Rutgers suffered a hard fought loss to no. 3 Michigan on Thursday night 71-64. It was a frustrating defeat as the Scarlet Knights had four players score in double digits, committed just 3 turnovers, the fewest ever in a game since joining the Big Ten, and held a 15-2 scoring advantage off of turnovers. However, Michigan was +13 on the glass and held a 18-5 advantage on second chance points despite only grabbing one more offensive rebound than Rutgers. The Wolverines also made three more shots from behind the arc (40%) and were 17 of 23 for 74% from the foul line compared to Rutgers making just 11 of 18 attempts (61%).
The positive was that despite falling behind by 17 points in the second half, RU defended extremely well after that point and were able to cut the deficit to single digits at the end of the game. Moral victories aren’t something to celebrate, but the takeaway is that Rutgers should believe they can play with anyone after this loss. It wasn’t a good shooting or rebounding night, but they never went away or fell apart in this game, something that wasn’t the case during the five game losing streak a month ago.
“We played a really good basketball team tonight,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “I thought we played hard. We outscored them in the second half. We have to make shots in a game like this, I thought we had the opportunities. Tip of the hat to Michigan, they are for real. I thought our effort was great, we played hard from start to finish, just have to make some more shots in a game like that.”
Of Michigan’s fifteen victories this season, Thursday’s was just its third by single digits.
The focus should now be all about the final home stand of the season. Rutgers hosts Maryland on Sunday, followed by Indiana coming to the RAC next Wednesday. The Scarlet Knights will be favored in both. All three teams are currently neck and neck in the Big Ten standings between 7th and 9th place.
This is the two game set that Rutgers fans have waited years for and sadly, no one is able to attend due to COVID-19. Even so, win these two games and this team is essentially playing for NCAA Tournament seeding in the final two games of the regular season, which are on the road against Nebraska and Minnesota, as well as in the Big Ten Tournament. Lose one and win at Nebraska, the same pretty much applies, just that the seeding ceiling lowers a bit. Lose both and the pressure will push fans to the brink of panic and it will be hard to blame them. However, it would be surprising for that to happen.
Another takeaway from the loss to Michigan is that Rutgers stuck together and represented themselves like a solid, middle of the pack Big Ten team that deserves an NCAA Tournament bid. It’s fair for the fear of another multiple game slide like the five game losing streak in January to remain in the minds of fans. However, Rutgers has been very consistent since ending that streak on the defensive end and while making shots will never be a sure thing with this team, their offensive approach is much better than it was during that stretch.
Rutgers beat Maryland easily on December 14 during the hot start to the season by the final score of 74-60. While the Terps have now won three in a row to put themselves back on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, some context is needed. All three victories took place in the last week at home and were against Minnesota, who is winless on the road, and back to back games against Nebraska on consecutive days due to previous postponement with COVID-19, a team that has just one Big Ten win. Maryland is a perimeter oriented team that Rutgers matches up well against. The Terps are not a strong offensive rebounding team and they don’t get to the line often nor convert at a high rate once they get there. It certainly won’t be an easy game, especially with the quick turnaround time for the Scarlet Knights after Thursday’s loss to Michigan, but it’s one they should win against an opponent they’ve beaten twice in a row.
Indiana has won three of four including a season sweep of Iowa, a double overtime road win against Northwestern and a win against Minnesota at home. They’ll host Michigan State this weekend ahead of next Wednesday’s matchup against Rutgers. The Hoosiers have the best free throw rate in Big Ten play but are not a particularly dangerous offensive team other than big man Trayce Jackson-Davis, who was contained in the first meeting. They are a bottom half defensive team in the Big Ten and it will be senior night for Rutgers. Again, another game that Pikiell’s team should win and they enter this contesthaving beaten Indiana four of the past five meetings.
One common weakness of Maryland and Indiana that could help get the Rutgers offense going is that they are allowing the two highest opponent three-point shooting percentages in Big Ten play at 35.4% and 36.4% respectively. On the flip side, the Scarlet Knights are 10th in three-point shooting percentage in league action at 32.3%. However, Rutgers has only shot better than 35% in just three of the past eleven games. Over the past three games, RU is just 13 of 59 for 22.0%. That being said, Rutgers was 9 of 19 for 47.4% back in mid-December against the Terps and the win over the Hoosiers was one of the three times of late they shot well from three, making 8 of 22 for 36.4%. Playing at home against two opponents they’ve already beaten and have also shot well against previously, along with a legitimate chance to sure up an NCAA bid, gives hope they can do it again. Of course, it’s the other end of the court that will always define this team and is the main reason they are in the position they are in.
“Our defense gave us a chance, but our offense just didn’t do enough,” Pikiell said. “We fought from start to finish against arguably the best team in the country. I’m proud of our guys for continuing to fight. We’ll move on here quickly. We have four more huge games coming up in this league. Every team in this league is really good, so we’ll get back and start preparing for the next one.”
Rutgers will hold its biggest home stand in years with no fans in the midst of a three game stretch over a span of just six days. Despite the loss to Michigan, the Scarlet Knights moved up one spot to 25 in KenPom, which also now projects them to win the last four games of the regular season. Five of the eight losses this season have come against teams ranked in the top 5 of KenPom and a sixth came against no. 15 Wisconsin. RU currently has played the 3rd most difficult schedule in the country per KenPom.
Rutgers holds its fate in its own hands and after a rocky three game losing streak at the RAC last month in Big Ten play, they’ve won three straight at home and are 5-3 overall in league action on the banks. Finishing strong is a must and while it won’t be easy, this team is as battle tested as any in the country. Everything they worked for is in front of them and there for the taking. Now is time for Rutgers to seize the day and end the 30 year NCAA Tournament drought. Having a chance to do it at home, even without fans, is something to appreciate.