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Five areas Rutgers men’s basketball must improve on

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The Scarlet Knights have to learn from a disappointing loss against DePaul.

NCAA Basketball: New Jersey Tech at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers men’s basketball suffered a bad loss on Thursday night in Chicago to DePaul 73-70. It was a continuation of what has been a frustrating and concerning start to the season. Let’s review five areas that this team needs to address quickly as the schedule ramps up significantly in the next couple of weeks.

Start games faster

Rutgers has trailed at the half in all four games so far this season. It’s a disturbing trend that needs to change quickly. Getting into the game can’t include a feeling out period that leads to reckless and sloppy play. Better focus overall, establishing the post on offense while making rebounding a priority are ways to find a rhythm in the game. Rutgers isn’t doing that. Poor decision making and forcing things on both ends continually puts this team in a hole. Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. need to assert control from the get go while as a team, they need to adjust to the speed of the game and have better recognition from the opening tip on.

Defensive discipline

A major issue is that Rutgers is lacking discipline on the defensive end. They have been a step slow in defending penetration and are taking too many chances trying to force turnovers. They have the length to cause opponents problems, but they aren’t using it to their advantage. Being more fundamentally sound with their defensive stance and footwork will allow them to keep in front of who they are defending. They aren’t forcing opponents to beat them off the dribble or require as much ball movement because they are late to spots and getting beaten off the ball. Last night, DePaul won the game from the three-point line down the stretch and Rutgers was late closing out on shooters.

These are unforced errors that need to be corrected.

It led to major foul trouble in the loss to DePaul. Head coach Steve Pikiell said after the game, “If we could have defended without fouling, that would have helped us. That gave them a huge advantage. When we got down and guarded them, we did a good job.”

Cliff Omoruyi is an example of a player taking too many risks on the defensive end. His second foul to send him to the bench in the first half was an overaggressive play. He was trying to block a shot without being in proper position. Blocking opponents from behind while they have position to the rim will draw a foul 100% of the time. While the third foul called on him for a push was a bad call since he didn’t actually touch the player, he let it impact his decision making and picked up a fourth foul soon after with over 14 minutes to play in the game. He was effective last night, but not on the court nearly enough because of his foul trouble. An advanced stat is fouls committed per 40 minutes and Omoruyi charted at 8.4 last night. He wants more offensive opportunities but he needs to learn that that’s not going to happen if he improve defensively.

Rebounding on the defensive end was an issue last season and was again on Thursday night. It goes back to footwork and being fundamentally sound by getting bodies on the opponent for effective box outs. DePaul is a very good rebounding team so far this season and they grabbed 14 offensive boards, which burned RU in a big way.

In regard to rebounding, Pikiell said after the game, “You can’t defend the free throw line. We fouled too much. When you are on the road, when you have that disparity, I was disappointed that we didn’t rebound missed free throws. You have to make up for a lot of points when you put a team on the foul line that much. I was most disappointed with our free throw blockouts. I have to do a better job making sure we do that. We weren’t able to overcome that in the game, fouling was a huge issue. We have to do a better job of rebounding without fouling.”

Too much sticking

The offense isn’t as much broken as it’s stuck in first gear. A lack of ball movement, making the extra pass and working the defense with ball reversals was mostly absent on Thursday night. There was way too many isolation plays and it led to poor shot selection and too many jump shots. There isn’t enough movement off the ball and players are stagnant. This also negatively impacts rebounding as well.

When Rutgers takes mostly threes to start a game, it’s typically a bad sign. They missed their first three attempts in the first five possessions against DePaul and went 2 of 12 in the first half overall. They did a great job of making threes in the flow of the offense down the stretch once they were in rhythm in the game, making 8 of 15 from behind the arc in the second half.

As said in the section related to starting games faster, Rutgers has to do a better job of establishing the post early in games. Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi are matchup problems not only for low to mid major teams, they will be for a lot of Big Ten opponents as well. Taking the game to them and working inside out needs to be a priority.

Another issue is Rutgers is completely reliant on their halfcourt offense to score. They only had 3 points in transition against DePaul. They aren’t going to play with a fast tempo, but they need to be more opportunistic in running off of turnovers and defensive rebounds. While it’s obvious the quickness of Jacob Young leading the break is sorely missed, I’d argue Myles Johnson’s ability to throw accurate and timely outlet passes is missed even more. Rutgers isn’t completing passes downfield off of defensive rebounds. They’re dumping off to Geo Baker and Paul Mulcahy more times than not. Ron Harper Jr. and Aundre Hyatt have been the two best rebounders and both are capable of getting the ball up the court on their own.

Roles defined

Pikiell’s strategy in non-conference play is open to criticism but his intention is clear. He wants the opportunity to play a deeper rotation, mix and match lineups, keep his starters fresh ahead of the Big Ten grind and get development time for his younger players. The problem is due to issues mentioned just above, Rutgers hasn’t had many opportunities for experimentation and development, while also playing his starters a ton of minutes.

