Wednesday night’s 79-66 loss to Iowa was a frustrating one for Rutgers, who were swept in the season series by the Hawkeyes. They were off balance all night, starting with Myles Johnson exiting with two fouls just 70 seconds into the game. Backup center Cliff Omoruyi, who played well in extended minutes, picked up two fouls soon after. It resulted in the Scarlet Knights deviating from the game plan and falling into a trap laid by Iowa.
Head coach Steve Pikiell said “We took way too may threes. That’s on me to make sure we play better and make sure we execute the game plan.” Pikiell continued, “We had some chances, you just can’t take that many threes. We got beat rebounding wise and at the free throw line. Those are two areas we talked about before the game with this team.”
Geo Baker, who led Rutgers with 11 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds, added “We didn’t want to get into a shootout and that’s what happened. I think we played really hard today. The effort was there.”
That should be the biggest takeaway in Wednesday’s loss.
In losses to Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State on the road, Rutgers didn’t handle adversity well and lacked fight. Whether it was Myles Johnson getting into early foul trouble or shots not falling, both of which happened in this game, the Scarlet Knights played without an edge for large parts of the game. The body language was bad and so was the effort at times. It wasn’t until the last ten minutes of the loss at Penn State that Rutgers seemed to say enough was enough, finally pulling themselves off the mat. With Baker and Paul Mulcahy running the offense, they were able to cut an 18 point deficit all the way down to 4. It wasn’t enough that night, but Rutgers responded by winning four straight games.
Despite losing on Wednesday after playing from behind the entire game, the Scarlet Knights never surrendered at any point in the game. That’s what made the losing streak so disheartening, but the flip side is why there is reason to be encouraged after Wednesday’s defeat.
“We fight. They stuck together,” Pikiell said. “Everyone seemed to be in foul trouble at some point. We had to go deep into our bench. I liked the way guys responded. I liked the way they kept fighting through all the different obstacles. We had a lot of things going on today, but we continued to play hard. That’s a good sign. We just had to keep grinding. I liked our effort a ton.”
At the end of the day, it came down to three-point shooting. Iowa made 11 of 23 attempts for 47.8%, while Rutgers started 1 of 18 and finished 6 of 28 for 21.4%.
“I felt like we had a lot of really good looks,” Baker said. “Then you start thinking about it and hesitating, and taking a worse shot. That’s how the shootout started. When you get into a shootout with a team like Iowa it’s not a recipe for success.”
Simply put, Rutgers took the bait that the Hawkeyes set and they could never get out of that hole. Iowa has not defended teams well this season from three-point range, but head coach Fran McCaffery seemed content on daring the Scarlet Knights to beat them solely from the three-point line and it worked.
Aside from the shooting struggles, Rutgers got beat because of the way they performed defensively and on the glass. They held Iowa to 8 points below its season scoring average and 43.3% shooting overall, but those numbers are deceiving. The Scarlet Knights allowed the highest offensive efficiency rating of any opponent they’ve played all season. A recipe for success has been forcing turnovers with steals, but Rutgers only had 6 swipes and Iowa only had 10 turnovers, resulting in the 4th lowest defensive turnover rate of the season. The aforementioned 11 threes that Iowa made were the most Rutgers has given up so far this season as well.
Pikiell said, “You get behind against a really good offensive team like this and they make 11 threes, our defense has to be better. We needed to keep this game in the sixties. That was our goal and we didn’t (do it).”
The officiating and early foul trouble was certainly frustrating and a factor, but Rutgers can’t use that as an excuse to getting away from what they do best.
“One of our keys coming in was to defend without fouling. Right away Myles (Johnson) gets two and Cliff (Omoruyi) gets two right after,” Baker said. “We’ve faced a lot of adversity in this league in the four years I’ve been here; you’ve got to fight through it. Sometimes we get emotional, too. We’ve got to be able to handle the adversity a little bit better.”
While Rutgers never stopped fighting, they got too far away from what made them so difficult to play against during the recent four game winning streak. They were getting to the free throw line at a rate of 37.5% and were converting once they got there, making 70% on an average of 18 attempts per contest. In Wednesday’s loss, Rutgers had a free throw rate of just 9.4% and only took 6 free throws, making 4.
“We could have made it interesting. We needed some timely baskets, we didn’t seem to get those,” Pikiell said. “We needed to get to the free-throw line to kind of set up our defenses and never really got a chance to do that either.”
Baker put it best by saying, “Everyone wanted to win the game, we just didn’t play smart enough.”
After the first loss to Iowa in early January, Rutgers seemed to let the disappointment linger and it snowballed into five straight defeats. There should be hope that this team has learned from that stretch and won’t allow it to happen again. With Northwestern coming to the RAC on Saturday and bringing a 10 game losing streak with them, the Scarlet Knights will have a great opportunity to get back on track.
“We are in good spirits right now,” Baker said. “We are locked in. One game does not make or break our season. We got a lot of games left so we have to keep fighting and continue towards our goals.”
With Rutgers at 7-7 in Big Ten play and 11-7 overall, they are still firmly on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. With a KenPom rating of 27 and a NET ranking of 28, the Scarlet Knights just have to win the games they should down the stretch. They have three home games with teams they’ve already beaten on the road in Northwestern, Maryland and Indiana. A road trip to last place Nebraska is on the schedule as well. If Rutgers continues to stick together, ending the 30 year NCAA Tournament drought will be the end result.