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NCAA Second Round Game Preview: No. 10 Rutgers vs. No. 2 Houston

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Includes how to watch, stats, pregame thoughts from both coaches, injury updates and keys to victory.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Rutgers at Clemson Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

2021 NCAA Tournament Second Round

No. 10 Rutgers (16-11) vs. No. 2 Houston (25-3)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana

Fan Capacity: 6,900

Tip-off: Sunday, March 21 at 7:10 p.m. ET

TV: TBS - Spero Dedes, Brandon Haywood and Lauren Shehadi

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/Sirius 135/XM 202 - Jerry Recco & Chris Carlin; Westwood One - Kevin Kugler & Brian O’Connell; WRSU 88.7 FM - Chris Tsakonas & Jake Schmied

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 34, which is the same spot since a 4 point win over Clemson in the first round on Friday. Houston is 5, which is the same since a 31 point win over Cleveland State on Friday in the first round.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 108.4 (76th) Defense 90.3 (15th); Houston - Offense 119.6 (6th) Defense 89.8 (12th)

KenPom Prediction: Houston 70 Rutgers 62. Rutgers is given a 24% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Houston -8; read more here.

NCAA Tournament History: Rutgers is making its first appearance since 1991 and earned a victory in a 60-56 win over Clemson in the first round for the first time since 1983. The last time RU made the Sweet Sixteen was 1979.

Series History: Houston leads the all-time series 2-1 with Rutgers winning the last meeting on February 1, 2014 by the final score of 93-70 in its lone season as AAC foes.

Houston SB Nation Site:

Key Contributors

Houston - 6’5” junior Quentin Grimes (17.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 40.3% FG, 40.5% 3-pt FG, 78.8% FT); 6’1” sophomore Marcus Sasser (13.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 38.6% FG, 33.3% 3-pt FG, 87.5% FT); 6’5” redshirt senior DeJon Jarreau (10.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 44.1% FG, 34.7% 3-pt FG, 71.8% FT); 6’7” redshirt senior Justin Gorham (8.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 50.3% FG, 37.0% 3-pt FG, 68.1% FT); 6’5” freshman Tramon Mark (8.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.0 steal, 39.6% FG, 27.3% 3-pt FG, 77.6% FT); 6’2” redshirt sophomore Cameron Tyson (6.6 points, 1.0 rebound, 43.0% FG, 41.5% 3-pt FG); 6’8” senior Fabian White Jr. (6.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 52.8% FG, 71.4% FT); 6’8” junior Reggie Chaney (5.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 66.7% FG, 75.0% FT); 6’1” freshman Jamal Shead (3.5 points, 1.6 assists, 1.0 rebound, 44.6% FG, 12.5% 3-pt FG, 78.6% FT); 6’8” redshirt senior Brison Gresham (3.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 56.7% FG, 44.0% FT); 6’7” redshirt freshman J’Wan Roberts (2.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 55.9% FG, 52.6% FT)

Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (15.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 44.6% FG, 30.7% 3-pt FG, 73.6% FT); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (14.3 points, 3.4 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 47.4% FG, 37.5% 3-pt FG, 72.6% FT); 6’4” Geo Baker (10.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 40.5% FG, 30.3% 3-pt FG, 75.0% FT); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (8.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 38.0% FG, 27.8 % 3-pt FG, 56.1% FT); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.1 steals, 63.2% FG, 43.1% FT); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (5.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 47.1% FG, 38.2% 3-pt FG, 67.5% FT); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (5.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 31.1% FG, 20.8% 3-pt FG%, 77.8% FT ); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (3.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 64.2% FG, 42.4% FT)

About Houston

Houston has won eight straight games and has been dominant this season in that American Athletic Conference, However, they’ve rarely been tested with a limited non-conference schedule due to COVID-19. The Cougars best win of the season was 64-53 win against KenPom no. 15 Texas Tech on neutral court on November 29. The only other KenPom top 50 wins they have are a pair against Memphis (no. 38), both of which were by one possession. Two of its three losses came to teams outside the KenPom 100 including no. 120 Tulsa by 1 point and no. 160 East Carolina by 9 points, both on the road. Its third loss was to no. 73 Wichita State, who also made the NCAA Tournament, by 5 points on the road.

