The season opening 73-70 overtime victory against Lehigh had something for everyone. If you were looking for reasons to be concerned about this team and this season, you found plenty of evidence. If you were looking for reasons to be optimistic about this team and this season, you found plenty of evidence. I fully admit I dislike first game overreactions that are either overly positive or negative in any sport. However, it’s a natural part of being a fan. Let’s review the reasons to be concerned and reasons to believe in this team, as well as the most important takeaways from the first game of the season.
Concern - Ball movement
Sharing the basketball was a big focus this offseason and was something this team did very well in practice and in both scrimmages this preseason. And then Wednesday night happened. Whether it was the emotions of the moment with fans filling the stands for the first time in two seasons, the NCAA Tournament banner being dropped or opening game nerves, Rutgers did not do what they had prepared to do on offense. The ball did not move well in the first half at all and there were too many quick jumpers into a possession. It got better in the second half but it was a big reason why RU shot so poorly in the game.
The Scarlet Knights shot only 37.5% overall from the floor including just 44.1% from two-point range and only 1 of 13 from three-point range. While there were some good looks that just flat out didn’t go in, including layup’s, dunks and several misses in the paint by Paul Mulcahy. Shot selection was poor at times due to a lack of flow and movement in the halfcourt. The Scarlet Knights only had 9 fast break points as well, which is too low in a game they swiped 14 steals, so transition offense has to improve as well.
Positive - Points off of turnovers
In a three-point win in overtime, Rutgers held a 16-7 edge in points off of turnovers that was a big reason why they won the game. Lehigh committed 22 turnovers while the Scarlet Knights, after committing five early turnovers, settled down and had just 11 in the game. Taking advantage of extra possessions will be critical this season as well as not letting mistakes hurt them by getting defensive stops after giving it away. This is one of those trends that is important to watch for and Rutgers looked good in this area on Wednesday.
Concern - Three-point shooting
The 1 for 13 performance was bad, but it was the old habit of shooting three’s right out of the gate that was concerning to me. It was a common issue that plagued this team with slow starts last season and the same thing happened in this game. They missed their first five shots from behind the arc in the opening minutes of the first half and went to the locker room at the break 0 for 8. Feeding Cliff down low was working and Ron Harper Jr. was effective in the paint, but Rutgers didn’t make it enough of a priority. Attacking the rim was done more so in the second half, but a lack of penetration was a concern. To the team’s credit, they only took five three’s after halftime. A lack of ball movement certainly didn’t help them establish a good flow offensively and RU needs to focus on working inside out at the start of games to get into rhythm and find better looks. Of course, the good looks they did have they missed a lot of and making just one deep ball is not a winning formula.
Positive - Free Throw Shooting
As poor as Rutgers shot from the floor, they kept themselves in this game from the foul line. Getting there for 25 attempts was encouraging and making 18 for a 72.0% clip was even more so. And it came on a night their best free throw shooter, Caleb McConnell, was only 4 of 7 from the charity stripe. The free throw shooting percentage was about average for college basketball, but there are legitimate reasons this team should be better from the line. If they can shoot 70% or better this season, it would be a major improvement.
Concern - Rebounding
Another area of focus that Rutgers had this offseason and preseason was reestablishing their presence on the glass. Wednesday night was not an inspiring performance on the boards. While Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi did their part, as a team they finished with a -2 rebounding margin against a team from the Patriot League. The Mountain Hawks did only get six offensive rebounds, but too many times RU only had one shot in a possession because they weren’t crashing the offensive glass hard enough. Again, it’s just one game but certainly something this team has to do a much better job of moving forward. Of course, missing 45 shots was part of it so improved shooting will help too.
Positive - Ron Harper Jr. & Cliff Omoruyi
An encouraging sign was seeing Harper Jr. make a point to get inside in attacking the rim and also make rebounding a priority. He delivered a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds along with 4 steals, 2 assists and 2 blocks. Rutgers not going to him more down the stretch was frustrating and something Pikiell should focus on moving forward. It was really good though to see Harper Jr. be more active after being fully healed from his recurring ankle injury last season.
