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KenPom Update: Oh, My Goodness Gracious Edition

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We use advanced analytics to put Rutgers’ cold start in context, and offer solutions for the path forward

NCAA Basketball: Lafayette at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

If someone were to try to create the ideal college basketball team, there are plenty of things such a team would do well. Offensively and defensively, this team would be efficient; the team would be among the best teams in the sport at both putting the ball in the basket when shooting, and keeping the other team from doing the same.

The team would be proficient at shooting from all three levels – from three, the mid-range, and near the basket. Free throw shooting would kind of come along for the ride, because as a rule, good shooters are better at hitting free throws. Turnovers would be rare with this team (though they’d happen sometimes), and though of course even an efficient offense misses their share of shots, offensive rebounding tenacity would be a huge boon for this team. Finally, because this team moves the ball around efficiently and doesn’t settle for isolation ball, getting to the free throw at an efficient clip puts this team over the top when they have the ball.

When the other team has the ball, all hell breaks loose (in a good way, if you’re a fan of this ideal team). This team forces turnovers like crazy, plays high energy defense but avoids fouling, and forces bad shots through a mixture of height, tenacity, and quickness. With respect to tempo, opinions differ – I’m not sure anyone has a good answer for the ideal tempo of a college basketball team – but let’s assume this team to be a chameleon on offense (fast when a transition opportunity arises, slow when it’s important to be slow) but force the opposing team into a snail’s pace. Slow teams force shots, after all. Slow teams often cannot be efficient.

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Putting the above into simple terms, what I’m talking about here is what KenPom refers to as the Four Factors of Efficiency:

  1. Effective FG%: Making shots, especially three pointers; forcing opposing defenses to miss shots, especially three pointers
  2. Turnover percentage: Not committing turnovers, kind of self-explanatory
  3. Offensive rebounding percentage: The more offensive rebounds you get as a share of your total rebounds, the better you are at offensive rebounding
  4. Free throw rate: Not necessarily *making* free throws, but at least getting to the line with a high percentage of your shots.

There are eight important attributes above – 4 factors x 2 numbers (an offensive number and a defensive number). The ideal team mentioned above has never existed, as the act of putting together a college basketball team in the real world largely consists of stripping away elements of the ideal.

Even elite teams, like recent national champions, are pretty far from ideal on at least two of the eight factors mention above. Last year’s Baylor team, for instance, was 295th in the nation in offensive free throw rate, and 274th at allowing offensive rebounds. The 2019 Virginia Cavaliers were 279th in the nation in offensive free throw rate, and were far below the D-1 average at turning over opposing defenses. They won the national championship playing at one of the slowest paces in D-1.

So when someone puts together a team, making a best effort, unless they land the second coming of Michael Jordan they have players who are limited in some way – that’s life. So the act of putting together a team actually takes things away. You take away things and you take away things, and eventually you’re left with an actual college basketball team with certain qualities. Sometimes, you take away too many things and what you’re left with, can be a struggle. Which leaves us with the question, what do we have with the 2021-22 Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball team?

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I’m going to operate under the assumption, having watched this team play five basketball games so far this season, the crisis level around the program right now is somewhere between “serious” and “critical”. That’s kind of where my mind is at. The point of this article is to look at the advanced statistics (KenPom, specifically) and try to figure out some ideas for future improvements that might work.

If you look at the trajectory of Rutgers’ KenPom ratings this season, you might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first. Here they are:

  • Overall ranking: 67th at beginning of season, 94th after loss to Lafayette
  • Offensive efficiency: 88th at beginning of season, 157th (!!) after loss to Lafayette
  • Defensive efficiency: 43rd at beginning of season, 46th after loss to Lafayette

Here are my takeaways on this:

  1. Defense has not been the problem. Rutgers remains a top-50 team defensively, and is specifically among the 50 best schools in D-1 at opponents’ 2-pt shooting percentage, blocking shots, and (though this may be a function of the teams they’ve played) opponents are only shooting 61% at the line against Rutgers, which is also top-50. They are also in the top 65 teams at limiting opponents’ offensive rebounding, and stealing the ball. To be clear, this is not the same Rutgers team defensively as the ‘19-’20 team (6th nationally in defensive efficiency) or the ‘20-’21 team (16th nationally). But it’s not a train wreck defensively, despite what you may hear.
  2. OMG the offense though. Seriously, just look at these numbers:
  • Effective FG%: 301st in the nation, there is one P6 team worse than Rutgers at this right now, and it’s Washington.
  • 2 point shooting %: 283rd in the nation, Cal and Washington are the two P6 teams worse at this than Rutgers.
  • 3 point shooting %: 331st in the nation – folks, there are only 358 teams in D-1. Washington is the only P6 team worse than Rutgers at this as well.