The Cougars are one of just four teams in the nation to rank in the KenPom top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Illinois, Michigan, and Gonzaga are the only other teams to do so.

Offensively they are averaging 78.0 points per game and shoot 44.5% from the floor, 35.8% from three-point range and 74.2% from the free throw line. They are not a great shooting team but they are opportunistic on the glass. Houston is an elite rebounding team and are ranked second in offensive rebounding rate, sixth in rebounds per game and seventh in rebounding margin.

Defensively, Houston leads the nation in field goal percentage defense, effective field goal percentage and second in allowing only 57.8 points per game. They rank in the top ten nationally in two-point field percentage defense (4th) and three-point field goal percentage defense (9th), as well as 5th in block rate and 15th in steal rate. The Cougars are also 46th in defensive turnover rate. They are 17-0 when holding opponents under 40% shooting. One weakness is they average 18.7 fouls per game.

Houston plays a slow tempo, ranked 321st nationally, in large part due to their lockdown defense.

Starting point guard DeJon Jarreau, who was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, exited the first round win over Cleveland State in the first minute of action due to a hip pointer injury. Head coach Kelvin Sampson refers to Jarreau as the team’s MVP, so his potential absence looms large the rest of the way for Houston this season. Backup Tramon Mark would take Jarreau’s place if he doesn’t play on Sunday against Rutgers.

The Cougars are just 5-3 in games decided by 10 points or less. Their strength of schedule is 103rd nationally.

Houston is looking to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament under head coach Kelvin Sampson.

Rutgers Notes

Rutgers is averaging 69.6 points per game and they are allowing 67.8 points per contest. Overall, the Scarlet Knights are shooting 44.9% from the floor, 30.8% from three-point range and 63.3% from the foul line.

In regard to national ranks with offensive efficiency, RU is 7th in non-steal turnover rate, 60th nationally in turnover rate and 84th in two-point field goal percentage. However, they are just 280th in free throw attempts compared to field goal attempts, 297th in three-point field goal percentage and 332nd in free throw percentage.

With defensive efficiency, the Scarlet Knights are 14th in block rate, 29th in steal rate, 54th in effective field goal percentage defense, 77th in two-point field goal percentage defense and 83rd in three-point field goal percentage defense. A concern in this matchup with Houston is that Rutgers is only 223rd nationally in opponent offensive rebounding rate. They’re also 332nd in non-steal defensive turnover rate.

In Big Ten play, they finished 9th in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency.

Rutgers’ strength of schedule is ranked 7th nationally per KenPom. They won double digit conference games in back to back seasons for the first time ever since joining the Big Ten and first time overall since the 1989-1990 and 1990-1991 seasons.

Rutgers finished in the NET rankings at no. 38.

Pregame Quotes

Kelvin Sampson

On Rutgers backcourt

“They have outstanding guards. Baker, Young, Harper, then McConnell. Just a talented group as you’d expect.”

On Jacob Young

“He’s evolved into a really good basketball player. Playmaking, shotmaking, pick and roll game. Getting in the paint in between games. Scores at all levels, rim, free-throw line, behind the 3-point line, he is a great player.”

On the health of DeJon Jarreau

“(If) DeJon doesn’t go, we’ll adjust. We’re not going to throw in the white towel.’’

In a tweet later on Saturday:

Steve Pikiell

On the challenge Houston presents

“Houston is really good, that’s what I can tell you. Worthy of their 2 seed, great coach, player of the year in Grimes. I love Sasser their two guard. I love their point guard (Jarreau). Defensive player of the year. Most valuable player. They got the most improved player. They got every award you can get in that league. Their defense is elite.”

What makes Houston so difficult to matchup against

“They got great length. They are long, lean like Caleb McConnell, a bunch of those guys. I mean they are the best rebounding team in the country. Offensive rebounding, it’s an unbelievable stat. They rebound something like 93% of their misses. I mean, you know, they are great at attacking the glass, they are really athletic, they are in gaps. They hold teams to record lows.”

