The Steve Pikiell era at Rutgers has been defined by tough defense. The season before he arrived (2015-16), Rutgers was 236th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating. By 2019-20, they had catapulted all the way to 6th. Obviously, it takes a lot of special defensive performances for a program to move the needle that much. But Wednesday night against Iowa was the Mona Lisa.
Unfortunately for the 2021-22 Scarlet Knights, the problem has been consistency. On Saturday at Minnesota, they took a step backwards, dropping a very winnable game against a team with just 7 scholarship players.
But we’ll get into that later, let’s start with Iowa.
For this game, I’m focusing exclusively on the defensive end of the floor. The Scarlet Knights execution, outside of a few possessions, was elite, both from an individual and a team perspective. When it was all said and done, they held one of the best offenses in the nation to 40 points below their season average.
After taking some time to find their footing, Rutgers turned up the heat about 3 minutes in. These two possessions are highlighted by excellent team defense, with crisp switching, communication and active closeouts. Everyone in a white jersey is connected.
A few minutes later, Rutgers shifted to a zone. On this one, Cliff Omoruyi actually gets caught out of position, but he’s athletic enough to recover as the Iowa player drives to the hoop. The most impressive thing is he’s under control the entire time.
In the past, I think this would end up with Cliff picking up a foul as he frantically tried to recover. Here he effortlessly slides back to take away the drive, then walls up when the Iowa player gets caught under the basket.
The defensive intensity continued into the second half. I love the rip down from Mulcahy here as the ball enters the post. He takes some criticism at times for his defense, but he has a really good sense of timing on plays like this. The last five seconds of the possession are The Caleb McConnell Show.
The Scarlet Knights were also pretty good in transition, and you could make a case that this next one was the biggest play of the game. Elite anticipation by Geo Baker.
The team defense was outstanding all night, but there were some individual gems in there as well. Here, Cliff closes out on McCaffrey, slides his feet to take away the drive, shuffles over to help as Joe Toussaint tries to drive baseline, recovers on his man to force a long jumper, then crashes for the rebound. All in a span of about 15 seconds.
And here’s one more that falls under the category of team defense. This one starts with a long offensive rebound by Iowa, which is usually a recipe for a follow-up 3, but the Knights (particularly Caleb McConnell) keep their composure and buckle down at a crucial point in the game.
On to Minnesota, where Rutgers missed out on a chance to get a second consecutive Big Ten road win. Without question, Payton Willis put up a ridiculous performance, but the Scarlet Knights didn’t do enough to harass him and take him out of rhythm. Let’s take a look at the first few clips below.
Just a simple drop-off in transition. It’s a long 3-pointer, but Willis was already off to a hot start and should have been accounted for.
This next one is just not good enough. At this point in the game, Rutgers is well-aware that Willis is red hot. The Gophers use a fairly lazy ball-screen to clear McConnell, then Willis takes a few rhythm dribbles and goes right up.
The only other guy on Minnesota that was consistently making shots was Luke Loewe, who finished with 19 points. Much like with Willis, outside of one or two possessions, Rutgers didn’t do enough to take Loewe out of rhythm. This first one is the first possession after the halftime break.
Here’s one from later on in the second half. It looks like Geo and Ron get crossed up here on their assignments when the ball goes to the corner. One extra pass and it’s an open catch-and-shoot for Loewe.
Despite the loss, there was a major positive takeaway from the Minnesota game, and that’s the development of Dean Reiber. I’ll admit it, there were times earlier in the season when I didn’t think he’d have much of a role during Big Ten play. But in the last few weeks, his game has grown by leaps and bounds. That’s a big credit to him.
Here are two really good sequences from Reiber early on, each highlighting a different element of his game. Both of these come against Minnesota zone looks.
In the first one, I really like Reiber’s awareness and movement when Mulcahy gets the ball back along the baseline. He immediately swings around, but instead of stopping near the B1G logo, he plants and heads directly to the basket.
The second one is all about the low-post development. Sealing the defender, taking the power dribble, finishing in traffic.
If Rutgers somehow managed to get a bucket in their last possession, this may have gone down as the Dean Reiber game. That’s because he also had two big defensive plays down the stretch to keep his team alive.
And that’s without even mentioning the jump ball that he earned in the final seconds.
It’s hard to look at the bright side after a frustrating loss, but Reiber is turning into a really positive storyline as February approaches.
Upcoming Week: vs Maryland on Tuesday Jan. 25th / @ Nebraska on Saturday Jan. 29th