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Rutgers KenPom Update: Dancing in March Edition

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A quick look at the advanced analytics ahead of Rutgers’ first-round NCAA matchup vs. Clemson

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

First, a small, probably meaningless confession: I’m not a lifer. I’m not old enough, and I wasn’t brought up in a college hoops family. But when I think of Rutgers’ thirty-year national tournament drought ending Sunday night, I think of the story below...

While Illinois and Ohio State were throwing fisticuffs at each other in the Big Ten Championship Game Sunday afternoon, I was trying to find a digital archive of the Daily Targum sports pages from February 5, 2004. I had a specific memory of being a sophomore at Rutgers during that particular basketball season, working at the front desk of the College Avenue Gym, reading a recap of the previous night’s game (while I can’t remember the specific date, based on that team’s pattern of wins and losses, it had to have been a Rutgers overtime win against The U).

I remember reading the Targum game recap while swiping Student ID cards at the gym and thinking to myself, “this is weird, they’re talking about Rutgers basketball being ranked like 28th or 29th in the nation, but I’m pretty sure they only rank the top 25 teams!”. (NOTE: If anyone reading this was a student in 2003-04 and remembers this, let me know in the comments. That would be interesting.)

ANYWAY, this is my personal story of Rutgers’ 30-year tournament drought. Rutgers was so starved for good basketball news even seventeen years ago, they made an editorial decision in the student newspaper to include getting votes in the AP poll as an actual ranking for the team. It only got worse after 2004, of course.

I was seven years old the last time Rutgers made the NCAA Tourney before Sunday. At that age, I knew more about dinosaurs than hoops, but I know enough now to know thirty years is a freakin’ long time. Congratulations to Rutgers’ players, coaches, support staff, and fans – especially those who can remember all thirty years in the desert. Now, it’s time for the celebration!

How Rutgers Ended The Season

At a topline level, it looks a bit like Rutgers limped to the end of the season. They finished the regular season 3-4 in their last seven games, including an embarrassing (and probably quite fluky) loss at Nebraska where the Huskers shot 67% from two-point range for the entire game. In my most recent post for OTB, I’d suggested there were two must-wins, three toss-ups, and two “would be awesome if Rutgers won, but realistically they won’t” games out of Rutgers’ last seven. Here is Rutgers’ record in those games:

  • Games Not Likely to Win (Iowa, Michigan): 0-2
  • Toss-ups (Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota): 2-1
  • Must-wins (Northwestern, Nebraska): 1-1

I disagree with the idea Rutgers limped to the finish line. Rutgers finished the regular season ranked 34th in KenPom, a year after finishing 28th, while in both years playing in an insanely difficult conference! This is incredibly difficult to do, and as fans, nothing should be taken for granted. I won’t go into how Rutgers basketball typically ended seasons in this metric prior to 2019-20. It wasn’t pretty.

That said, I also kind of wish the team had played better than they did down the stretch. At this point in the season, it’s clear what a team looks like, and Rutgers is clearly a talented team with some gaps. Good enough to compete in a very strong Big Ten conference most nights, but prone to long scoring droughts and frustrating series of plays.

The advanced metrics back this up: KenPom’s deep dive into Rutgers tells us RU is ranked 75th nationally in offensive efficiency, but 18th in defensive efficiency. (Aside: Last year, before the pandemic shut everything down, RU was 72nd in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency. Now before someone takes this to mean Rutgers is a weaker team this year, I would disagree, because 6th and 18th are likely not a statistically significant difference – meaning the year-over-year decline is probably just noise. But I digress.)

I wrote in my last article about areas of strength and weakness for Rutgers, and nothing’s really changed in that respect since early February. In fact, Rutgers’ conference rankings in just about everything KenPom measures are comfortably… average. For instance, Rutgers ranks:

  • 9th in the conference in offensive efficiency
  • 6th in defensive efficiency
  • 8th in effective FG percentage (this is a scoring measure that accounts for the increased value of a three-pointer)
  • 5th in opponents’ effective FG percentage
  • Etc…

Rutgers continues to be a very strong shot-blocking and stealing defense, and they rarely commit the types of turnovers on offense that aren’t steals (e.g., traveling, double-dribble, bad passes, etc.). Surprisingly (or maybe not if you watched Rutgers play Illinois on Friday), they rank 13th in the conference in allowing offensive rebounds. All of this paints a picture of a team comfortably in the middle of at-large seeds in the NCAA tournament. After where Rutgers has been and the years of climbing, it’s nice to be there, isn’t it?

Intermission

Here’s some classic music from the legendary Stevie Wonder while reading the rest of the article. While you listen to “Sir Duke”, from the incredible 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life (and yes, I intentionally picked a song from 1976 to celebrate an incredible Rutgers tournament run), today you’ll learn where Rutgers finished the regular season in KenPom’s overall rankings.

Rutgers finished just in between Duke (who is not playing in the NCAA) and Penn State (also not in the NCAA). I think there might be a group of readers who would get some joy from reading this!

The Look Ahead

Clemson. Friday late night. The Big Dance.

In important games like this one, I look to comps. Clemson, to be totally transparent and with no intended disrespect, strikes me as possibly a weaker 7 seed in a circumstance where the committee maybe over-weighted some early non-conference wins (Purdue, Alabama, Maryland are three of note for Clemson). They rank 99th in the country in offensive efficiency, 20th in defensive efficiency. I think a strong comp for 2020-21 Clemson is actually 2019-20 Purdue, a team Rutgers beat twice in the regular season.

In the comparison below, focus on the colors. It’s striking how the colors are the same for both teams in each aspect of how they play:

I’m sure the entire OTB team will write more about Clemson leading up to the game, but here’s my two cents.

Both this year’s Clemson team and last year’s Purdue team are defense-first teams with size, a predilection to struggle on offense, and both play super slow tempo. Neither team gets to the free throw line often, suggesting they prefer to set up outside shots (which they aren’t particularly efficient at making).

When you think of tournament matchups, there are certain types of teams Rutgers would not play well against; I had nightmares every time I saw RU match up with BYU or LSU in anyone’s bracket prediction, because I felt like either team would be too fast-paced, too offensively talented, too… Iowa-like for Rutgers’ liking. But Clemson? I think Rutgers could hang with Clemson (Note: Vegas opened the line as a pick-’em, and the line at the time of this writing is Rutgers -1).

I’m excited about this matchup.