The loss to Seton Hall on Sunday encapsulated the reasons Rutgers finds itself staring up a steep hill in hopes of climbing back into NCAA Tournament contention. Inefficient offense, streaky defense and and a lack of urgency on the glass sunk any chances of beating the Pirates on the road.
“Much respect to Seton Hall and how they played tonight,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “They are a really good basketball team. I thought we didn’t get off to a good start and you need to in a game like this. Too many turnovers in the first half, they out-rebounded us which really hurt us. I thought we had a little momentum there in the second half. I thought we played Rutgers basketball for about eight minutes there, but just not enough. The crowd was tremendous. We have to get better, we have a tough schedule coming up and we have to play better against a good team like Seton Hall.”
A big problem with the offense was that Seton Hall exhibited ball pressure right past the halfcourt line and forced Rutgers to start their offensive sets too far away from the three-point line. The Hall was hedging into passing lanes and RU mostly ended up making short passes or handoffs moving south of the rim. This pressure can be countered with effective dribble penetration but other than Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell doing so on occasion, the Scarlet Knights were taken out of their offense.
Rutgers gave up on ball movement and countered with iso-plays, which made it much harder to score due to many opportunities coming on contested shots. Entering this game, Rutgers was 11th nationally with a 62.7% assist to field goal ratio. Against Seton Hall, they assisted on just 8 of 23 made field goals (34.8%).
On the flip side, the smaller, quicker guards of Seton Hall were able to break down the Rutgers defense with dribble penetration. Kadary Richmond was able to create offensively in the first half, particularly when the Pirates delivered a game changing 14-0 run after the score was tied at 23-23. Bryce Aiken was effective all night off the bounce but also burned RU with some long distance threes and tough makes near the rim.
Jared Rhoden struggled in the first half due to tremendous defense by McConnell but in the second half he was able to get going by getting into the lane with pull-up jumpers. The Pirates best player scored 14 second half points along with Aiken doing the same. Their best best players stepped up and that didn’t happen for Rutgers.
There is no doubt that SHU hit some extremely difficult contested shots in this game and none that Rutgers took seemed to go in. But the Scarlet Knights were just 12 of 21 on layups and dunks. That’s not good enough to win this game or many others.
Rutgers was unable to counterpunch hard enough. While they cut the Pirates lead to six points on three occasions, they were unable to get closer as the home team countered with runs each time to put the margin back to double digits.
“You know we just never seemed to get that stop,” said Pikiell. “There was that long possession there where the ball kept getting tipped out of bounds. But we just didn’t play well. You’ve got to play well when they have a good basketball team. Aiken you give him the tip of the hat. He came in and he made some huge plays. I really thought the offensive rebounding by them was big. Our first shot defense was good enough, but they had those second shots and our turnovers. We talked a lot this week about how handsy they are and we just didn’t do a good job of taking care of the basketball.”
Ron Harper Jr. was contained all night and held to 10 points on 3 of 12 shooting. However, more troubling was that the best rebounder on the team was held to just 2 boards. Seton Hall took him out of the game as Myles Cale never let him get going. However, Harper Jr. didn’t crash the boards the way RU needed him to either.
While the Scarlet Knights were much better on the glass in the second half, the damage was done in the first half and it was too much to overcome. Seton Hall held a 9-2 advantage on offensive rebounds and it resulted in a 11-2 edge in second chance points in the opening frame. They did flip the script and hold a 11-2 edge in second chance points in the second half, but still finished with a -5 rebounding margin for the game. There was a point early in the second half when the only player on Rutgers to have more than two rebounds was Caleb McConnell. The effort was there down the stretch but it was too late.
Transition offense continued to be a chore for the Scarlet Knights, as Seton Hall held a 13-7 advantage in fast break points. Easy baskets remain hard to come by.
McConnell played really well and finished with 13 points on 4 of 8 shooting, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. His energy and effort was where the entire team needed to be in this game but his teammates couldn’t match him. Cliff Omoruyi had a big second half and competed hard, finishing with 13 points and 6 rebounds. He was able to exert his will down low and his athleticism was able to cause Seton Hall problems in the paint. Mawot Mag brought energy for stretches and once again showed promise with 8 points on 4 of 9 shooting and 4 boards. He did leave in the final minute limping off while clutching his knee. Hopefully, it is nothing serious because he has become an important piece of the puzzle.
Geo Baker played for the first time in three weeks due to a hamstring injury and two days after having an 103 degree fever. He did score 9 second half points but was just 1 of 6 from three-point range. It’s clear he wasn’t 100% and while his return is key to this team improving, he wasn’t good enough to make a difference on Sunday night. Paul Mulcahy really struggled and was physically overmatched, playing just 16 minutes, finishing with just 1 point and 0 assists.
“As you can see the environment was unbelievable,” said Pikiell. “I think it’s a great game for New Jersey. I don’t care who the coach is I think we should play this game every year. I am thankful that Kevin (Williard) played it, but I wish we played better.”
In a rivalry game such as this, you can’t have as many lapses in multiple areas the way Rutgers did. Seton Hall kept coming and their athleticism was too much for Rutgers to handle. They played at a different speed and the difference between the two teams was obvious. RU never quit and cutting the lead to six points with six minutes to play gave hope at the time. However, they dug too deep of a hole to get out of and it dropped the Scarlet Knights to 5-5 on the season. With three non-conference games left against Rider (Dec. 18), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 23) and Maine (Dec. 29) before Big Ten play resumes against Michigan at home on January 4th, Rutgers has a lot of work to do in hopes of salvaging the season.