In a season full of hard to take losses, Saturday’s 68-65 defeat at Minnesota had its share of regret and heartache. Without three of its best four players, leading scorer Jamison Battle along with EJ Stephens and Eric Curry, Rutgers had a golden opportunity to earn a second consecutive road win. If they had pulled it off, it would have marked the program’s best ever start in Big Ten play. Instead, the result left the Scarlet Knights farther away from the NCAA Tournament bubble than when the day started.
There are plenty of things to be upset about from this game and it starts with coaching. With just seven scholarship players available for the Gophers, Rutgers did them a favor by not exerting full court or three-quarters court pressure for most of the game. Minnesota had three players play all 40 minutes and two play 37. The final eight minutes was when I expected it most but it never came. I’m sure Steve Pikiell has his reasons, but it felt liked a missed opportunity to exploit a clear weakness with their lack of depth.
The last true possession of the game for Rutgers came off a timeout with just over four seconds to play. The play call was for Ron Harper Jr. in the in the corner and he dropped his shoulder on his defender and was called for the offensive foul. I don’t have an issue going with your best player over the hot hand in Geo Baker (25 points, 7-14 3-pt FG), but you can’t fail to get a shot off trailing by one point with the game on the line in the final seconds. It’s a horror Rutgers fans have witnessed far too many times over the years but rarely in the Pikiell era. However, it happened in a must can’t lose game today. I don’t understand putting the ball in Harper Jr.’s hands in a position with no space to operate and no clear angle to the basket. He isn’t the type of player to beat his defender on a baseline drive. Pikiell has been consistently tremendous with out of bounds play calls out of a timeout in his time at Rutgers but in a spot he needed to come through with the game on the line, it didn’t happen.
But really the key to this game in my opinion was the first six minutes of the game when Minnesota sprinted out to a 17-5 lead. In a game they had to have against a depleted opponent, Rutgers didn’t have the killer instinct to exert its will from the opening tip. That’s on the coaching staff for not having this team ready. Four turnovers during that spread helped the Gophers gain control. While Rutgers responded with a 19-2 run to take the lead, they were never able to pull away and a clear dogfight was underway.
“I didn’t like the way we started,” Pikiell said. “I knew when they had players playing that we hadn’t prepared for. I’ve been doing this 30 years. I know that’s always tough. Guys play with a looseness. Again, I didn’t like the start that we got off to. That gave them confidence and I always know that when teams are down players, that first game or two, guys play with unbelievable looseness.”
With all that being said totally true, the fact is Rutgers let the one player you couldn’t afford to let beat you do just that. Payton Willis was the best player for Minnesota in the lineup and the second leading scorer exploded for a career performance. He finished with 32 points and tied a program record with 8 made three-pointers, along with 7 assists and 3 rebounds.
“He’s been really good all year long,” Pikiell said. “He just made some really difficult shots, he really did. To his credit, I thought we did as good a job guarding him at times as we could. We got to play our defense. We can’t give up 54% field goal percentage in any game, especially on the road. We have to do a better job of making sure our guys are ready to defend all the different challenges that the road presents.”
There must be a logical reason for Jalen Miller not playing in this game, but it was surprising just the same not to see him even get one run against Willis as a way to throw a different look at him. Rutgers never really attempted to double team him either. Credit to Willis for having the type of game he did and most of it against Caleb McConnell, the best RU defender.
As for the offense, Minnesota employed a zone that disrupted the offensive flow of the Scarlet Knights once again. They’ve had instances this season when they’ve operated well against a zone by carving it up in the paint. Today they did not. Even so, they had several open looks from behind the arc and missed them. Minnesota didn’t miss and that’s why a 60-57 Rutgers lead with just over seven minutes to play resulted in a three-point loss. You can’t score 5 points in the final seven minutes in any game and expect to win, let alone on the road. RU made just two of its final 11 shots, including 1 of 8 from three-point range.
“I thought we got good looks all night,” Pikiell said after asking him about the late-game shot selection. “65 points is plenty of points for us. You got to stop a team. We didn’t stop them. We didn’t stop them down the stretch. We’ve been on the fortunate end of some 2-point wins and tonight, on the wrong end of it. It was more the plays in the first half that I was disappointed with than in the second half. It was more my defense that I was disappointed in than offensive looks that you got.”
Pikiell’s was right. It was the second most efficient game of Big Ten play on the offensive end for RU. Defensively, it was their worst. It came just over 50 hours after the best one this season and over many years in the win over Iowa. After the Hawkeyes shot just 27.9% as the third most efficient offense coming in on Wednesday, the shorthanded Gophers with an offensive efficiency of 97th shot 54% on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights were also -2 on the boards, had just 4 fast break points and were just 8 of 15 on layups.
Rutgers is now 11-7 on the season and 5-3 in Big Ten play. Due to the early season non-conference losses, this team is in a very difficult hole to get out of. Saturday’s loss was a major setback in the March Madness hopes we all have for this team.
The next three games are still very winnable though and to write this team off, perhaps more than once this season already, would be a mistake. Maryland at home on Tuesday, followed by road games at Nebraska and Northwestern provide the Scarlet Knights a chance to give themselves a fighting chance in February. Lose any of those games and the hill they’d have to climb would probably too much to overcome. Of course, there is always the Big Ten Tournament which means you can’t count them out even if the regular season ends poorly.
“This is the Big Ten. Every game is hard,” Pikiell said. “You go on the road, it’s tough. I don’t worry about that. We got Maryland at home in two days. There’s a lot of basketball left in this season. There’s a lot of teams in our spot. We got to come back and we got two days to prepare for a Maryland team that just beat Illinois. We got to play better, we got to defend better and I have confidence in our guys that we will.”
It’s popular to count this team out already. Social media was full of calling for heads, I told you so’s and season obituaries in post-production. There is no doubt that this loss was maddening and disappointing. Just when you think this team has turned a corner, they take two steps back. It ruined one of the best shooting nights in Geo Baker’s career, a 9 assist, 2 turnover game from Paul Mulcahy and an inspired performance by Dean Reiber.
That’s college basketball. Rutgers fans didn’t get to experience much of the roller coaster ride that is more typical in a season for most high major programs prior to Pikiell’s arrival. Anything can still happen despite things looking rather bleak after this loss. At the end of the day, this was a Quad 2 defeat and not resume ending.
After what this group has accomplished the previous two seasons, I’m not betting against Steve Pikiell, Ron Harper Jr., and Geo Baker. The stakes are high and the deck is stacked against them, but it’s not over until it is.