On Houston’s approach to rebounding

“We really gotta be focused. During the course of this game, they send 4 guys to the glass. They are very unique. No other team does that. Our guards have to do a great job. This ia game where Jacob and Geo Baker have to do an unbelievable job of dragging long rebounds. They shoot threes. They are the leading three point shooter in their league, 9 a game. And that means long rebounds, and they attack long rebounds.”

On preparing for this game

“My staff has been up all night. We got a good plan for today. Going in with only one day to prep, taking care of their bodies today, too. We let them sleep in. Our guys are excited about playing a very good Houston team that won every award in their league and won a championship.”

Rutgers being battle tested

“Yeah, we’ve been in them before. We’ve had our backs against the wall. We’ve had to win games on the road or wherever it may be. We are experienced. Even our younger players have played and logged a lot of minutes.”

On how Rutgers needs to play

“When we stay focused and are together, we can do some good things. Excited we get to play another day. Look forward to the next challenge. That’s Houston.”c

Keys To Victory

Houston is a very good team with specific strengths but have been largely untested this season. The difference in strength of schedule is striking (UH 103rd; RU 7th). Rutgers will need to play arguably its best game of the season to win, but they are certainly capable of beating the Cougars if they play to its potential.

The injuries of Myles Johnson for Rutgers and DeJon Jarreau for Houston are questions lingering over this game. On the face of it, Johnson seems more likely to play and even if he is less than 100%, his presence or lack there of on the glass would have a big impact either way. You can read his comments from Saturday on his status here. Jarreau’s hip injury seems more severe and how the Cougars would respond if he is limited remains to be seen. He would be replaced by true freshman Tramon Mark.

The Cougars are relentless on the glass, so Rutgers must crash the boards with an all hands on deck approach. It’s a game they need four to five guys to have grab several rebounds each. Johnson is key of course, but Cliff Omoruyi giving good minutes on the glass is important too. I don’t think Houston has anyone as athletic with his size to matchup against him so this could be a breakout game for the freshman. Rutgers is 9-1 when Ron Harper Jr. grabs at least 7 boards and he also needs to be active inside for this game.

Houston gets by without being a great shooting team due to its offensive rebounding and ability to capitalize on second chance scoring opportunities. They are quick, fast and crafty while playing a deeper rotation. If Rutgers can limit them to one shot possessions, it will go a long way towards staying in this game.

Rutgers can’t get blown off the ball and need to be ready for the speed of Houston. Manage runs and control the pace by limiting turnovers. They can’t have a five minute stretch of rapid turnovers or that could be all she wrote.

How this game needs to be played falls right into Steve Pikiell’s preference. He talks about keeping opponents under the speed limit/score total of 65, as Rutgers is 11-1 when they do that. The Scarlet Knights want this game played in the sixties or low seventies, while anything more high scoring than that and they stand little chance to win.

Houston is very active defensively and loves to help on entry passes into the low post by double teaming the ball. Whether its Johnson, Harper Jr. or even Paul Mulcahy posting up, looking to quickly kick the ball out to open shooters along the perimeter is a must. The Cougars by design allow threes and focus on clogging the paint in order to prevent shots near the rim. They have lots of versatile, lengthy wings who can quickly adjust and close out on the perimeter. Moving the ball and being active without it was something Rutgers was not consistent enough with against Clemson. They’ll get chances from three in this game but they need to shoot within the flow of the offense and off of ball movement instead of isolation plays.

An area Rutgers is struggling with is setting picks at the top of the arc when they run horns on both sides. Against Clemson it seemed like they couldn’t seal off ever and plays would fall apart at the top of the key. Houston is not big inside, so I really think Rutgers looking to go over the top of the defense by making deep entry passes and alley-oop passes to Johnson, Cliff Omoruyi and cutters like Montez Mathis could be there. I’m not saying to be careless with dangerous passes, but I’d like to see more cutting action to the rim off of screens rather than just the high post screen for the ball handler that Rutgers hasn’t been as effective with of late.

A weakness of Houston is that they foul a lot because they are so aggressive defensively. Rutgers needs to handle the ball well, limit turnovers and draw fouls on penetration. They’ve started to attack the rim and pick up fouls better of late and this game is certainly an opportunity to do that. If the Scarlet Knights can get into the bonus early in either half, they must take advantage and convert. They have to avoid the flip side of this scenario, as Houston is a good free throw shooting team.

