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Rutgers has to defend its way out of losing streak

The Scarlet Knights have lost three in a row and four of five in Big Ten play. Regaining its identity is the way out.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Ohio State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How quickly things can change in a week. Last Saturday, Myles Johnson slammed home a dunk on an assist from Geo Baker, giving then no. 14 Rutgers a 54-47 lead over then no. 10 Iowa with 9:37 left in the game. A win would have put the Scarlet Knights right in the thick of the race towards the Big Ten title.

Fast forward to a week later and Rutgers is a team on the brink of a crisis.

The dramatic change in fate began in allowing Iowa, arguably the best offense in college basketball, to score 30 points in that final 9:37 of the game to escape the RAC with a 77-75 victory. 4 of 12 shooting from the foul line and a -14 free throw margin in the game were factors as well. Even so, Rutgers had a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds but failed to get a shot off in the last halfcourt offensive possession of the game after making a key mistake in the previous defensive possession.

Three days later, it was thought that Rutgers had its best chance to finally beat then no. 23 Michigan State, despite playing on the road. After a low scoring, back and forth first half, Rutgers fell apart in the second half as they were outscored 40-23. Despite forcing 18 turnovers in the game, they failed to take advantage by scoring just 19 points off of them overall.

The third consecutive defeat and fourth in five games came on Saturday, as Ohio State completed a season series sweep of Rutgers with a 79-68 victory. The Scarlet Knights led 26-20 with 7:48 left in the opening frame behind a 13-2 run that was capped with Caleb McConnell’s second three-pointer in that span. And then the bottom dropped out, as the Buckeyes proceeded to go on a 22-4 run to end the first half that spiraled into a 35-8 run into the early part of the second half. While Rutgers battled back to cut the lead to single digits late in the game, that type of run proved insurmountable.

After falling short by one basket of taking down Iowa and hurdling into the top ten in the national rankings, Rutgers will plummet out of the Top 25 one week later. Watching them get dominated in the much anticipated rematch against Ohio State was the most disheartening of the three defeats.

Head coach Steve Pikiell said after Saturday’s loss about the Buckeyes, “Just thought really physical, they went on a stretch when they really made shots. I mean they posted us up, we didn’t do a great job of digging down. We did in the second half a much better job coming to help, but they made some tough shots down that stretch. But got to keep grinding, every team goes on a run during the course of it, we went on our run late. If the game was a little bit longer, maybe our run would change the game, but they had a really good run there. We used a few timeouts there to try and break it but they were feeling pretty good.”

There are several reasons for the sudden collapse over the past week.

Rutgers was just 15 of 39 from the foul line in the three losses, which is both a horrific shooting percentage (38%) but is also far too few attempts. Opponents made 53 of 70 shots for 75.7% from the foul line in the past three games. That’s a free throw point margin of -38, which is gigantic and a major issue. Yes, the officiating has been frustrating at times, but a key difference in free throw attempts has been the failure of Rutgers to attack the rim the way opponents are doing to them.

All three opponents out-rebounded the Scarlet Knights, as they held the following rebounding margins in the defeats: Iowa (-1), Michigan State (-20) and Ohio State (-14). The last two losses was shocking to see a Steve Pikiell team so badly outworked on the boards.

Pikiell commented on both issues that reared it’s ugly head in the loss on Saturday, saying “Our guys grinded down the stretch, I was proud of them for that and we got to continue to do a better job on the backboard. A problem tonight. They (Ohio State) do a great job of rebounding, we’re minus 14 on the glass and then again, the free throw line is always a factor in these games, and we can’t give up points like that at the free throw line.”

After shooting 43.5% from three-point range on 108 attempts in the first five Big Ten games of the season, they shot just 8 of 32 for 25% the past two defeats this week. It’s no surprise they averaged only 56.5 points in the losses to MSU and OSU after beginning Big Ten play scoring an average of 77.8 points in the first five conference games.

It seems that opponents are adjusting to Rutgers being such a perimeter oriented team by working to takeaway the three. Michigan State switched on screens and the Scarlet Knights struggled to find open looks. The lack of a true low post scoring threat is hurting this team. Myles Johnson is valuable for several reasons, but he gets the majority of his baskets on alley-oops and second chance points off of offensive rebounds. He isn’t a natural post-up player and although he was effective in spots last season, Rutgers has shied away from trying much of it this season. It’s been an area of need for this team ever since Eugene Omoruyi left before last season.

Rutgers also isn’t nearly as active offensively as they were during the 7-1 start, as ball movement and sharing the basketball has become stagnant, replaced by too much dribbling, one on one play and settling for contested shots along the perimeter.

