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Rutgers men’s basketball has lost its way

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After a program altering transformation into a NCAA Tournament winner, this season has resulted in a steep decline.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 22 Lafayette at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rutgers men’s basketball suffered the program’s second worst loss of the KenPom era on Monday night in a 53-51 defeat to previously winless Lafayette. The Leopards were No. 315 entering the contest, only slightly better than No. 322 Hartford who stunned RU in the 2017-2018 season. Even so, it was easily the worst loss of the Steve Pikiell era as it comes in year six following two very successful seasons. It was as disheartening a performance as I can recall in following this program closely over the past four decades. It was an unacceptable performance in a season full of concerning performances.

This is the type of loss that warrants full examination of everything within the program. Nothing should be off the table in regard to the lineup, playing time, roles, meal times, practice schedule, etc. The loss to DePaul was concerning but it wasn’t reason to panic. A loss of this magnitude makes it fair to question everything and fear the worst.

The Scarlet Knights shot 4 of 26 from three-point range, were outscored 24-22 with points in the paint and had a -13 rebounding margin. Those three stats sum up a historically bad defeat and is why the way they lost is inexcusable. An unwillingness to do what is needed and an inability to recognize that in the moment is extremely troubling for a team as experienced as the coaching staff and veteran players are. They didn’t have to play well to win this game, but their approach was reckless and unwise. The college basketball gods made them pay for it in losing on a dagger three in the closing seconds.

“I think we’re a lot better than this,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said after the loss. “Obviously, we lost two one possession games. I’d like to be 5-0, that’s where I thought we’d be right now. But we’re not there. And there’s nothing you can do about the past. You only can work on what you need to do to get better in the future. We’ll do our film. We’ll keep working. We can get some new guys into the rotation.”

To Pikiell’s credit, he did try different lineups throughout the night. He started Aundre Hyatt over Caleb McConnell. It didn’t work though, as Hyatt had his least productive game of the season and McConnell continued to make poor decisions on the offensive end. He also went with Mawot Mag and Jaden Jones down the stretch, which was an encouraging change. They both should be given more minutes moving forward. Their inexperience showed in the final minutes in taking forced shots from behind the arc as the team looked lost without Geo Baker, who exited the game with about eight minutes to play with an apparent hamstring injury.

“Hopefully Geo is okay,” Pikiell said. “Ron’s back is bothering him too, right now. So hopefully those guys can get healthy for us.”

If Rutgers loses either player or worst case, both of them, for any stretch the rest of the season, they are in big trouble. Aside from the losses, the wear and tear their two most important players have taken through just five games is a huge problem.

There is a desire in times like these to find the smoking gun, to point at one thing as the root cause for the massive decline in the play of Rutgers at the start of this season. The reality is it is always more complicated than it being just one thing.

The absence of Jacob Young and Myles Johnson is the most obvious difference in this team.

Young’s ability to create offense and dribble penetration is sorely missed. While his confidence and assertiveness needed to be kept in check at times, those qualities are missed as well. That being said, I’d argue the loss of Myles Johnson left an even bigger hole. His ability to start the break with outlet passes off of rebounds is greatly missed in what has resulted in an almost non-existent transition game. Defensively, the first thought of a true rim defender is their ability to block and alter shots near the rim. However, the biggest weakness in the Rutgers defense right now is their vulnerability to back door cuts and dribble penetration. Having Johnson clog up the paint rendered opponents useless if they did beat their man to the rim. There is no more security blanket to make up for mistakes on the defensive end with Johnson gone and they are paying dearly for it.

There are other reasons.

The team’s insistent desire to be a three-point shooting team is their Achilles heel.

Pikiell is a defense first coach. That is undeniable and it’s unlikely to change. I believe most of his decisions and perspective come from having that mindset. Defense can win you a lot of games when the offense has an off night, even against good opponents. However, we learned the hard way on Monday night that defense can’t overcome an epically bad offensive performance that included terrible shooting (29% overall) and ill-advised decisions on the offensive end. Their inability to attack a zone this season has been maddening. The coaching staff hasn’t found any answers offensively this season and it seems to be getting worse.

