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Five things Rutgers men’s basketball must do to make another run into March

The Scarlet Knights are in position to save their season after a terrible first month.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 04 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rutgers men’s basketball passed their “must can’t lose” test in resounding fashion on Saturday in a 93-65 victory over Nebraska. After trailing 11-6 less than five minutes into the game, the Scarlet Knights closed out the first half on a 38-20 run. They never looked back and cruised against a team that beat them by 22 points just over 10 months ago. It was their most efficient offensive performance against a Big Ten foe during the Steve Pikiell era and the second most efficient of his entire tenure.

For the third consecutive season, Rutgers has started Big Ten play with a 3-1 record.

In 2019-2020, the Scarlet Knights needed the first ten games of the season to find themselves and rolled to a 7-3 start in conference play before finishing with a program best 11-9 regular season in the Big Ten. As has been long lamented, an NCAA Tournament bid was all but certain before COVID-19 cancelled March Madness.

Last season, started playing with their hair on fire but followed up a 3-1 start in Big Ten play with five consecutive losses. To their credit, Rutgers grinded their way to a 10-10 conference record and earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in 38 years.

This season, Rutgers flipped the script with three consecutive one possession, last second losses to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. Now they’ve won four of their last six against high major opponents, including three in the KenPom Top 40. With a 9-5 record overall, a damaging quad 4 loss on its resume along with a NET ranking of 116 and KenPom ranking of 85, there is still a lot of ground that Rutgers needs to make up if they want to go dancing again this March.

The important thing is they’ve given themselves a chance based on the way they’ve played past couple of weeks. How things ultimately play out this season remains to be seen. It’s been a wild ride so far and it’s trending to get even more so over the final two months of the regular season.

Here are five areas that will likely have a major impact on whether Rutgers pulls off a miraculous season comeback or ends up falling short.

Three-point shooting

Through four Big Ten games, Rutgers leads the league in three-point shooting at 48.6% (35 of 72). The next closest team is Michigan State at 41.5%. The only other team above 36.0% is Ohio State at 40.2%.

A major factor has been the way Rutgers is sharing the basketball. They currently have the 7th highest assist rate nationally and Paul Mulcahy leads the Big Ten with 6.8 assists per game. The Scarlet Knights have done a much better job in the last month in taking three-pointers within the flow of the offense. Its a major reason why they’re the 16th most efficient offensive team in the nation over their last four games per Bart Torvik.

You can watch a breakdown of the great passing on display last week in this film review by our Pete Winter.

There is no chance that the Scarlet Knights can maintain shooting at their current level behind the arc, simply because it would be historic by a wide margin. However, the key is when they do cool off some that they still maintain a certain level of production from three. Let’s say RU averages 35% from deep on 7 of 20 attempts for the last sixteen league games of the regular season, they’d finish at 37.5% for conference play. Rutgers has never finished above 32% in a Big Ten season, shooting just under that mark the past three campaigns. Even if they regress below an above average rate, finishing in the top half in three-point shooting gives this team a strength they’ve never had before.

Last season, Iowa led the Big Ten in three-point shooting at 40.5%, regular season champ Michigan was second at 39.7% and only two other teams finished over 35.0% with Illinois and Ohio State both shooting 36.4%. In 2019-2020, the Buckeyes were the best from deep in making 36.2% for the season and Wisconsin was a close second at 36.1%. The only other team above 34.0% was Michigan State at 35.4%.

The biggest reasons for hope is Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker are having their best seasons. While the losses of key personnel from last season’s team, the potential improvement from the two marquee players remaining was glossed over by most. Harper Jr. is 14 of 22 for 63.6% in Big Ten play and 43.7% for the season. Geo is 4 of 11 for 36.4% in league action and 38.5% for the season. Those are career best marks but also realistic shooting percentages for them to maintain in their final winters on the banks. Factor in that Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell, Aundre Hyatt are all shooting below their three-point marks from last season, as well as Jaden Jones shooting just 23.3%, it’s not crazy to think RU can finish top 3 in the Big Ten in three-point shooting.

If they can do that, this team is going to win double digit conference games. If they fall off rapidly and resort to a 25%-30% team from deep, it will be extremely difficult to log enough victories to be considered for the NCAA Tournament.

Win on the road

Rutgers has likely never had a more winnable five game stretch on the road in Big Ten play then they do right now. It begins on Tuesday at Penn State followed by at Maryland on Saturday. The following three games away from Piscataway is at Minnesota, at Nebraska and at Northwestern. It’s unlikely that RU wins them all and in fact they are projected to lose all of them by 3-5 points with the exception of the Cornhuskers. However, they absolutely have a chance to win each of them as on paper, the Scarlet Knights are playing like the best team of that group.

