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Rutgers shoots away at offensive identity

Too many threes and getting away from what they do best was a big reason for the loss to Maryland. Can they correct the problem before its too late?

Maryland v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Sunday’s loss to Maryland was the worst of the season for a few reasons. It was the most important game so far due to the potential to move one step closer to earning an NCAA Tournament bid. It was against a team that they beat on the road and while the Terps have gotten better since the first meeting in December, Rutgers matches up well personnel wise. And it came three days after they hung with the best team in the Big Ten in a single digit loss on the road without playing its best basketball. Despite all of that, Rutgers turned in a miserable offensive performance on Sunday and also looked miserable doing it.

Head coach Steve Pikiell said after the game, “I didn’t like our offense and our defense and it’s on coach Pikiell. I didn’t have them where they needed to be today and it’s 100% on me. There was nothing that we did well today. Again, that’s on me.”

Pikiell is right. Rutgers lost in a way that made it much worse than just the outcome and that is completely on the head coach. It wasn’t an effort thing. Rutgers didn’t play smart and that’s what ultimately cost them.

It was very obvious during the first six minutes of the game that getting to the rim as a team and making Myles Johnson a focal point was a big part of the game plan, as it should have been. He dominated Maryland in the first meeting, scoring 10 points on 4 of 4 shooting while grabbing 16 rebounds and 3 blocks. The Terps have no true big man to contend with Johnson and that wasn’t any different on Sunday. Rutgers made him a priority at the start of this game and unsurprisingly, the offense was productive.

Two of the first three possessions of the game ended in baskets made by.....Myles Johnson. Soon after, Johnson assisted on a dunk by Geo Baker. After Johnson got the defensive rebound on the other end of the court, Geo made a three-pointer. After focusing on the interior the first four minutes of the game, Rutgers took its first shot from behind the arc and it was a good look that went in.

However, the floodgates opened. The Scarlet Knights got overzealous after the first three went in and took shots from behind the arc on the next three possessions. Harper Jr. missed one, but RU made the next after Johnson grabbed the defensive rebound and got the ball to Mulcahy, who found Young for a good look from deep that went in. Rutgers led 12-8 at the 14:12 mark of the first half and were in command of the game. On the next possession, Young shot another three but missed and then on the dead ball, Johnson was subbed out. He started the game with 4 points and 2 rebounds while being a focus within the offense. Johnson wouldn’t score again the rest of the game and only got two more shots in 18 more minutes played, including zero in the second half.

Rutgers was 5 of 8 from the floor, including 2 of 4 from three-point range at this stage of the game, but it was the next five possessions that sums up the rest of the story.

Jacob Young scored on a mid-range jumper in the paint, followed by three consecutive one shot possessions that were misses from behind the arc (Young, McConnell, Montez Mathis), followed by Mathis hitting a jumper in the paint. That was the first made field goal in four minutes, but Rutgers didn’t recognize they were trending the wrong way. RU was 5 of 6 from two-point range at this point, but just 2 of 7 from three-point range. The score was tied at 16 but the game was about to turn because Rutgers didn’t adjust back to the game plan well enough.

Maryland closed out the half on a 12-4 run as the Scarlet Knights struggled from the floor, making just 1 of 10 shots in the final 8:42 of the opening frame. They missed all four three-point attempts and while they were just 1 of 6 from two-point range, three were layups and another was a shot by Johnson near the rim. However, you can live with the two-point misses because Rutgers is a good shooting team from inside the arc, even though they miss layups at times. Missing shots in the paint is not a reason to abandon going inside and attacking the rim. However, missing shots from behind the arc at a high clip is a reason to adjust.

In the first half, Rutgers was 6 of 12 from two-point range, despite the 1 of 6 finish, but were only 2 of 11 from three-point range, scoring just 20 points. Shooting almost half of its shots from behind the arc was most certainly not the game plan. It was a better spread in the second half, as Rutgers was 10 of 21 from two-point range and 3 of 11 from three-point range, scoring 39 points. While that first half shot allocation percentage is not normal, it was an issue in this game and managing where shots come from has been a problem for Rutgers this season.

Overall this season, RU is shooting 51.9% from two-point range, ranking 89th nationally, and in Big Ten play are shooting 49.6% from inside the arc, which is 7th in the conference. On the flip side, Rutgers is shooting 31.8% from three-point range for 263rd nationally and are 11th at 31.6% in Big Ten play.

