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Rutgers KenPom Update: Down on the Upside Edition

After a roller coaster five weeks for Rutgers basketball, an update on where the team stands looking at the advanced analytics

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a wacky five weeks for Rutgers basketball, though if you fell into a coma on New Year’s Eve and woke up this morning … well, you missed an eventful January in general, but also you missed Rutgers’ five-game Big Ten conference losing streak followed by a four-game (currently active) conference winning streak.

The advanced analytics help us understand what a roller coaster ride it has been for Rutgers (and Rutgers fans) this season. Check out how Rutgers’ overall KenPom ranking has changed over time (in the chart below, a lower number is a lower ranking and is actually good for Rutgers):

Looking at the chart, with Game 5 being the first game of the Big Ten conference slate, and Game 17 the most recent win vs. Minnesota, at this writing Rutgers is currently ranked #24 via KenPom – this is better than the average ranking for Rutgers this season, which is 28 or 29, depending on how a person feels about rounding numbers up or down.

Relative to the Big Ten conference, Rutgers is currently:

  • Ranked 6th in Offensive Efficiency
  • Ranked 5th in Defensive Efficiency
  • Ranked in the Top Four in the following areas: winning the turnover battle (both not turning the ball over on offense and forcing defensive turnovers), blocks, steals, shooting two-point field goals
  • Ranked in the Bottom Four in the following areas: free throw shooting, percent of threes attempted as a percentage of field goals, assists as a percentage of field goals, allowing defenses to obtain offensive rebounds

When I look at the above, I think what I see here is a team that looks average on offense and on defense at a topline level, but when you peel back the onion a bit, there are clearly strengths and weaknesses opposing coaches can use to game plan against Rutgers. Let’s talk more about this…

Down on the Upside

I waited nine games between posting updates not because I’m salty about Rutgers going on a five-game bender immediately after I called them elite in my last update. (Though I am a little salty about this.) It’s because, had I written an update four games ago, it would have been as depressing as Billy Joel’s Wikipedia entry under “Personal Life”. Also, I’m not sure advanced metrics would have helped explain a backslide which, in retrospect, seems like a mixture of bad luck, mostly high-quality and well-coached opponents, and a Rutgers team which couldn’t get its head on straight from an execution and a mentality perspective. To be honest, there were moments during that losing streak where all the KenPom charts in existence couldn’t have helped the feeling I was watching a different version of the Scarlet Knights.

As one example, I was about six minutes into watching the Wisconsin game last month when I realized, Holy crap they’re running a pack line defense against us. I had forgotten the pack line D was a thing for a while – Brad Underwood of Illinois used it against the Corey Sanders-led Rutgers teams with notable success back when both Illinois and Rutgers were at the bottom of the Big Ten. It is built off the defensive philosophy of “we don’t care if you shoot the ball from outside, just don’t dribble penetrate and shoot easy baskets” … it worked in 2017 against Rutgers and it worked in January 2021, as well. This was not good.

And even right now, with Rutgers playing much better from both the eye test and an advanced analytic perspective, I’m a little concerned about a few things. Looking back at the bottom four conference areas from the previous section of this article, I don’t like Rutgers being 11th in the conference in assist rate, and I really don’t like seeing Rutgers as 13th in allowing opponents to get offensive rebounds.

The poor free throw shooting and the low percent of threes attempted – I can live with Rutgers not being great at these, or maybe I’ve just come to terms with it. Rutgers can be awesome overall just by being middle of the pack in conference at both of those metrics. But the lower assist rate and allowing all those offensive rebounds? I’m less a fan of these issues because, quite simply, they’re thoughtfulness and hustle stats. Rutgers should be legitimately elite at both of these things, and right now, they aren’t. It’s concerning (though more on this, and some optimism, in the next section).

I realize the above is a little bit of a downer, so here’s some music to fit the mood. Note I’m an outlier in that I write about hoops for this site, but I’d almost always rather listen to Soundgarden than Pearl Jam. (I might get perma-banned for this comment, but whatever…)

Caleb and Paul

What changed? After all, Rutgers is now on a four-game winning streak. The obvious answer is Steve Pikiell switched up the starting lineup, inserting Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy into the starting five. I would argue starting lineups are overrated a bit, and it’s more insightful to look at the minutes played by each player. When you do this, you see the following patterns:

  • McConnell was averaging about 16-18 minutes per game during the losing streak; in the last four games, he’s averaged 27 minutes per game
  • Mulcahy was averaging about 20 minutes per game during the losing streak; in the last four games, he’s averaged 29 minutes per game

Simply put, your best players play the most minutes. In last week’s Minnesota game, Rutgers’ starting five played 28+ minutes – the low man being Myles Johnson, who certainly made the most of his 28 minutes with 14 points and insanely good defense. In years past, if you watched Rutgers closely, you’d sometimes notice Pikiell making lineup substitutions like a hockey coach – two, three, sometimes four players would sub in and out at every whistle. This always made sense to me given the talent distribution on those particular teams (though I wondered a bit about in-game chemistry).

Right now, you’re seeing the opposite pattern: Pikiell has his lineup, he has his preferences, and he’s rolling with a clear eight-man rotation with an obvious distribution of minutes toward five players (Baker, McConnell, Mulcahy, Harper, Johnson).

I’ve never really written about either Caleb McConnell or Paul Mulcahy at length in this space, though I’m a big fan of both players. (McConnell and I are both part of a very exclusive group – Rutgers people from Jacksonville, Florida.) This is because they don’t really fill the stat sheet in a way that’s immediately obvious with the data KenPom emphasizes, but let’s go back to those two Rutgers weaknesses I mentioned before…

If you’re a coach, and you look at your team and realize you have problems with assists and allowing offensive rebounds, and you have a 6’7” two guard and, separately, a genius at distributing the ball on your bench… this is an instance where the old school approach and the numbers completely align on making that lineup change.

Caleb McConnell brings length and the associated ability to disrupt on defense, he’s arguably an elite rebounding guard, and has a sneaky ability to create his own shot on offense. Mulcahy, for a guy who I don’t think really likes to shoot, is a sneakily efficient offensive player and despite relatively limited usage (until lately) has been a top player nationally in terms of his assist rate the last two seasons. This was a brilliant move by Rutgers, in short, and I’d be really surprised if the weaknesses I mentioned earlier in the article didn’t improve as the season marches on.

The Look Ahead

What’s next for Rutgers basketball – assuming all games are played as scheduled, something we shouldn’t as fans take for granted in this weird pandemic season – is as follows (with predicted win percentage after the game):

  • at Iowa (26%)
  • vs. Northwestern (75%)
  • at Michigan (23%)
  • vs. Maryland (65%)
  • vs. Indiana (59%)
  • at Nebraska (78%)
  • at Minnesota (49%)

Looking at the above, I see two games Rutgers clearly should win, two games where one might expect Rutgers to be about a touchdown underdog to win, and three games which are essentially toss-ups. Should Rutgers simply win the games they’re supposed to win and two of the three toss-ups, there’s a 4-3 finish over the final seven games to be 11-9 in conference play and 15-9 overall going into the Big Ten tournament. Personally, I’d take this! Rutgers continues to be in strong position for a postseason run as we head into the stretch run of the season.