For a team that desperately needs to make a major move up the NET rankings, winning most of those games would provide a major boost. Northwestern and Minnesota are Quad 1 opponents while PSU and Maryland are Quad 2. While the final four Big Ten road games are all Quad 1 opponents, it’s a more challenging task at Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Michigan and at Indiana. Producing 4-5 road wins in league play would give Rutgers a major plus on their resume come March. The only season they won more than two road contests in Big Ten play was last season, winning four without fans in attendance. I think they can achieve that mark this season and possibly even more. Another 2-8 mark in road games in Big Ten play will likely keep RU home in the postseason. This is a veteran team that needs to prove their experience can now translate to road wins in the conference.

Bench Play

Aundre Hyatt, Mawot Mag, Jalen Miller, Jaden Jones and Dean Reiber have all shown flashes and made significant contributions in wins this season. If Rutgers wants to earn enough victories to get into the NCAA Tournament, they need consistent production from their bench. The positive is all five are capable of stepping up depending on the matchup. The key is that at least 1-2 do so per game.

Rutgers has been fortunate in that it was mostly the performances of the starters that led to beating Purdue and Michigan. However, it was Hyatt and Reiber who shined and provided a major lift off the bench against Nebraska after the starting five struggled in the opening minutes.

Hyatt started this season strong, disappeared for a stretch and has played very well of late. His assertiveness on offense, his physicality, experience and basketball IQ make him a key player for this team. Rutgers needs him to be a consistent presence off the bench the rest of the way.

Mag really shined in the win over Purdue and loss to Seton Hall, but has been sidetracked since after the team’s COVID-19 pause and having teeth knocked out against Michigan. He didn’t play against Nebraska and hopefully can return this week. His ability to play inside and provide energy on both ends of the floor is much needed as the grind of Big Ten play kicks in.

Reiber was fantastic against Nebraska, but he can’t be counted on for that level production on most nights. However, if he can provide steady defense and rebounding in whatever minutes he does log, it would be a welcomed development.

Miller has no fear and his on ball defense is a legit weapon for Rutgers. He is getting more comfortable offensively and his progress this season could really take off over the next two months as he has gotten the most steady minutes off the bench of anyone.

Jones is the wild card. After not playing much over the last month, he scored 5 quick points in the final minutes against Nebraska. He is the best offensive weapon Rutgers has off the bench and if he can find more confidence, Jones could still become the impact player that he was expected to be this season.

Bend but don’t break defense

Rutgers hasn’t played as well defensively as other teams under Pikiell have, but the key has been holding high major opponents under 70 points per game. The Scarlet Knights are 4-0 when they do and 0-3 when they don’t. If Rutgers can remain improved on the offensive end, holding opponents in the sixties is going to make them tough to beat.

Cliff Omoruyi is not the rim defender that Myles Johnson was, but it’s not really fair to expect him to be. However, he has been able to stay on the floor mostly out of foul trouble, which has been key in regard to rebounding. Currently, Cliff (167th), Hyatt (320th) and Harper Jr. (355th) are all in the Top 500 nationally. for defensive rebounding rate. Rutgers dominated on the glass in wins over Michigan (+5) and Nebraska (+16), which led to just 10 offensive boards combined for those opponents. It’s also meant teams have been unable to generate sustained runs against them. Limiting opponents to one shot possessions will be key in getting to double digit Big Ten victories for a third consecutive season.

In regard to fouls, RU’s opponents have the third lowest free throw rate in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights were one big foul machine in non-conference play, but the team as a whole has gotten better with their footwork, are taking less risks while still forcing turnovers (3rd highest steal rate in B1G play), and forcing more contested jumpers. This needs to continue.

Through four games, Rutgers only has the eighth best defensive efficiency in league play. They’ve also played the two most efficient offenses in Illinois and Michigan, so the Scarlet Knights can certainly improve efficiency wise as the schedule is more manageable over the next few weeks.

Stay Healthy and Luck break their way

It seems a bit forgotten, but Rutgers suffered their two worst losses against Lafayette and UMass without Geo Baker on the floor. It’s obvious if any of the five starters suffer a significant injury, it will seriously impact this team. Rutgers has been a bit unlucky in the past two seasons with injuries, including every player in the top eight of the rotation last season missing action or playing through something other than Montez Mathis, who could have without it being reported.

The two week break that Rutgers had in December could prove extremely beneficial as the grind of the season grows heavier. They have looked rejuvenated during their return on their way to a 4-0 record and improved play offensively.

The biggest takeaway right now is that the Big Ten is not nearly as strong as it’s been in recent seasons. It’s comes at a perfect time for a veteran team that knows how to win and is taking a leap offensively. Rutgers likely has to go at least 12-8 in Big Ten play to make the NCAA Tournament. The first half of the conference schedule is as good as it can be for Rutgers and they must take advantage. The backend is a lot more difficult.

That being said, this is a crucial moment in the Geo Baker/Ron Harper Jr portion of the Steve Pikiell era. As bad as this team was in November, there is a tremendous opportunity in front of them. The Big Ten is wide open and Rutgers just might be in prime position to make a big leap this season, despite all the early season struggles. Stranger things have happened, but recent trends in their play lend hope they just might shock the college basketball world and their own fan base yet again.