Looking deeper, the disparity between the accuracy from two-point range and three-point range since this team lost by one possession to Iowa to begin the new year is far greater.

In the first nine games of the season in which RU was 7-2, they made 202 of 372 shots for 54.3% from two-point range, averaging 41.3 shot attempts per game. They also made an incredible 68 of 173 shots for 39.3% from three-point range, averaging 19.2 shot attempts per game.

In the last 12 games in which Rutgers is 5-7, they are 239 of 472 from two-point range for 50.6%. That’s an average of 39.3 shots per contest. From three-point range, they are just 59 of 227 for 26% with an average of 18.9 shots per game.

The issue is that Rutgers hasn’t adjusted it’s shot allocation since the slump from behind the arc began. During the first nine games, 31.7% of the total shots Rutgers took were from three-point range. In the past twelve games, RU is taking 32.5% of its total shots from three-point range, a slight increase despite a sharp decline in accuracy.

Looking at Sunday specifically, Rutgers was 16 of 33 from two-point range for 48.4% shooting and just 5 of 22 from three-point range for 22.7%. Rutgers took 40% of its total shots from behind the arc, which is significantly more than they average this season. That’s way too high and due to making so few in the first half, it derailed the offense. They had made just 2 of 14 threes in the game with just over 12 minutes remaining, including 0 of 10 during a span of 20 minutes spread over both halves in which Rutgers only scored 12 points. You aren’t going to beat many teams with such an inefficient offense.

In asking coach Pikiell about Rutgers taking 11 of 23 first half shots from behind the arc and whether that was part of the game plan, he answered “It’s never a part of our game plan. We want to drive it and we want to get to the free throw line and when we do those things, we are a better basketball team. We got some good looks too. We need to make a few of them and I have confidence that our guys can. They just weren’t (making them) today and Maryland did a good job of staying in front of us and doing a good job of keeping us out of the lane.”

The players not following the game plan is 100% the fault of the head coach. Credit Pikiell for admitting the mistake, but it doesn’t make it any less easier to swallow. Also, Rutgers was actually making its free throws on Sunday, hitting on 12 of 14 attempts for 85.7%. However, Maryland was 18 of 28 for 64.3%. Even though the Terps didn’t shoot nearly as well from the line, they made more than Rutgers attempted. Deviating from the game plan was a reason why.

I love advanced statistics and refer to KenPom often, so I understand the analytical view that teams should shoot more threes because it leads to more efficient offense and creates better spacing for driving to the rim and posting up inside. That’s completely true. However, I don’t think it makes sense for a team like Rutgers to make threes a priority. I’d argue they are overvaluing the three because they shoot such a low percentage and in turn it makes them less efficient offensively because they reduce the number of shots they make from a high percentage. It also makes it harder for them to get to the charity stripe and they are a team that needs trips to the line to accumulate free points based on only shooting 62.5% for the season.

I also think that a big part of the issue is that Rutgers has a tendency to shoot too many threes early on before they are in the flow of the game. They did it recently against Northwestern when they started 0 of 5 from deep in the first five minutes of the game and fell into a 14-4 deficit because of it. They ended up winning 64-50 due to elite defense and 51.3% shooting from two-point range.

I understand that by shooting less threes in general, it’s a style that will make it harder for Rutgers to beat an elite team. When Rutgers beat Illinois and Purdue, the only two top half Big Ten teams they’ve beaten, they made 19 of 41 shot attempts from three for 46.3%. RU has since proven that’s not sustainable production from behind the arc. Look at the last loss to Iowa, as Rutgers was essentially dared to shoot threes and they went 6 of 28 for 21.4% and lost by 13. Even though Rutgers made 61.1% from two-point range in that game, they only took 8 more shots than they did from behind the arc.

The bottom line is when this team plays together on offense and attacks the rim, they are playing to their strength. That’s been good enough to beat the bottom half teams of the Big Ten and guess what, that’s good enough to produce the amount wins needed to make the NCAA Tournament. Does that mean they have a limited ceiling in postseason play? Yes, but getting the big dance on its own and possibly winning a couple of games would still mark the best season in decades and is where hope should be now. Defense and smart offense is the formula for success for this team. Down the stretch of the season, Rutgers needs to stick with what works and it’s on the coaching staff to drive that message home.

