The Rutgers men’s basketball team improved to 2-0 on the season on Saturday with a 48-35 victory over Merrimack. It was a second straight poor offensive performance from the Scarlet Knights. That being said, it was an elite defensive performance. RU overcame a seven point deficit at the half to win by the exact margin of victory projected. The betting line and KenPom listed Rutgers as a 13 point favorite and they won by 13 points. Let’s review some highlights, lowlights and big picture things to consider about this team.
Rutgers did the unthinkable and followed up a 37.5% shooting night in the season opener with making just 31.3% of its shots on Saturday. They were just 5 of 25 for 20% shooting in the first half including 1 of 8 from three-point range. RU was also just 7 of 14 on layups in the game. If such a bad shooting game happened against a Big Ten opponent, RU would have been buried at halftime. But it didn’t and the Scarlet Knights responded with a better second half, shooting 43.5% from the floor and 3 of 6 from behind the arc. They moved the ball against the Merrimack zone better and seemed to start to find some type of rhythm on offense.
It was positive that while they only made 15 field goals in the entire game, 12 came off of assists. They would have had a lot more too had shots gone in, but at the same time Rutgers did a poor job of attacking the Merrimack zone in the first half. Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell combined to shoot 0 of 9 in the game and committed five turnovers between them. Both sat the majority of the final ten minutes of the game. There aren’t many times you can win a game scoring just 48 points overall, but Saturday was thankfully one of them. That obviously can’t continue and clicking in the halfcourt offense needs to happen soon. But this side from Shot Quality points out from the Lehigh win that shot selection wasn’t the issue. That’s a positive.
Rutgers almost lost to Lehigh... BUT looks like more of an off shooting night than anything else pic.twitter.com/RLfauYQvb1— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) November 11, 2021
Jaden Jones rising
The second half showed why Jones is so important to this team. He scored all nine of his points after the break, making 3 of 4 shots from both the floor and the foul line. In a game Rutgers was struggling miserably on the offensive end, Jones bailed them out in a big way. He showed the awareness of a veteran with the offensive put back off a missed one and one from the line and his baseline drive was a thing of beauty. Jones is both highly skilled and athletic, giving Rutgers a player that can make a big impact on both ends of the floor. There were a few occasions when Jones was open and his teammates didn’t find him. He will have ups and downs this season, but the experienced players on this team need to make sure Jones gets opportunities to shine because he’ll deliver more times than not. His role should only grow as the season progresses.
Steve Pikiell said of Jones, “He made an alert play, and that was great. He made some big shots too. For freshmen, it’s a tough adjustment to college. It’s very different. And he’s come into first two games, and he hasn’t flinched, and we keep seeing him get better and better and better and what I really liked was his work defensively, he did some good things for us today.”
Ron the rebounder
After opening the season with a 14 point, 10 rebound double-double, Ron Harper Jr. followed it up with an 13 point, 11 rebound double-double on Saturday. His willingness to make rebounding a priority this season and score in the paint is very encouraging. His defense in the second half was tremendous, highlighting his ability to impact the game in multiple ways. Harper Jr. was also the only Rutgers player to make more than one three-pointer in the game. His versatility makes him such a valuable player, but the fact that Harper Jr. is demonstrating a workmanlike mindset by battling in the pain is a great sign. If he can stay consistent in his approach once the competition increases, it will be a benefit for Rutgers. Pikiell has emphasized the need to be a good rebounding team and Harper Jr. is leading the way on that end so far, which gives hope it will continue.
An elite defensive performance
From a defensive efficiency perspective, Rutgers had its third best showing defensively since the start of the 2018-2019 season per KenPom. Only Michigan State last season and Eastern Michigan three years ago produced better defensive efficiency stats.. They held Merrimack to just 12 points in the second and shot only 23.3% from the floor. Team defense was strong in the second half and +15 on the glass prevented the Warriors from having many second chance opportunities. The competition will only increase, but it is encouraging that the Rutgers defense was able to be as dominant as it was in this win. They look much better defensively in a small sample size than they did at the start of last season.
Pikiell said of the defensive effort, “We held the team to 12 points in the second half. I love it. The ball wasn’t going in. We figured out a way to defend. We worked on that for two days talking about our defense. It wasn’t up to par against Lehigh. And we had 11 straight stops in this game and 16 out of 17 at one stretch. Awesome.”
Pikiell’s value grows as season progresses
You hear Pikiell comment a lot in the early going of a season that it is more difficult to prepare for an opponent compared to how he prefers to normally. He and his staff watch a lot of film and the reality is not much exists in the first couple weeks. As more information and scouting is done on opponents, Pikiell is a more dangerous coach to face because he is better prepared. I actually think it’s part of the reason he doesn’t like to play difficult opponents so early in the season.