Another issue has been Rutgers’ inability to run in transition the way they are capable of doing. The attacking nature has been lost the past few games and they haven’t been aggressive on offense, defense, and rebounding. Pikiell answered, “First of all, credit to the other teams, whatever your strength is they’re not just going to let you do it. Obviously rebounding, it’s become an issue. You’ve got to rebound to be able to run and the more you foul, now they are shooting free throws. You can’t run on those possessions either so it’s hard to run off of free throws. We got to continue to push the ball when we can, but a lot of that is about stops. Obviously, giving up 79 points tonight, didn’t have a lot of stops in the basketball game. Rebounding factors into how much you can run, and teams know that we like to run so they are not going to let us get up and down the court the way we want.”

While the offensive improvement leading up to this recent downturn was significant, it masked the elephant in the room that was growing larger as the season progressed. After having the 6th best defensive efficiency in college basketball last season and Rutgers’ ability to shut opponents down for extended stretches, the defense this season was well short of that level. Even in the win over Syracuse, there was a stretch in the second half where Rutgers looked the worst defensively I can remember in the Pikiell era. Not having fans at the RAC this season is a factor I think as well, but certainly something they need to overcome.

Rutgers was still in the twenties with defensive efficiency before this week, the warning signs were there. Inconsistent play, a lack of intensity, and inability to close out possessions on opponents first miss were red flags. Beginning midway through the second half against Iowa, the defense completely fell apart and is the biggest reason for Rutgers being dominated ever since.

The lack of toughness displayed during this stretch has been alarming, which has manifested on the glass as well. The way in which they’ve lost the past two games is shocking, as the team has lost its identity. Defense and rebounding have been major reasons as to why they’ve been so non-competitive, the total opposite of the way its been since Pikiell arrived five years ago. In his system and the culture he created, the defense is what defines the team and helps generates offense for Rutgers by creating transition offense.

On Thursday ahead of the rematch with Ohio State, I asked Pikiell about a historically bad offensive performance against Michigan State and he said, “Honestly, I was more disappointed in our defense. We missed free throws. We missed layups. That happens during the course of a game. We could have won that game 46-45. Our defense held them in the first half. We had 13 steals which is the most that we ever had in a Big Ten game. We didn’t convert any of those and when we did get fouled, we did make foul shots. Sometimes during the course of a year you have to win a game 46-44. I thought we could do that in that basketball game. After halftime, we didn’t play well. You just have to figure out a way to grind out that one out and we didn’t. Obviously, making shots makes your life easier, but defense always tells you if you are going to win a game. Offense tells you by how much. That’s what was more important to me, taking on that mentality, and we didn’t.”

It didn’t happen on Saturday against Ohio State either, as the visitors shot 51% from the field, including 10 of 24 for 42% from three-point range.

Rutgers now has a defensive efficiency ranked 43rd, which is the worst it’s been in a long time. In Pikiell’s first four seasons at RU, his teams typically got better as the season progressed on the defensive end. A lack of non-conference games this year hasn’t provided as the normal prep time the team is used to having in developing cohesion on the defensive end. Hopefully, things will click soon.

Caleb McConnell, who played the best he has since making his season debut against Iowa, was blunt in his assessment. He said “We just have to play harder. I feel like once we play hard, teams just really can’t compete with us, and I feel like that’s going to be a big emphasis.”

Jacob Young, who led Rutgers with 19 points on 9 of 15 shooting, agreed that scoring wasn’t the main issue. “To me, it’s not our offense that’s killing us. It’s our defense, our rebounds, our second-chance effort. That’s not the same as it was at the beginning of the year, but we’re good. It’s nothing to stress about. Everybody’s going crazy. It’s just a couple of games. We’re good, we’re gonna bounce back.”

When asked what has changed with this team during the three-game losing streak, Young said “We’ve got to start trusting each other more. At the beginning of the year, we just trusted each other more, but going into the game, we’ve got to take the same approach. We’ve all got to be on the same page. I think that’s going to make a big jump for us.”

Continuity has suffered this season due to injuries with several key players.

McConnell is an important glue guy for this team and while it’s positive that he returned earlier than expected after originally planning to sit out the entire season, it’s hasn’t been a seamless transition. It’s difficult having him work his way into the rotation in such high pressure games. After shooting 0 of 9 in the losses to Iowa and MSU, he began looking like himself on Saturday, finishing with 12 points on 4 of 9 shooting, along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists.

While injuries don’t appear to be an issue with Montez Mathis, he has played less minutes with McConnell back. In the past two games, even though he averaged 24 minutes, Mathis averaged just 5 points and 2 rebounds, which is a far cry from his production this season prior to this week.

Geo Baker suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener and has scored in double digits in just three of seven Big Ten games. This week, scored a total of 9 points on 4 of 17 shooting in both losses. He certainly doesn’t look like himself and the idea that Baker returned too early from injury for a second consecutive season seems possible. When asked about his recent struggles, Pikiell said “I think his health is getting better and Geo is a good basketball player. He’ll be fine.”

