In a season that Rutgers men’s basketball went dancing in March for the first time in 30 years and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 38 years, they did it behind defense and timely wins. The biggest reason they didn’t advance to the Sweet 16 and beyond last season was due to a weakness that was previously a program strength during head coach Steve Pikiell’s tenure.
The Scarlet Knights saw their dream season end in the Round of 32 because they couldn’t stop the best rebounding team in the country. Houston overcame a 9 point deficit to close out the game with a 14-2 run that was fueled by 9 second chance points coming off of offensive rebounds. If Rutgers had grabbed just one more defensive rebound down the stretch, the final outcome could have been different.
With the season on the line, they lost because they were a below average rebounding team. It was a weakness the entire season and it caught up to them in the end. They allowed opponents to grab offensive rebounds at a rate of 29.7 % last season, which was ranked 245th out of 357 teams per KenPom. They allowed almost the same percentage in Big Ten play at 29.8%, which was 13th out of 14 teams. Crashing the offensive glass was Houston’s identity. You have to almost always stop good teams from what they do best in order to beat them, especially in March, and Rutgers couldn’t do that when it mattered most.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has made sure that this year’s team understands that and learns from it. When asked about whether he expects Rutgers to be a better rebounding team this season, he was emphatic in his response.
“Yes, we will 100% be better in that area. We are a better block out team as we speak,” said Pikiell. “We’re bigger, our length, better size. We have put a huge emphasis on it. I feel real good about it. We’ve spent a lot of time. We’ve talked about it. Watched film about it. We understand that we have to go back to what we used to do and that was to be a great rebounding team.”
It won’t be easy considering the team’s best rebounder, Myles Johnson, is currently cleaning the glass in Pauley Pavilion for UCLA. Johnson had offensive and defensive rebounding rates that ranked in the top 50 nationally last season while averaging 8.5 boards per game.
Ron Harper Jr. is the team’s returning leading rebounder at 5.9 boards per game last season. In games in which he grabbed at least seven rebounds last season, Rutgers went 9-1. It’s crucial that Harper Jr. becomes more consistent on the glass and he made it clear that the players are focused on being much improved in that area.
“It’s important. Everyone but Geo and Jalen are 6’6” and above. We should be a team that is great on the glass,” said Harper Jr. “Coach Pikiell always tells us that rebounding, defending is all about effort. That’s something I’ve seen with this group that I haven’t seen before. Tenacious effort, battling for rebounds. That’s important. Rebounds wins games.”
On the lessons learned from last season, Harper Jr. said, “The team we lost to in Houston, that’s why they ended up coming back with a bunch of offensive rebounds late in the game. They were the best offensive rebounding team in the nation and they were a No. 2 seed. It shows you when you rebound the ball at an elite level, it pays dividends for you in the long run.”
As for why there is reason to believe Rutgers will be better on the glass this season, Pikiell explained.
“We added Ralph (Agee), who is our leading offensive rebounder right off the bat this preseason,” said Pikiell. “Added another guy who can really go up there and grab offensive rebounds. Our guards are big. Paul (Mulcahy) is a good rebounder. Caleb, statistically, has been our best rebounder. It’s been Cliff, it’s been Ralph, it’s been Caleb and we all know Ron can rebound with anybody too. We’ve added Aundre (Hyatt), who had a double-double in a NCAA Tournament game, so he is a real capable rebounder.”
The development of Cliff Omoruyi and his ability to replace Johnson’s production in all areas is crucial this season. While his offensive rebounding rate of 6.7% last season was well below Johnson’s 13.2% rate, it was still second best on the team. Improving in that area will be important. Omoruyi’s defensive rebounding rate of 23.1% last season was similar to Johnson’s rate of 25.3%. He finished his debut season averaging 4.0 rebounds in only 14.9 minutes per game, so he has the potential to be a much bigger factor on the boards that this season.
If Ralph Agee can be as much of a factor on the offensive glass as Pikiell thinks he can be, as well as be capable on the defensive end, it will certainly make him a positive addition inside. He averaged 5.2 rebounds per game for San Jose State last season in 26.3 minutes.
Aundre Hyatt has the potential to help Rutgers in multiple ways this season. He had a double-double in a first round win for LSU in the NCAA Tournament last season, including seven offensive rebounds in that game. His offensive rebounding rate last season was an efficient 9.5% and averaged 3.1 boards in 16.0 minutes per game. He’ll see an increased workload this season and should be a bigger factor on the glass for the Scarlet Knights.
Caleb McConnell has been the program’s most efficient player in the preseason per advanced stats that Rutgers tracks during practice according to Pikiell. His versatility and willingness to do the little things has always been McConnell’s strong suit. Jon Rothstein named him one of the top 20 glue guys in college basketball this season. His double-double in the NCAA Tournament last season of13 points and 10 rebounds was won of the more clutch performances for Rutgers last season. As far as his ability to rebound, he was third on the team last season in averaging 4.3 boards per game. McConnell discussed how the team is working on being a better rebounding team this season.
“With rebounding, it’s all about having that mindset to hit a body. We’ve been preparing for that, especially in practice,” said McConnell. “Some of our practices have been pretty rough. The older guys, we get in there and push some of the young guys around. Now they are starting to understand that we have to start hitting the boards. It’s been fun, that aspect of it. I don’t think rebounding will be something we struggle with. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
It’s important that Jaden Jones and Mawot Mag, two younger players expected to be in the core rotation this season, are competent rebounders as well. Rutgers always rebounds best when they have an “all hands on deck” approach. When the guards are rebounding, they are tough to beat. Both Paul Mulcahy and Geo Baker averaged over 3 boards per game last season and understand the importance of the team making rebounding a priority.
Mulcahy commented, “The way we went out last year was on missed rebounds. That’s been an emphasis, both defense and rebounding. Getting back a little bit to our roots but then adding everything else that we have to do. I think we have the right guys for it. They’re competing and rebounding has been a key.”
Baker stressed the importance of being more consistent on the glass and the preparation the team has put into it to ensure that they are.
“It’s something we kind of lost last year. We weren’t really a great rebounding team at times,” said Baker. “That’s been our focus. I think it’s going to help us a lot. I think our team has really been thinking about that a lot. We understand. We watched a lot of tape on last year when we weren’t rebounding, so I think that all of the guys understand that’s the type of team we want to be. It’s going to help us win some games.”
Obviously, Rutgers has to improve offensively this season, in particular with shooting. However, Harper Jr. point out that being a better rebounding team will help their mindset shooting the ball. He explained, “It takes pressure off you shooting the ball because you know you have somebody down there ready to box out to get the ball and the rebound.”
There is plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this team. Replacing production from key players from last season’s team is critical. However, they also need to maintain their strong defense while regaining their identity as a strong rebounding team. It’s what Pikiell’s teams were known for early on his tenure at Rutgers and part of why they were competitive upon his arrival. Now that the talent level has increased, a reemphasis on crashing the boards will only make this team even tougher to play this season.
The goal for this team isn’t just to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but to advance even further this time. Credit the team for acknowledging that rebounding was an issue, but now they have to make sure it becomes a strength once again. If they do advance even further this March Madness, it will be in part due to improving in an area that held them back last season.