Pikiell likes to use different lineup combinations in the first few games than he normally would to experiment. So the rotation is not nearly as tight as it ultimately will be.
Obviously, the talent disparity is significant in non-conference play and watching film isn’t as important in order to beat those teams. However, whether it’s identifying and attacking trends of another opponent, having more looks on tape to better prepare for, or tailoring lineups for matchups based on what Pikiell saw on film, it all helps him put this team in a better position to win. He has spoken this offseason about improving their use of analytics due to the new Director of External Operations, Tom Barrett. Pikiell is a coach who has a good feel for his team, but the more information at his disposal to be able to prepare them for an opponent, the better.
The value of Geo Baker
The fifth year senior struggled shooting once again on Saturday, making just 1 of 5 three-point attempts and only 1 of 6 from the floor. However, his value is much more than just his shooting percentage. In a game Paul Mulcahy really struggled, Geo stepped up handling the basketball. He dished out 6 assists and committed zero turnovers. Baker was also excellent defensively and showed urgency in getting the team out of its funk at the start of the second half. His plus-13 was the second best on the team behind only Aundre Hyatt. Yes, Geo can be frustrating to watch from a shooting perspective at times, but he does so much more for Rutgers that somehow goes under appreciated.
Style is intentional
Rutgers had just 8 fast break points in the win over Merrimack after only scoring 9 transition points in the season opener. Part of the issue in Saturday’s game is that Merrimack plays a very deliberate style offensively and the zone makes it a grinding type of game. However, I wouldn’t expect Rutgers to become even a hint of the Showtime Lakers this season. The Scarlet Knights have not gotten out into transition often so far and while I think they will look to run on occasion, it’s not as much of a priority with this team.
Pikiell will always focus on and prioritize defense and rebounding above all else. The transition offense last year could be frenetic at times with transfers Jacob Young and Montez Mathis having a tendency to force shots and turn it over by forcing the action on the break. It seems likely after watching these first two games that Pikiell prefers the opposite approach with this current group.
Rutgers has always played with a slower tempo, as they were 214th last season. So far in this campaign, RU is 309th. It’s by design as Pikiell has never been shy when discussing good defensive performances. If Rutgers struggles offensively and only scores in the low 60’s in Big Ten competition, Pikiell expects that his team can hold the opponent to under 60. It’s how he prefers to play and with so much size on his roster with players able to guard multiple positions, it seems obvious as to what Pikiell’s vision was when assembling the roster. Remember, he is a product of the old Big East having played for Jim Calhoun at UConn. While RU needs to improve offensively in the halfcourt, it will come due to better shooting from sharing the basketball instead of a style change.
Cliff Omoruyi is on a mission
The sophomore big man has delivered and then some through two games. He followed up a season debut of 16 points and 9 rebounds with a 11 points, 13 rebound performance on Saturday. He only took six shots and needs to be more of a priority on offense. Most impressively, which is saying something, Omoruyi made 5 of 6 shots from the foul line. He has been a force on the court in two games and his hyped improvement this offseason looks to be paying off big time. Obviously Rutgers needs Omoruyi to hold up against Big Ten competition, but he’s looked as good as you could have hoped for so far. I love the way he is calling for the ball in the halfcourt offense and he runs the floor as good as any big man there is. His fire has also stood out, as Omoruyi is showing to be a fierce competitor and that will really help once league play begins.
The 20 win team from 2019-2020 was rated worse early in the season
Through two games this season, Rutgers has a KenPom ranking of No. 70. It’s far worse than last season’s finish at No. 38 and even more so than the 20 win team finishing No. 28 two years ago. However, there is something to consider. That 20 win team hovered in the seventies for most of the first month of the season, including its worst ranking of No. 85 right before Thanksgiving. In fact, that Rutgers team didn’t make a move until they beat Seton Hall by 20 points five weeks into the season. They improved from No. 69 to No. 55 and never looked back, finishing with a program best No. 28 ranking at the end of that season before the postseason was cancelled due to Covid.
It took that team over a month to basically figure things out. So let that serve as a reminder that Pikiell’s current team isn’t close to a finished product yet. Even though five players from last season’s core rotation are starting this season, it still takes time to establish a rhythm and to develop some cohesion on the offensive end. Working in role players and newcomers while also using a larger rotation than normal can cause for some lack of continuity on both ends of the floor. As much as the first half of Merrimack was disturbing, the second half was encouraging. It looked like Rutgers basketball the way we have come to expect under Pikiell.
The most important thing is that Rutgers is winning ugly. Having concerns about this team, particularly the offense, is completely fair. Jumping to season long conclusions based on such a small data group over the past two games is being hasty in judgement. Give this team time to grow and find its legs. Pikiell and this group of veteran players deserve to get the benefit of the doubt.