The approach was all wrong in the loss to Lafayette. It doesn’t help that Rutgers was 3 of 10 on layups and 15 of 23 on free throw attempts, but a greater volume on shots in both categories would have probably resulted in a victory on this night against this opponent. Attacking the rim has become an afterthought. Ball movement and good decision making has been absent on the offensive end all season and it caught up to them in a big way on Monday.

“We just got to figure out a way to score some more points,” said Pikiell. “Our defense was more than respectable, holding that team to 53 points. But our offense has to get better. We have to start making some shots. They had 23 turnovers, so we worked hard in the game, obviously, but we were a possession short, a stop short. We just didn’t make shots. And we’ll have nights like that. And we’ll have a stretch here where we make a lot of shots too. I’ll watch the tape again. I thought we did get some good open looks and then we’ll go from there. I didn’t like the rebounding numbers. Because I thought even when we’re missing in the past, we would crash the boards and get second shots. We did a little bit in the second half, but just got to play better. We need more energy.”

Good teams figure out a way to win when things are going wrong and bad one’s don’t. Rutgers is clearly a bad team right now for multiple reasons. Fans have a right to be alarmed with what has transpired so far this season.

There are personnel issues. There are shooting woes. There is undisciplined defense. What concerns me the most though is the lack of identity and passion with this team.

After fighting their entire careers at Rutgers to end a three decade long NCAA Tournament drought, now that they finally did it, the fire they played with has been reduced to a weakened flame flickering in its place. It’s equal parts sad and frustrating. The worst teams of the Pikiell era played harder and with more passion than what this team has shown.

Pikiell has done an incredible job taking this program from the worst at the high major level when he arrived to one that would have qualified for back to back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in 40+ years if not for COVID cancelling March Madness in 2020. They won the program’s first NCAA Tournament game in 38 years. That accomplishment will stand alone forever. However, this season has already spiraled out of control into a bad place in part because his strategy and approach hasn’t worked.

He is a coach who believes in building the confidence of his players and team through positive reinforcement. It has worked for him in the past. It’s why he declared publicly that this was his best team at Rutgers before the season and said it was the best group at the five spot they’ve had as well. In hindsight, it was a tell that things weren’t right and ultimately was a massive overreach about the state of this team. Pikiell was pumping up a team he knew needed it, which is a red flag in its own right, and it backfired.

It’s easy to say now, but that was a big mistake. This current team, even with a core group that has won before, didn’t deserve such praise without accomplishing anything yet this season. And they have played like a team looking to be handed wins by their inferior opponents rather than fighting their way through the mud to achieve victory. In a word I hate to use but is accurate in how they’ve competed so far this season, this team is playing soft. Even so, these student-athletes don’t deserve to be booed the way they were last night.

Pikiell will obviously be challenging this team behind closed doors, but raising expectations publicly actually put more pressure on them as opposed to giving them more confidence. And now fans are left to wonder what is going on.

“It’s on me as the coach and I’m fully aware of that,” Pikiell said after the loss. “And I stand by that I like this team a lot. I really do. I like these guys. We got to figure it out. We got to get better.”

Pikiell is a class act and rarely has ever challenged his team publicly. No one is taking the start to this season and this loss harder than Pikiell. In regard to those questioning him as the right coach at Rutgers in the long term, five games of a season doesn’t erase the proven success he has achieved here. Pikiell made Rutgers into a winner doing it his way, all while he was criticized and doubted throughout the entire process. I’ve written before that he has always had a plan for every aspect of the program and when it doesn’t work, he has back up plans for backup plans. He will always be questioned by some no matter what, but for most of us who have lived through the actual dark days of this program, we know Pikiell is the right coach for Rutgers.

The immediate concern is can he find the right answers needed to fix the problems on this current team?

Wins and losses aside, the pride of this program is on the line now. Soul searching is needed. Hard evaluations must occur. The leaders need to step up. Nothing should be off the table in regard to attempting to find solutions.

The good news is there is a lot of season left and Rutgers has plenty of opportunities on the schedule to achieve many quality wins.

The bad news is the schedule is ramping up quickly and Rutgers is not playing at a level that will lead to much success in the immediate future.