You saw even more against DePaul, the shift back to Geo Baker as the primary ball handler is taking place. That being said, Paul Mulcahy played his best game of the season. He played with more confidence, hit some shots and provided some much needed energy on the floor. Pikiell said of his play, “Paul does a lot of good things for us. He did a good job keeping the ball live, he gave us tremendous effort. We needed that and his maturity on the floor.” While he did take a good amount of possessions as the lead ball handler, he looked more comfortable switching with Geo. Something to keep an eye on and I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the way forward long term.

While Aundre Hyatt is essentially playing like a sixth starter in terms of minutes played and being on the court late in games, the other bench players provided good support offensively in the first half against DePaul. Mawot Mag had 2 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds along with playing with purpose on the offensive end. Jaden Jones hit a corner three in the flow of the offense that gave Rutgers a six point lead. He is a natural scorer who can score in all three phases. The problem is each are having issues on the defensive end. Because of that, Jones only got 2 minutes in the second half and Mag didn’t get on the court at all.

Pikiell is a tough, old school coach in the sense that defense either keeps you on or takes you off the court. In these tight games, he is sticking with his veterans on the floor who have the best defensive understanding on the team. Hyatt’s transition into the rotation has been smooth in part because he has picked up the defensive principles quickly. For younger and inexperienced players like Jones and Mag, they are essentially learning on the fly. The issue is they are going to have to fill roles this season off the bench in Big Ten play. Taking lumps with them now seems beneficial long term in getting them ready for what’s ahead. It will be interesting to compare minutes in this game to when they play at UMass next weekend as to whether they are given more time.

Caleb McConnell is a key player for this team, but his offensive play has been detrimental in the early going. He went 0 of 6 last night, but it was more the way he took shots and dribbled out possessions without moving the ball that hurt the most. He is the best defender on the team, brings toughness as well as an above average defender and rebounder. Pikiell is a coach who tries to inject confidence into his players, but figuring out a way to build that on the offensive end for McConnell while also improving the flow when he is on the court is vital moving forward.

With Cliff Omoruyi in foul trouble against DePaul, Ralph Gonzales-Agee and Dean Reiber were unable to provide enough production in his absence. Defensively, both struggled and Gonzales-Agee missed opportunities near the rim by pump faking and dribbling too much when he had the ball. If these are issues against DePaul, something has to improve before Big Ten play.

One adjustment to watch for is Pikiell going smaller by playing Ron Harper Jr. at the 5 and Aundre Hyatt at the 4. You can still have Geo on the court with a combination of McConnell, Mag, Jones and Mulcahy filling the other spots. Pikiell has talked about positionless basketball in the past and that’s the type of lineup that could be effective when Cliff is in foul trouble moving forward. Don’t expect Pikiell to give up on Gonzales-Agee too quickly, but having a plan B is going to be needed on certain nights.

The bottom line is that this loss is likely to create urgency for Pikiell to make decisions on the rotation sooner than he probably wanted to. And that means players accepting roles and prioritizing areas that make them the most productive as possible. We heard all offseason about how each player is focused on doing their role the best as they can, but whether their actual role that’s needed actually matches up with the role they wanted needs to managed as well. That’s Pikiell’s job to manage and how this process sorts out remains to be seen.

Relax

Rutgers has played tight all season. They are truly a hunted team against the competition they’ve faced so far. Their opponents play up to them and Rutgers has shown the troubling trend of playing down to its competition. They need leadership on the court to get out of that pattern. While Baker and Harper Jr. have been playing well, they also need to focus on getting their teammates to breath. I don’t mean this as a criticism and that they aren’t trying to get players to relax more, but their battle scars make them capable of doing that. When this team feels the pressure, they press in their decision making or get overaggressive. It’s leading to mistakes. It sounds simple, but in one sense they need to trust their abilities more and focus on the fundamentals. Trying to do too much or forcing the action is producing subpar results.

While the loss to DePaul is extremely disappointing and a ugly stain on their resume, this team needs to focus on the simple things. This team is tracking very similarly to the 2019-2020 team that took until mid-December to figure things out.

That 20 win team struggled in its first three games and lost its fourth contest of the season away from home to St. Bonaventure, who were rated No. 123 in KenPom. This Rutgers team struggled in the first three games of the season and lost its fourth contest away from home to DePaul, who were rated No. 123 coming into the matchup. Rutgers was No. 79 in KenPom after that loss two years ago, only to finish a program best No. 28 in March. This team is now at No. 75 in KenPom and with the strength of schedule in the Big Ten, there will be plenty of opportunities to make up for the loss to DePaul. The key is not allowing it to snowball and create a bigger hole.

The lack of creation on offense and lack of discipline on defense has raised serious concerns. The losses of Jacob Young and Myles Johnson have been felt. However, assuming this team won’t evolve and be successful is not something I feel is warranted. If Rutgers can defend and rebound at a high level, which they are capable of doing, I truly believe more wins will follow than not. Offense obviously needs to improve and they have to play smarter. With this group and the way Pikiell coaches, everything comes from the defense first. It’s a style and approach that isn’t fun or popular, but it’s a proven formula that’s worked.

It’s not even Thanksgiving and this team is already at a gut check moment. They need to reevaluate themselves and each other in order to make corrections moving forward. The core group of players on this team have been through the wars and have responded well with their backs against the wall in the past. They aren’t in a desperate situation now, but in order to avoid that type of circumstance later this season, using this loss as a positive and learning from it is a must.