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This Rutgers basketball team will be memorable, for better or for worse

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This roller coaster ride of a season is winding towards its last turn and we have no idea how it will end.

Sacred Heart v Rutgers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The morning after Rutgers suffered a 21 point loss to last place Nebraska in a game that wasn’t even that close hasn’t brought any epiphanies or optimistic thoughts. The fact that this team delivered the worst performance of the Steve Pikiell era on a night when the program was positioned to unofficially clinch an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in 30 years is a moment that cannot be glossed over.

The world is not ending and its NCAA Tournament resume still has them in the field of 68 with bracketologist Brad Wachtel and others dropping the Scarlet Knights to a 9 seed as of now. However, they have to win one more game for things to stay that way.

Rutgers played in a way last night that warrants major concern on how they will finish the season. Sugarcoating things by saying this team will figure it out and be fine is not being realistic.

It’s time to face the music.

There is no way to know what to expect from this team game to game. There is no security in that fact, but it’s the truth. This wasn’t a one game slide. It’s a recurring issue that has shown up from time to time this season. The unevenness in which this team has played this season is not easy on the soul or the mind.

Rutgers has had some amazing performances this season. Defeating a projected 1 seed in Illinois, beating Purdue without Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi and dismantling Michigan State were impressive victories. The come from behind win over Indiana last week was a dramatic and thrilling result.

Rutgers has also had some awful performances this season. Losing at Penn State after sleepwalking for 30 minutes, getting throttled at Michigan State and the recent Maryland loss all stick out. However, the loss last night at Nebraska was a resume damaging and hope killing defeat that has put this team at a crossroads.

In the first four seasons of the Steve Pikiell era at Rutgers, a defining characteristic of those teams was that they played hard and he was able to get the most out of them. The KenPom rankings at the end of his first three seasons were 135, 130 and 78 before making a serious leap to 28 last season. There were longer losing streaks, worse offense than what we’ve seen this season and a lack of road wins. However, the overwhelming majority of the time over that span you could almost always count on Rutgers to rebound well and play tough defense. It was the program’s identity.

Sadly, with Pikiell’s most talented team of his tenure, those are not qualities that are a given anymore. It came to a head in the embarrassing defeat to Nebraska. Rutgers had its least efficient offensive performance of the season. They had the lowest offensive rebounding rate of the season. They had its second to worst game from three-point range. Defensively, Rutgers got beaten inside and allowed Nebraska to make 20 of 30 shots from two-point range, a team that came into the game 13th in Big Ten play in shooting from inside the arc. They got dominated on the boards with a -10 rebounding margin.

It’s not the stats that tell the real story though. It’s the eye test.

This team never put up a fight against Nebraska. They gave up a few threes early, missed a few of their own and the rout was on. This is not the first time that’s happened.

Where was the grim determination? The perseverance? The fight? This wasn’t just an uninspired performance, it was one where you wanted to check the pulse to make sure this wasn’t a dead team walking.

“We just didn’t have the energy we needed,” said Pikiell. “When you are not playing well and making any shots, you better do all the other things. They got to loose balls before we did, they got more long rebounds than we did. They outrebounded us. They took us out of what we wanted to do. Again, we have to play better. You can’t go on the road and play like that.”

Nebraska had its leading scorer Teddy Allen leave the program before Monday’s game. This is a team that lost to Penn State with Allen scoring 41 points and they’ve now won two in a row without him scoring a single point. They seem inspired by his absence and are improving down the stretch despite not having anything to play for.

“We just didn’t have any energy today,” Baker said. “That is just not acceptable. That is something that will be addressed and something we will fix.”

This team’s identity is being unpredictable and playing uninspired basketball too often. While I want to believe Baker that Rutgers will get this fixed, the truth is we don’t know how they will respond.

It’s true that a trait of this program under Pikiell is they tend to play its best when they are the ultimate underdog or in desperate need of a win. However, there are some serious issues with this team.