Whichever team plays better in transition will be key to the outcome. Rutgers was getting blown away early against Clemson and failing to get back defensively. They were much better as the game progressed and Jacob Young was key in getting Rutgers going on the break. Running off of turnovers always gets this team playing looser and with more confidence, so capitalizing off of ball pressure would be huge.

Rutgers is sitting on house money. They have nothing to lose in this game. They’ve played in Lucas Oil Stadium, which does require an adjustment shooting wise, while Houston hasn’t. Rutgers has a size advantage inside and at certain guard spots, so they can cause problems with ball pressure and getting to the rim.

It’s pretty simple as usual. If the Scarlet Knights defend and rebound the way they are capable of, they can win this game. If they don’t do either of those things well, they probably will lose by double digits.

RU has to make some shots of course and Houston won’t make it easy. Ron Harper Jr. was not nearly as assertive enough in the second half against Clemson in attacking the rim. He needs to bring the mindset he did to the last Illinois game for Rutgers to be effective inside. He’ll have chances to hit threes but he can’t become one dimensional. Jacob Young’s ability to penetrate, dish to open teammates and hit the floater will be big too. Geo Baker needs to be aggressive with the ball in looking for his own shot, as well as finding teammates in good spots. Hitting some threes is a must and finding Paul Mulcahy on the wing or corner has been effective in two of the past three games. Getting him involved offensively would be a plus. But it goes back to Young’s ability to be the straw that stirs the offense for Rutgers. It is crucial that he needs to play under control and not let the emotions of playing his father’s alma mater be a distraction.

On the flip side, Quentin Grimes is an All-American and Houston’s best scorer. Expect Pikiell to rotate defenders on him with Young, Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell likely the guys who are most effective. Slowing down Grimes is a big task on the to do list in this game.

A variable worth considering is that Houston isn’t used to playing tight, physical meat grinder type games while Rutgers doesn’t know how not to play that way. It’s a contrast in styles and if RU can limit Houston’s ability to get easy baskets, we may be in for another closely contested, back and forth game. Rutgers would be much comfortable in that situation than Houston would be, especially if Jarreau isn’t himself in this game.

The Big Ten has prepared Rutgers for this type of big game, while Houston hasn’t had the same training ground. It might not matter, but a close game favors Rutgers. A good start is really a must because RU can’t afford to fall behind by double digits. Figuratively punching Houston in the mouth in the first half would go a long way towards making this a 40 minute battle. Rutgers has to avoid long scoring droughts and take advantage of any stretches where Houston is struggling. The truth is this could turn out to be a classic NCAA tournament thriller or a 15 point loss for the Scarlet Knights. It really depends on which version shows up.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the biggest Rutgers basketball game in almost four decades, I selected Southside Johnny’s “This Time It’s For Real”. Hat tip to reader RUinChiTown who made the suggestion and I agree with him that there is no better timing to use this song. I pulled an all-star live version with Southside Johnny singing it with Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band along with Jon Bon Jovi. I’m pretty sure this is from the late 90’s or early 2000’s. It doesn’t get any more Jersey than that and with most of the state pulling for Rutgers during this NCAA Tournament run, it’s perfectly appropriate.

Lyrics include:

“Baby, you can’t slow me down. I’ve come too far to ever turn back now. I’ve spent my whole life working. Working so hard for it, yes I did.”

AND

“Baby, I changed the odds today. Gonna push the scales, baby, till they tilt my way.”

AND

“When you start with nothin’. You ain’t got nothin’ to lose…”

No matter what happens in this game, Rutgers has had one of the most successful seasons for the program over the past 50 years. Even if they get blown out, while it would be disappointing, it wouldn’t diminish what this team has accomplished. That being said, I think this game is a tremendous opportunity for this group to really cement their legacy as the best Rutgers team in at least four decades. The program has only gone to the Sweet Sixteen twice ever (1976, 1979) and hasn’t played for the chance to go that far since 1983. It’s surreal for fans but for the players it would be the defining moment of their careers if they can seize it. They have nothing to lose but everything to gain. Play loose and together, be Jersey Strong and give Houston all they can handle. Let the chips fall where they may.