Jacob Young suffered the hard fall against Ohio State in the first meeting and while he played well on Saturday, it took him a couple of games before he shook it off. He looked more like himself on Saturday and is easily the best creator on offense on the team. His ability to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates off the bounce is crucial to the offense.

Ron Harper Jr. was seventh in the country in scoring at 23.7 points per game through the first seven contests of the season before missing the Purdue win with a sprained ankle. He clearly hasn’t been right the past three games since returning, as he has been completely out of rhythm.. Harper Jr. is shooting just 38.5% from the floor and 5 of 16 for 31.3% from three-point range the past three games after beginning the season shooting 56.3% from the floor and 50% from behind the arc on 50 attempts. He scored 26 or more points four times in the first seven games, but has averaged only 12.3 points in the last three games, all losses.

Despite all of those other injuries, it’s fair to argue that the biggest injury suffered this season was to heralded freshman Cliff Omoruyi, who sprained his knee in the win over Illinois on December 20. While he was starting, he essentially was platooning with Myles Johnson, averaging 5.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.0 block and shooting 72.2% from the floor in six games before his injury. However, it’s his absence on the floor that is making such an impact on Rutgers.

Omoruyi’s absence leaves Johnson vulnerable to attack, as teams have focused on making it a priority to get him into foul trouble. Rutgers has no one behind Johnson that is able to be a consistent contributor. Cliff’s athleticism around the rim makes him a valuable piece to the puzzle and in the five games he has missed, RU is just 1-4. A big reason why is the defense hasn’t developed without him and opponents are being more physical than Rutgers inside.

Pikiell has been forced to play Mamadou Doucoure and Dean Reiber, giving them important minutes that would otherwise be going to Omoruyi. When asked about substituting four guys off the bench in the opening minutes of Saturday’s game, Pikiell explained “It’s a long season too, I need to get those guys involved. The earlier you get them involved, it’s easier to get them involved later in the game. But our guys were tired and when you play these basketball games against these physical kinds of teams, you need to sub guys and give guys a minute here and there. The kind of defense I want to play is hard to play it the right way and log a lot of minutes, so I thought that was something that we went into the game wanting to do when we got our bench involved early.”

Once Omoruyi returns, Rutgers will have a much strong core rotation of eight players, but every game he misses is another challenge for this team to overcome. Pikiell said on Thursday he has yet to practice since suffering the injury and there is no timetable for his return. Utilizing Omoruyi and Johnson on the floor at the same time, something Pikiell experimented with early on this season, would give Rutgers a much different look than opponents are seeing right now.

Young didn’t mince words about the current state of the team after the loss, “Hopefully, we can get a lot of players healthy, back to their full potential, 100 percent.”

On the possibility of scheduling a game next week in replace of Penn State, which was postponed due to COVID-19 positive results with the Nittany Lions, Pikiell said, “There’s a lot more to it. It’s not just, ‘Can you play? Can you play?’ It’s protocol, it’s testing, it’s when they can leave. These calls aren’t easy calls, but we’ll just keep plugging. That’s what we do. We need to get healthy but we’re exploring some offers and we’ll see where it leads us to.”

I’d say it is doubtful that Rutgers will pickup a game and will instead solely focus on hosting no. 8 Wisconsin on Friday night at the RAC.

As for what his focus is with this team moving forward, Pikiell said, “we’ll come back to work, we’ll get better. We got to play 40 minutes. Tough stretch, playing really good basketball teams, most of them are ranked. You’re gonna have win streaks and losing streaks and you’ve got to be really good when the obstacles, easy when you are winning, you got to be good when you’re not and you’ve got to keep your team right on track and these guys are good players and they’re tough kids. This is the league that we play in so playing great teams, we’ve got to get healthy, 100% healthy, but these guys are good guys.”

Young added, “We’re just staying positive with each other. When stuff gets hard, you don’t separate, you come together. The season we had, it’s going to come back. We’re just in a slump right now.”

Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn, but for Rutgers fans who have lived through multiple coaching eras that ranged from disaster to national embarrassment between Kevin Bannon, Fred Hill, Mike Rice and Eddie Jordan like myself, this recent stretch of bad play is disappointing, but certainly not a breaking point. Yes, Rutgers has looked like a shell of themselves of late and would be approaching a potentially dangerous point of no return by the end of January if things don’t turn around soon. However, it’s hard to believe that Rutgers will continue to play so poorly. With just one game on the schedule in the next 15 days, it’s an ideal situation for this team to get healthy and refocused with lots of practice time ahead. Hopefully, that also means getting Omoruyi back on the practice court and active once that stretch is over.

Have faith that the core principles of this program, defense and rebounding, will show up in the end. And if they do, a deep run in March is still on the table.