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Five positive trends for Rutgers basketball

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The Scarlet Knights have won three in a row and here are several reasons why.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers won its third consecutive Big Ten game on Sunday for just the third time since joining the conference in the 2014-2015 season. They also won its third conference road win of the season, which ties the program high since joining the Big Ten and is just the third time Rutgers has accomplished that feat over the past sixteen seasons.

At 10-6 overall and 6-6 in Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights sit alone in seventh place of the league standings. Rutgers is a game and a half ahead of eight place Indiana (9-7; 4-5), who they own the tiebreak against and are a game and a half behind a fifth place tie between Wisconsin (13-5; 7-4), who they lost to and Purdue (12-6; 7-4), whom they beat.

With eight games to go and Rutgers in good position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years, here are five positive trends that have emerged during the three game winning streak.

Elite Defensive Play

After Rutgers saw its defensive efficiency rating fall to 41st nationally after the second loss of the season to Ohio State five games ago, the defense has been on a steady climb upward ever since. RU now has the 10th best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball, one season removed from finishing 6th nationally. Their improvement has culminated with the past two games, as Rutgers held Michigan State and Northwestern to their lowest offensive efficiency rating of the season.

It is also the two best defensive performances that Rutgers has produced in Big Ten play from an efficiency standpoint this season. They forced a combined 41 turnovers and held the Spartans and Wildcats to a combined 34.6% shooting, including 8 of 40 (20%) from three-point range. The Scarlet Knights allowed just 93 points combined against MSU and Northwestern, the lowest total the program has allowed in consecutive conference games since the 1982 season when they held George Washington and UMASS to 85 points combined as a member of the Eastern Athletic Association.

The recipe for success for Rutgers is simple, it starts and ends with its defense. When they play to their potential, which is an elite level, they can win any game. The Scarlet Knights have the best defensive turnover rate, block rate and steal rate in Big Ten play. It’s helped on the offensive end as well. as Rutgers holds a 66-36 advantage in points off of turnovers during the three winning streak.

“Our guys grinded out a Big Ten win on the road. I’m proud of them,” head coach Steve Pikiell said after Sunday’s victory. “Our defense keeps improving. We figured out a way to win in an old fashioned Rutgers win with our defense. We made some timely shots. Everybody contributed. I really liked our bench, we got a lot of contributions. We held them 0-for-8 from three-point in the second half and that was a big reason we were able to get a win on the road.”

Fast Starts

During this current three game winning streak, Rutgers has outscored foes by a combined 67-32 in the first ten minutes of the first half. The Scarlet Knights have won the three games by a combined 42 points, so essentially they’ve been won early on. The fast starts have been key in setting the tone and establishing control of the game. In the past two wins over Michigan State and Northwestern, Rutgers went wire to wire never trailing. It’s unrealistic that they can continue to start fast in every game, but if the Scarlet Knights can do so more times than not, it will be a good sign down the stretch of this season.

Geo & Paul At The Wheel

A major reason for the turnaround the past three games is due to the changes Steve Pikiell made to the starting lineup. He inserted glue guys in Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy to surround Geo Baker, who Pikiell made the primary ball handler. It’s a big reason why Rutgers has played better offensively throughout the game, as well as being able to jump out to leads early in games.

It resulted in Rutgers having two of its most efficient games on the offensive end this season in wins against Indiana and Michigan State. While Rutgers had one of its least efficient games in the win over Northwestern due to an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers, the positive was that they shot 18 of 25 from two-point range for 72%. Point being, the offense has improved shot selection.

Geo Baker is averaging 14.0 points on 50% shooting, as well as 4.0 assists, and 2.0 steals during the three game winning streak. It’s his best stretch of games all season after battling a high ankle sprain earlier on. His steady hand has brought calm to the offense and generated much needed ball movement. When Rutgers shares the basketball, they are tough to slow down and it has started with Baker.

Paul Mulcahy is the perfect compliment to Geo as he doesn’t require a lot of shots to be productive or active. Sunday’s game was different in that Mulcahy started with the ball in his hands and he immediately helped Rutgers establish themselves down in the low post. It also allowed Baker to move without the ball and and he was able to knock down two shots from behind the arc early on while Mulcahy ran the offense.

Mulcahy finished with a game high 5 assists and kept the offense moving. He also has improved defensively and swiped a team high 3 steals on Sunday, including one late in the game that helped keep Northwestern at bay. Mulcahy is averaging 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game to go along with his 4.3 points per game average during the the past three contests.

“Playing with Paul, his IQ is off the charts; probably the best passer I’ve ever played with,” Baker said after win over Northwestern. “He’s always talking and he always wants to win. Me and Paul go at it a lot in practice. If you watch our practices, me and Paul don’t like each other at all, but in the game we’re so in sync.”

With Baker and Mulcahy controlling the offense more so now, you are seeing things run more like coach Pikiell wants it run. While Jacob Young and Montez Mathis have done a very good job contributing off the bench, it’s refocused them as well and made them play more within the game plan. All in all, Rutgers isn’t going to wow you with a complex offense, but the key is being disciplined in running their sets and making the extra pass to get high percentage looks. That is happening since the changes were made and hopefully it continues.

Rebounding

Rutgers has had a positive rebounding margin in all three recent victories, which is an area that was a major weakness during the five game losing streak. The key is that the Scarlet Knights are back to getting a balanced attack on the glass. Four players have grabbed at least three or more rebounds during each game during the win streak. While Myles Johnson has been dominant on the glass, Ron Harper Jr. has been a more consistent rebounder. Caleb McConnell has too and he, Baker and Mulcahy each have a five rebound game during the win streak. If Cliff Omoruyi can become more involved rebounding wise, they’ll be even more dangerous. When Rutgers is engaged as a team in crashing the boards, they become more efficient on both ends of the floor.

Free Throw Rate

The past three games, Rutgers has had an average free throw rate of 33%, which is how often they get to the foul line per possession. That is 6% higher than its average in Big Ten play this season, which ranks only 12th in the conference overall. Sunday’s free throw rate of 46.8% against Northwestern was the second highest for RU in Big Ten play this season. Of course, focus was an issue in allowing the Wildcats back in the game after leading by 20 points and that was reflected at the line, as RU made only 13 of 22 attempts (59.1%).

Pikiell had lamented during the losing streak that Rutgers wasn’t just missing foul shots, they were having trouble getting there. While Rutgers just isn’t going to be a consistently good team from the charity stripe, they are 35 of 51 for 68.6% over the past three games. That is a 10% improvement over how Rutgers has been shooting from the foul line this season. If they can sustain or come close to that level of improvement the rest of the way, it will make a big difference. However, being aggressive in attacking the rim and getting to the foul line is a big part of it as well.