Rutgers men’s basketball has struggled to win on the road for a very long time. It’s not like joining the Big Ten created a new obstacle as far as causing a shift in something the program previously did well. It was the same in the two decades plus run in the Big East as well. The inability to win on the road has plagued Rutgers and held back progress with many teams over the years. The last time the program had a winning road record was during the 1990-1991 season.
That being said, I expected that to change with this current group. Learning to win and close out games are something good veteran teams do. Another is winning on the road. College basketball teams that have experience and senior leadership are typically tough to play against and can win games in difficult environments.
With Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell, Rutgers has three starters who have been through a lot in their careers. Paul Mulcahy is a junior and said recently he’s never played a season when COVID-19 wasn’t a factor. What these four have accomplished at Rutgers already is significant and they’ll always deserve praise for being catalysts in the program’s ascension in advancing in the NCAA Tournament last season.
The issue this season is the core four group has been unable to take the program farther and in fact, even maintain status quo. While the stunning loss to Lafayette was an inexcusable one, RU has won every other game at home including wins over Clemson, Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska. The biggest problem now is the Scarlet Knights are 0-5 on the road this season after Tuesday’s loss to Penn State.
Two one possession, last minute losses to DePaul and UMass are constant thorns in the side of this team’s resume. Perhaps even more concerning though is in losses to high major teams Seton Hall, Ilinois and Penn State, Rutgers has lost by an average of 22 points. They were mostly non-competitive in all three defeats.
Sadly, this team has displayed a lack of toughness, a lack of energy and a lack of discipline on the road this season. It continued in the loss to PSU.
“They were tougher than us tonight,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “They punched us early. I didn’t want to settle for jump shots in this game, I wanted us driving downhill. We’ve been sharing the ball at an epic level; we didn’t have that tonight. We turned the ball over way too many times, which helps them get more opportunities. We just didn’t play well. When you go on the road, you got to play great. You can’t just play okay and you can’t play poorly, obviously. Just disappointing, but that’s life in this league. We got to get better and can’t have nights like this.”
Penn State has had a very difficult schedule and beat Indiana, while giving Purdue a scare in its two home games before hosting Rutgers on Tuesday. They took things away in their defensive approach and the Scarlet Knights never adjusted. Every time RU made a run and got it close, including down to a four point deficit midway through the second half, PSU responded in a big way. While the Nittany Lions are a senior laden team, half of them are transfers and this is the first season they’ve played under new coach Micah Shrewsberry. Instead, they looked like the team who has been together longer and knew how to win.
A concerning part of the loss to PSU was how quickly Rutgers lost their identity.
“We were settling,” Pikiell said. “You have to defend when you aren’t making shots. The ball wasn’t going in and unfortunately that dictated our defensive lapses. I don’t want to be that kind of team. I want to be the kind of team that no matter what happens with the basketball, we play great Rutgers defense.”
Fighting through adversity is more about mental toughness than anything. As much as Rutgers lacked a physical quality needed in their play in the loss to PSU, they weren’t equipped with the necessary mindset to win the game either.
The biggest concern now is whether this Rutgers team, led by the veteran core they have, will figure out how to win on the road quick enough to keep their season alive. Due to the three bad losses suffered in non-conference play, the margin for error is thin and Tuesday’s loss to Penn State narrowed it even further.
Working off the premise that a 12-8 Big Ten record is at minimum what Rutgers needs to enter March with a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, they likely need 3-4 wins on the road to a) achieve a minimum of 12 wins b) have a strong enough NET ranking and resume for consideration.
Looking ahead, the next four road games for Rutgers are against Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. While they are all winnable games, the reality is that the Scarlet Knights really can’t go worse than 3-1 over that stretch. Road games in February at Michigan and Indiana are winnable too, but none will be easy. At Wisconsin and at Purdue are the most daunting remaining on the schedule.
The reality is if Rutgers has any shot at the postseason, winning on the road is a must. They missed an opportunity at Penn State, but it was the way they lost that was so disheartening. Time is running out on this team and its veterans. If they can’t figure it out soon, it will be too late to salvage the season and several memorable careers will end in disappointment.
Creating their own energy on the road, playing more together and maintaining their identity is paramount moving forward.
“You got to play better,” Pikiell said. “It’s hard to win on the road. This is the best league in the country, it’s hard to win on the road. This team is ready to win games, at home and on the road. But you can’t play like today. Again, that’s on me.”
If something is going to change, it would be best for it to happen on Saturday at Maryland. The Scarlet Knights played one of their best games last season in College Park, so they should have confidence they can win there. There is still time to overcome their road struggles that have plagued them, but their next road game is as close to a must win in mid-January as you can get.