

Where has the swagger gone? It was just one week ago that Rutgers beat a tough Purdue team without leading scorer Ron Harper Jr. in as inspiring a performance as I remember in years. A week later, it’s confounding that the team we saw get battered by the Spartans is the same one.

Send out the search party for this team’s mojo, because it was painfully missing on Tuesday night.

The two biggest traits of Pikiell’s teams at Rutgers, whether they were good teams or not, has been rebounding and defense. The offense has steadily improved year over year, but before this season, watching Rutgers grind opponents out and scratch their way to victory was a normal occurrence. This season, stunning shooting from three-point range, keyed by good ball movement and sharing the basketball, was the new normal. But on a night when MSU smartly put pressure on the backcourt and switched off of screens, that good shooting went away. And instead of relying on rebounding and defense, Rutgers wilted.

A consistent problem for this team has been injuries and perhaps that’s starting to wear them down some. Geo Baker was ineffective in this game and that was by design, as Tom Izzo made it a point to do so. However, it’s also fair to wonder if the high ankle sprain that Baker suffered in the season opener is lingering. Pikiell said, “It’s tough when you miss 20 days and you get thrown back into it against teams like this. Geo will be fine. He’s a good player. You’ll have nights like this and you have to have a short memory.”

However, Baker did leave the game late with another ankle injury, although the details and severity are unclear. “I hope it’s nothing serious,” Pikiell said.

As for a player who could help with the rebounding issue, heralded freshman Cliff Omoruyi, there isn’t a clear answer on his return either.

“He hasnt practiced yet,” said Pikiell in the postgame. “I don’t have anything new on that until he practices. No timetable. Waiting for him to feel ready. If he can practice he will. We could use him too.”

They could use him, but the former Top 50 recruit is not the answer to all of Rutgers’ problems.

More than anything, Rutgers needs to find its identity as a team. They can’t rely on big shooting nights as the answer. When they struggle to score, this team needs to remember what got it to this point from seasons past....defense and rebounding.

Whether there was a hangover effect three days after a heartbreaking loss to Iowa or RU was mentally sabotaged by years of losing to Michigan State, this team looked lost.

The key in improving offensively is to maintain your level on the defensive end. Progress on one end, followed by regression on the other, puts you right back where you started. A season after finishing 6th nationally in defensive efficiency, Rutgers is currently 26th. Still very good, but the truth is we’ve witnessed too many sustained periods this season where Rutgers wasn’t just playing with a lack of intensity, they just weren’t playing much defense at all. They got their doors blown off at the end of the game against Michigan State.

For the first time in a long time, during a season when Rutgers has been as good as they’ve been in many years, it was disheartening to watch this team play on Tuesday night.

This program as a whole under Pikiell and this group of players have worked really hard in recent years to get where they are right now, nationally ranked and nationally respected. However, the Big Ten is a true gauntlet and if you aren’t ready for every single game, any other team in the league can knock you down a few pegs.

Fortunately for Rutgers, all three conference losses this season have come against teams they will play again. The chance for redemption is alive, beginning with Ohio State at the RAC this Saturday at high noon.

Good teams have bad nights. How this team responds will be the true indicator of how good they are and what they ultimately want to become.

“This is what this league is,” Pikiell said. “You get what you deserve in basketball.”

On this night, Rutgers got exactly what it deserved. It’s time for some soul searching and hopefully, the Scarlet Knights will find their identity once again.