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Easy baskets hard to come by for Rutgers

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The lack of execution in transition is causing major problems for Rutgers on both ends of the court.

Clemson v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rutgers is coming off a 35 point loss in the Big Ten opener against Illinois and are now preparing to host No. 1 Purdue on Thursday night. The embarrassing blowout to the Illini tied for the largest margin of defeat in Steve Pikiell’s six seasons on the banks. The other was to the Boilermakers in the 2018-2019 season.

While the effort was disturbingly lacking on both ends of the floor, shooting remained poor and closing out on shooters remained a problem, one issue that stuck out as a season long trend that is developing.

The Scarlet Knights aren’t getting enough easy baskets. They aren’t shooting well overall this season, but a big part of it is shot selection and an inability to attack the rim. This is a multi-tiered issue.

It starts with a lack of transition game. Those opportunities are categorized as the first ten seconds of a possession, whether it’s off a rebound, a steal or a shot made by the opponent.

This season, Rutgers is averaging just 9.4 points in transition and 2-2 when scoring double digits. Last season, they averaged 13.9 points in transition and were 13-6 when scoring in double digits off the break. They achieved double digit scoring in transition in 67.9% of their games last season, but have only done so four times in eight games (50%) so far this season.

The surprising thing is it’s not for a lack of trying. Per Hoop-Math, the percentage of initial shot attempts on the offensive end coming in transition for the Scarlet Knights is 30.0% of their total possessions. That’s actually a slight increase from 29.0% last season.

Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) measures how successful teams are shooting from the field. It gives a more thorough calculation of game situations compared to straight field goal percentages because three point shots are given extra weight. Rutgers has an eFG% of just 44.4% in transition opportunities this season compared to 56.6% last season. That is a huge swing the wrong way and causing a lot of problems.

The issue is the shots Rutgers is taking in transition, not the amount of opportunities they are getting. Despite missing layups in key spots this season, RU is actually shooting 67.3% at the rim in transition opportunities. That is 4.1% better than last season. However, they are only taking 41.6% of total shots in transition at the rim compared to 51.5% last season.

It’s a two-fold issue. Rutgers is taking 10% more jumpers from two-point and three-point range in transition compared to last season, but also shooting far worse from those distances. RU shot 44.0% on jumpers from two-point range and 35.2% from three-point range in transition last season. This season, the Scarlet Knights are making just 29.4% of jump shots in two-point range and 17.9% shots from three-point range. Huge declines and although it is early, the strength of schedule has been far easier with Big Ten play just getting underway. It’s only going to get harder.

The absence of Myles Johnson, Jacob Young and Montez Mathis are certainly part of the problem in this team’s transition game. I can’t statistically prove this next factor, but Rutgers is likely starting their transition opportunities farther away from the midcourt line compared to last season. Essentially, they are starting possessions with worse field position than in the past.

Myles Johnson’s ability to make outlet passes off of rebounds was a huge positive in the transition game. Without him this season, Rutgers is likely dribbling more in transition and starting farther back on the break. On transition opportunities off of rebounds, Rutgers is taking 38.8% of its shots at the rim compared to 43.1% this season.

They are failing to take advantage of transition opportunities off of rebounds by not attacking the rim enough. Part of it is that is likely because the defense is getting back more effectively due to shorter passes to start the break and RU is settling for more jumpers because there are less lanes to drive.

Decision making is part of it as well. Young and Mathis had the ability to get up court quickly and attack off the dribble. This season, Rutgers is pulling up for jumpers much more so. On transition opportunities off of steals last season, RU took shots at the rim 78.6% of the time. This season is only 36.4%. That’s a huge change that is only hurting the Scarlet Knights. Steals are the best chance to score at the rim in transition and Rutgers isn’t taking advantage of it. There hasn’t been much of a drop-off in actual chances either, because the current steal rate for Rutgers is 10.9%, just below last season’s 11.1% steal rate.

Young and Mathis could also drive you crazy in losing control on transition opportunities. Rutgers has a turnover rate 1.5% lower this season and that is a big reason why. They weren’t perfect players, but they knew when to attack the rim and had the speed and mindset to do it.