How Pikiell has managed rotations and lineups this season has felt like trying to solve a puzzle without the right pieces. Starting Jacob Young with Geo Baker the past two games has produced two disastrous starts. The consistent second rotation that comes in the game about five minutes in with Montez Mathis taking over the offense has not worked repeatedly. By the time Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., and Myles Johnson checked back into the game midway through the first half last night, things was already slipping away.

Pikiell has made it clear that the offensive game plan is “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.” And yet, Rutgers seems to struggle with that game plan far too often. Shooting threes is important to have success, but instead of doing so off of ball movement and penetration, this team falls into the trap of shooting them off of isolation plays. Rutgers doesn’t have true NBA shooters on the roster to pull that off and the results are the only thing predictable about this team.

A lack of a true point guard is really hurting this team. They need a floor general who can take control and execute the game plan while creating high percentage looks for teammates. That’s just not happening nearly enough.

Rutgers has a defensive efficiency ranked 18th nationally, but its nowhere near as good as last season. Almost every key player has a worse defensive rating compared to last season. Nebraska was blowing past defenders off the bounce and wasn’t met with much resistance in the lane and at the rim at all.

It’s a strange time and it’s only fair to consider that this team is struggling mentally with the grind of the season during a global pandemic. Of course, every team is going through these types of challenges. However, Rutgers has played pretty terrible over four plus halves out of the last six. Aside from Geo Baker saving the day against Indiana, this team has looked uninspired and disinterested.

In asking Pikiell how he will approach a team playing so high and low of late, he said “There is no psychological remedy. When you shoot a lot of threes against a team that defends the three the best, we don’t get to the free throw line, you don’t play Rutgers defense, that’s what happens. It’s not a psychological thing. It’s about getting them locked in on what we needed to do tonight and we weren’t and that’s on me.”

A real concern is the fragility of this team’s mindset. They tend to lose confidence as soon as shots don’t fall and it saps their energy and aggressiveness. They throw the game plan out the window. This is not how a winning team reacts. That’s on Pikiell and the rest of the coaching staff in a big way, but its also on the leaders of this team. Baker, Myles Johnson and Ron Harper Jr. need to take charge.

We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors and it’s not fair to speculate, but an obvious trait this team continues to demonstrate is a lack of mental strength. And that’s what makes this stretch so hard to watch. Rutgers under Pikiell fought tooth and nail to the end, whether they had the talent to win or not. Now that they have talent, they’ve lost that fighting spirit far too often in games. And with an elusive NCAA Tournament bid on the cusp of being clinched, Rutgers seemed to push it back across the table with the way they played in the loss to Nebraska.

“I don’t know what [the selection committee] talks about,” Baker said. “What I do know is we have one regular-season game left. We have one Big Ten tournament game left at least and we have to handle business. It kind of feels like last year in a way. Our backs are against the wall. It’s a perfect Rutgers story and we going to come out and do what we have to do.”

As bad as Rutgers played in the blowout loss to Nebraska, they only fell five spots in KenPom to 32 and six spots in the NET rankings at 38. Win Saturday at Minnesota and they’re making the NCAA Tournament. Hope is not lost. That much we know.

The concern is what we don’t know.

Hopefully, this team exhales and gets Monday’s performance out of its system for good. They could come back renewed on Saturday against a Minnesota team that’s playing without two starters and is staggering to the finish line. Everything is still on the table and there for the taking.

For Rutgers fans, nothing ever comes easy. It’s almost like this is the way it’s supposed to happen. Rutgers has to grab the heart strings and pull far too hard on the way to the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 30 years.

Last season’s finish down the stretch was a beautiful thing that ended in disbelief with the postseason cancelled due to the pandemic. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time.

This season? It’s been a suspense thriller that we all hope has a happy ending but aren’t sure it’s actually coming. And if it doesn’t, it will be a devastating failure fans will lament forever.

I have no idea what to expect from Rutgers the rest of the way. Anyone who says they do is full of it. This team’s personality is being unpredictable. We have no choice but to strap in and go along for a final roller coaster ride of this season. The only thing we know is this team will be memorable. For better or for worse.