While it was just one game against an inferior opponent, Omoruyi looked every bit improved as much as we heard about this offseason. He led the team with 16 points on 7 of 13 shooting and grabbed 9 rebounds. The issue was he was limited in the first half with two fouls and only played 5 minutes. Rutgers was much better when he was in the game and he finished with a team high +/- rating of 15. Keeping him out of foul trouble and on the floor is essential for this team because he looks ready to make a big impact when is on the court.
Concern - Interior Defense
This was a major issue as Lehigh got to the rim for easy looks far too many times in this game. The Rutgers guards were getting beaten off the dribble and the frontcourt wasn’t making stops or altering shots. It’s just one game, but Ralph Agee really struggled defensively. He did grab 3 rebounds, but his development as a rim protector has to move pretty fast before Big Ten play begins. Omoruyi played well overall, but he has to improve his footwork defensively and avoid the temptation of going for blocks when he isn’t in front of the shooter. The only big man with a block in the game was Dean Reiber. Lehigh scored 36 points in the paint and that shouldn’t happen. The absence of Mawot Mag was notable too due to a dental emergency, as he should help defensively a lot.
Positive - Aundre Hyatt and Jaden Jones off the bench
Hyatt was really solid in this game and his experience showed. He was smooth and played under control, finishing with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks. The missed dunk that would have made the margin of victory greater was unfortunate but thankfully he didn’t get hurt. Still, it was a very good debut for the LSU transfer.
Jones made an impact early off the bench in making his first two shots of the game. He is didn’t score after that and only played three minutes in the second half when Pikiell shortened the rotation. However, he showed flashes of the impact he can make for this team and being a reliable player off the bench is absolutely critical this season.
Concern - Too many minutes for the starters
Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Paul Mulcahy played 38 out of 45 minutes on Wednesday. Caleb McConnell played 34 minutes. This was out of necessity as Pikiell did what was needed to get this win. However, the season is a marathon and Rutgers has to avoid adding miles on their best players against low major opponents in the non-conference schedule. It’s also important for the younger players and bench to get some much needed minutes for their development. That didn’t happen in the first game and is something that needs to improve in these next few games.
Positive - Rutgers found a way to win
Despite shooting under 38%, making one shot from behind the arc, getting outrebounded and giving up way too many easy baskets, Rutgers found a way to get the win on opening night. Lehigh returned their core and played like a veteran team. You can look around the Big Ten to know that the first game of the season can be wacky and getting out alive is what matters most. No. 17 Ohio State barely survived Akron 67-66. Indiana struggled against Eastern Michigan 68-62. And Nebraska, a trendy pick to move up the Big Ten ladder with 5-star recruit Bryce McGowens, lost to Western Illinois 75-74.
We’ve seen this before with Rutgers two season ago. They needed a last second corner three from Bryant to bounce off the rim on opening night to secure a 2 point victory. That team lost to St. Bonaventure a few days later, but ultimately won 11 Big Ten games and 20 overall in the regular season that would have earned them an NCAA Tournament bid if not for Covid.
It’s important to breath and remember it’s a long season. The good news is the things Rutgers did poorly last night, Pikiell will have the team’s attention with it on film. There were also some quality plays with different guys hitting the cutter with sharp passes that went for easy buckets. Harper Jr. found Caleb McConnell followed by Geo finding Cliff for an alley-oop dunk that extended the two point lead in overtime to six points, essentially putting the game away. That was encouraging, as was the 14 assists on the night, led by Mulcahy with 5 helpers.
Defensively, the Scarlet Knights improved on their positioning and were more fundamentally sound in the second half, which was a big reason they won. They were effectively disruptive in passing lanes at times too.
As we all know and have lived through before, this was a game Rutgers has lost way too many times over the years. They pulled it out and that is what mattered most about the season opener. Expectations are high for this team and there is a long way to go. This team also almost never makes it easy, so buckle up for the season ride ahead. Winning games when playing poorly is something good teams do and Rutgers did that on Wednesday night.