This team is settling for jumpers far too often and not attacking the rim. They’re getting about the same opportunities to score in transition, but they’re playing too slow and settling for low percentage shots. It’s not just about foot speed or quickness. Too much dribbling and not enough passing in transition is a problem too.

This approach has been a major factor in one possession losses to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass and was a key reason why the game got out of hand against Illinois. It wasn’t the only issue in those defeats, but if Rutgers simply had a smarter, more focused offensive approach, they would have likely avoided those three upsets and given the Illini a much tougher game.

In asking Steve Pikiell about scoring just 3 points in transition against Illinois, which was also the case in the loss to DePaul, he said, “I think that was really important for us in this game. We just overdribbled in the first half. We got ourselves into a big hole and you can’t get yourself into a hole in this league. Our offense didn’t help us in the first half and the shots we did get the good clean ones we didn’t finish. Our defense couldn’t keep us hanging around and then we came out in the second half and scored some points, but we couldn’t get stops. On both ends of the floor we have to do a better job. We have to limit our dribbles. I am counting on our veteran guys to help our young guys while these young guys are figuring it out a little bit.”

The issue with overdribbling is not just negatively effecting shot selection, its resulting in playing in a slower tempo. Pikiell’s teams are never going to play at a run and gun pace, but their slowdown in the halfcourt puts more pressure on making jump shots. At 66.0% this season, Rutgers ranks 301st in adjusted tempo compared to 67.4%, which ranked 214th last season. It’s part of why RU has an eFG% overall at just 43.5% (320th) compared to 50.1% (168th) last season. There is still three-quarters of the season to play, but these trends are troubling.

Another issue in the lack of transition scoring and inability to attack the rim is that Rutgers isn’t getting to the free throw line enough. When they scored just one basket each in transition in losses to Illinois and DePaul, the Scarlet Knights also had their lowest free throw rates of the season. They got to the line just 9.5% of the time against DePaul, attempting just 6 free throw attempts. Against Illinois, it was only 5.9% for four free throw attempts.

Pikiell stated after the loss to the Illini, “We went to the free throw line four times and I was begging our guys to get to the rim and be tough. We need a secondary way to score, but our defense gave up way too many points. It was active for 10 percent of the game.”

Therein lies the bigger problem.

After the loss to Illinois, Pikiell said, “I am concerned where our defense is too. If we can’t score than they can’t score. That has always been our motto.”

Rutgers is heavily dependent on being an elite defensive team in order to be successful. They have never been an above average offensive team under Pikiell, but the past two seasons they were an elite defensive team. RU was 6th and 16th nationally in defensive efficiency the past two seasons at 90.2 and 90.6 respectively. This season, the Scarlet Knights are still an above average defensive team at 95.4, 60th nationally, but the decline is magnified more so due to a steep step back offensively. After having an offensive efficiency of 107.9 (72nd) and 108.1 (82nd) the past two seasons, Rutgers is 102.7 (147th) this season.

The offensive woes are not just a matter of shooting poorly. They can also be attributed to a lack of getting to the rim and scoring in transition. It’s putting too much pressure on the defense, which is not being executed at as high a level as in the past. It’s a perfect storm that has resulted in Rutgers falling to No. 100 in KenPom and opening at No. 217 in the first NET rankings of the season.

Pikiell admitted after Illinois that the lack of offensive success is sabotaging the rest of their play.

“It’s been kind of a theme with this group. When you are focused on that (offense), you aren’t focused on 90 percent of the other things that you can do,” Pikiell said. “It’s been an issue and we’ll continue to address it. Shots are an important part of the game, but there is 90 percent of other parts of the game that you can do right. It did affect us on defense that’s for sure. We got some early layups that we missed. We let it affect every area of our play today. When you play a good team like them on the road, obviously you can’t have nights like this.”

Defense will always be the priority for Pikiell’s teams. The lack of motion and ball movement within the halfcourt offense, as well as running specific plays or the lack of execution of them, are valid concerns that have heightened this season due a lack of efficiency and scoring. The offensive woes have put more pressure on the defense and they’re failing each other right now. Failing to score in transition is putting the defense back on its heels more often. It’s a cyclical problem that all starts around Rutgers’ inability to score easy baskets near the rim.