The offense is best when Geo Baker and Paul Mulcahy have the ball in their hands most often. The loss to Maryland was a prime example of that not happening as much as it should have after the first rotation of the game and it led the offense astray. This is a repeatable mistake that was a major factor during the five game losing streak. Putting the ball in Baker and Mulcahy’s hands is in large part as to what ended it.

While Jacob Young can have moments of brilliance and is the best creator of offense on the team, he has a tendency to disrupt the flow with turnovers and making the ball stick on consecutive possessions. If he is your leading scorer, which he was on Sunday with 19 points on 6 of 13 shooting, it’s not a good sign. Rutgers is 2-5 in Big Ten play when Young leads them in scoring and are 6-4 when he doesn’t. If he was the lead assist man and third scorer in more games, Rutgers would be a better team.

Montez Mathis is an excellent defender, but he hasn’t shown the ability to identify what a bad shot is. He was 3 of 11 on Sunday, including 0 of 4 from three, which was the second most shots taken in the game by a Rutgers player behind Young. Geo Baker was 5 of 10 including 2 of 4 from three and should have gotten more opportunities over Mathis.

By focusing so much on threes early in games, Rutgers fails to establish an inside game and makes it easier for the opposition to defend them. It’s happening repeatedly and a possible reason why is the idea that Pikiell allows more freedom within the offense in the first half as opposed to the second half, which is something former coach John Beilein discussed with him in this recent interview at the 15 minute mark. What that signals to me is the absence of a true point guard that can keep the team in check on offense is something that Pikiell needs for this approach to work consistently. Baker does an admirable job in trying do to this and is successful at times, but his inability to create offense off the bounce prevents him from controlling things as much as is needed.

I also think taking threes early in games before they’re in a flow has affected the confidence of the team at times and Ron Harper Jr. is a prime example. He has made just 6 of his last 51 attempts from three after starting 25 of 50 this season. His poor shooting from deep has made him passive in the second half of games instead of looking to attack the basket and create scoring chances inside. He is the best candidate to be a run stopper for this team but he isn’t relying on his strengths.

On Harper Jr., Pikiell said “I tell Ron all the time put your phone down, don’t listen to all that stuff. He knows he’s a really good player, I have a lot of faith in Ron. I want him to get to the free throw line and I want him to rebound. Those are the two things we talk about the most, but I can’t control what everyone else talks about. I know Ron well and he is going to continue to be a really good basketball player for us. Ron does a lot of things for us and it’s not just shooting. That’s one of them, but Ron will bounce back.”

In regard to the team in general, the body language wasn’t great and Pikiell said when asked about it “Today I didn’t like it, but against Michigan (Thursday) they played with unbelievable emotion and they played with tremendous passion. We didn’t win that game, but they’ve played all year long with great passion and pride and they will again. Today, I don’t know if we looked tired, we just didn’t play Rutgers basketball and that’s something that’s on me.”

Once again, Pikiell is right. Emotion and passion was not there in the biggest game of the season and that’s on the head coach. Perhaps the pressure of ending a 30 year NCAA Tournament program drought is getting to this team?

Pikiell responded to that concern by stating “As a coaching staff, we try to just play one game, we don’t really get caught up, but I know everyone else does. I think there are 100 bracketologists, so I’m not naïve to that stuff. It’s talked about every five seconds, but we try to go one game at a time if we play well and then we move on to the next game. That’s what we’ve tried to do and be focused with this group and we’re having a good year, we just got to finish some things off. I have a lot of confidence in these guys and a lot of confidence in my staff too.”

As bad as the performance was against Maryland, it’s not reason to panic. The important thing is that Rutgers demonstrates an ability to bounce back in quick order to beat Indiana on Wednesday night at the RAC. They can’t let things spiral out of control and fall into a full blown losing streak this late in the season. It’s senior night so Baker and Young will be honored, which should help this team’s focus.

There should be confidence that this team will respond well after such a poor result on Sunday. This team has been through a lot this season during a pandemic and they’ve shown their ability to be resilient through it all. If they can do it again, they’ll remain on a relatively smooth path towards the NCAA Tournament. In order to do that, Rutgers needs to stick to the game plan laid out by the coaching staff and Pikiell. And if they don’t, they’ll only have themselves to blame.

“We have two days to get this thing right and we will,” said Pikiell. This team deserves the benefit of the doubt that they’ll figure it out, but after Sunday’s loss it’s completely fair to be worried about how the offense will play out the rest of the season.