No disrespect to Cal or Washington, but Rutgers fans cannot be pleased with these particular teams being most similar to Rutgers from an offensive perspective right now. These numbers are, for lack of a better word, atrocious. Pretty much all of Rutgers’ key contributors have lower offensive efficiencies this year, vs. last — in some instances, players are 30% to 40% less efficient than they were for the ‘20-’21 campaign.

Take all of this as a whole, and it’s a recipe for disaster. A quick reminder last season’s Rutgers team was no offensive juggernaut – they finished 168th nationally in Effective FG%, for instance, and were in the bottom 25% of D-1 at both 3-pt shooting and free throw shooting. But they were good enough to patchwork together some important wins. This team can’t seem to get out of its own way, or own head, with the ball in their hands.

3. Things that need to improve. Here’s where the stats break down, and the eye test takes over. Below are some things I’ve noticed in observing the games. They’re all offensive observations, even though I could quibble about the defense, because the defense hasn’t been much worse than preseason expectations. Anyway, here they are.

(a) So many of Rutgers’ three point shots miss long, or brick left/right, and this tells me something. I’ve always felt like when a three misses short, a player is tired and needs a breather, but when a three misses long, or bricks right/left, it’s the sign of an amped up player with too much energy. Lots of that happening with Rutgers.

(b) Ball movement and spacing has been a debacle. Pikiell’s mentioned this, most notably in the postgame press conference after DePaul, so I would have expected more than 51 points out of Rutgers in the next game against Lafayette. For the first couple, or few, games, you can explain this sort of thing away—teams need time to gel, new players are in the mix, rotations are being figured out, etc. But that time has passed, and with big games happening soon, this needs to improve fast.

(c) This team lacks an offensive identity. Even basic questions like “who is the go-to shooter in the final moments?” lack clarity right now. I’m seeing too few passes, and paradoxically, too many passes that come from a place of passivity. It’s clearly mental with this team right now, and the only thing that can fix it is hitting buckets.

4. If things don’t improve, fans are in for a bit of a haul. Right now, KenPom projects this Rutgers team to go 13-18, 6-14 in conference. If you’ve followed this team for a while, you’d know this would be the worst Rutgers team, from an overall record perspective, since the Eddie Jordan years. But we all knew the Eddie Jordan teams were overmatched. We weren’t expecting this now; not this year, not with so much on the line. It’s a massive bummer, and it’s probably time for a relatively large recalibration of expectations.

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You might ask me what I’d change in the next game against UMass? Here are a few things I’d try:

  • Give Jaden Jones more playing time, with a clear directive to shoot at will. Of all the players on this roster, I trust the freshman the most to be an offensive sparkplug. He’s sneaky efficient (114.6 offensive efficiency with a 55.6 effective FG% — second only to Cliff and it’s not fair to compare their games from an offensive efficiency perspective) and clearly passes the eye test as a shooter. Is he a defensive liability? Yes, he is, and he’ll likely remain one for the time being. It doesn’t matter right now. The prognosis for this team is terminal if the offense doesn’t improve, and not giving Jones at least a majority of minutes in a 40-minute game is being tone deaf to the problems this team faces.
  • Figure out a Plan B at the five. In the OTB preseason preview, I kept hammering home the point this was the biggest problem Rutgers would face this season. It turned out to be like the fourth or fifth biggest problem, but whatever, it’s still a problem. In the Lafayette game, Rutgers tried small ball in the first half with Ron Harper, Jr. at the five – not sure that worked. They gave Dean Reiber some minutes in the second half, and I’m not sure that worked either. Rutgers can’t trade for anyone mid-season, but they can figure out a plan, either personnel-based or schematic, to make sure they’re OK when Cliff Omoruyi (who’s been fantastic, BTW) either hits foul trouble or needs a breather. Maybe keep the lineup small, but play some matchup zone? Just a thought.
  • Prioritize your most efficient lineup. Assuming Geo Baker is healthy, you could run a lineup out there with Geo (102.7 offensive efficiency), Jaden Jones (114.6), RHJ (103.7), Aundre Hyatt (91.4) and Cliff Omoruyi (118.8) and you’d get some offensive efficiency. You’d also get, for the most part, quality defense (though again, defense is not the point of this adjustment). If I’m Coach Pikiell, I’m shortening the rotation immediately and giving these five guys the bulk of the meaningful minutes moving forward.

Whether changes are made or not, this Rutgers team is clearly very much on the struggle bus right now, and though this coaching staff has shown the ability to improve teams in previous seasons and should continue to be graded on a curve this year, for whatever reason, this season feels different because there hasn’t been a consistent amount of time — even ten minutes out of a half — where I felt like the team was clicking so far. I am concerned, though I hope history proves me to be wrong.