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Multiple issues sinking Rutgers’ season

The Scarlet Knights are struggling and letting opportunities slip away.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There was no suspense at Jersey Mike’s Arena on Tuesday night. Despite having close to a full house of fans ready to prove why it’s one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball, Rutgers never gave them a chance. After scoring on its first three possessions of the game, the Scarlet Knights got run off their own floor during a 21-3 game changing run by Maryland. Ten days after outscoring the Terps by 22 points in the second half to overcome a double digit deficit, RU never came close to mounting another comeback.

There were many reasons why.

Rutgers shot just 34% from the floor and during the first half run that put them behind by 20 points, the Scarlet Knights made just 2 of 19 field goal attempts.

They finished the game just 7 of 21 on layups.

RU scored just 2 points off of turnovers and 2 fast break points the entire game.

Maryland made 12 of 25 shots from three-point range.

Rutgers was outrebounded for a second straight game.

“No, the defense. We couldn’t stop them,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “We were getting outrebounded, cracked on the glass. It doesn’t matter when you play defense like that. We have played in games before where they can’t score and we can’t score,” stated Pikiell. “It’s what you have to do in these kinds of games but our defense didn’t get stops. We were down 11 on the glass. Every time I got the rebound update we were minus 12, minus 8. That is not a recipe to win a game like this. They got too many second-chance shots. They make six threes a night, that’s what they average, they doubled their average.”

These are not isolated issues but rather recurring problems that are helping to define what has been a season spiraling towards long term disappointment.

“I feel like they out-toughed us,” Ron Harper Jr. told Jerry Carino after the game. “I feel like we were very soft in the first half. It falls on the leadership of the group. We did a bad job of setting the tone. We’ve got to come out and be tough and set the tone in those first four minutes. That’s something we failed to do today.”

Starting slow has become an issue for this Rutgers team. Over the past five games in which Rutgers has gone just 2-3, they’ve been outscored by 35 points in the first half. Aside from the win over Iowa, which they trailed only by as much as 5 points in the first half, the Scarlet Knights have trailed by double digits in the four other games. They were down 13 points at Penn State before losing by 17, trailed at Maryland by 11 points before winning by the same margin, followed by a 12 points first half deficit at Minnesota that resulted in a 3 points loss. On Tuesday, RU was down 20 points to the Terps with four minutes left in the opening frame. Despite outscoring opponents by 20 points in the second half of the last five games, this team put themselves in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

“We struggled at the beginning. You can’t spot a really good team 20 points in the first half,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Maryland, you have to give them credit, They did a really good job. They were very confident out there.”

He continued, “Our keys to this game were rebounding, and Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala. Obviously both those guys had great nights. We just have to play better against a team that can shoot the ball that well.”

The last two games in single digit losses to Minnesota and Maryland, opponents have shot a combined 25 for 49 from three-point range (51.0%). Rutgers was pretty good from behind the arc, making 20 of 51 attempts for a solid 39.2%. However, they had a stretch of several misses in a row in which their opponents took advantage. They were just 1 of 8 from three-point range in the closing minutes in the loss to the Gophers.

The offense has regressed over the last three games, as Rutgers has averaged just 57.7 points. From two-point range, they’re shooting a horrid 38.4%. On layups, they’ve made just 22 of 58 attempts for 37.9%. From three-point range, RU has made 22 of 64 attempts for a passable 34.3%. Amazingly, the Scarlet Knights are shooting 80.7% from the foul line over the last three games, but they’ve only taken 26 free throws total. On the season, the team’s offensive efficiency has fallen to 170th nationally and they’re shooting just 46.4% from two-point range (284th).

Transition scoring and capitalizing on forced turnovers, as well as generating those opportunities, have been issues all season as well.

The defense has been subpar in the last two games, allowing shooters too much space and the team lacking intensity and commitment within each possession on a consistent basis. After a performance for the ages against Iowa, the far superior offensive team to any opponent Rutgers has faced of late, they’ve struggled to contain the guards of Minnesota and Maryland.

The most disheartening thing about Tuesday’s loss to Maryland was how uncompetitive the game was. Rutgers didn’t cut the deficit to single digits from the ten minute mark of the first half until the final minute of the game. At one point, they failed to score on seven consecutive opportunities to get within single digits of the Terps. There was no drama, no what if. It never was.

“We just played them a week and a half ago, so they know all of our sets, know exactly what we are doing, they know our calls so we can’t go out there and run stuff half speed,” said Harper Jr.. This is especially true when you’re getting cracked on the glass, when you’re not getting stops. You have to fight back. It was just different because they knew everything we were going to do and we obviously didn’t respond well. We didn’t do all the little things. We didn’t run full-speed offense, didn’t rebound, didn’t defend well in transition. These are things that are our usual keys to the game and things that lead us to victory.”

At 11-8 overall and 5-4 in Big Ten play, Rutgers now owns three Quad 3/Quad 4 losses this season between Lafayette, UMass and now Maryland.

Emotions are running high and hope is running low across the fan base. Great expectations for this season have never been close to being met. The win over then No. 1 Purdue, Michigan and Iowa were significant, but they’ve been surrounded by missed opportunities and costly defeats.

If you told me right now that Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker will eventually lead this team to some insane finish that gets them to the NCAA Tournament, I’d believe it. They’ve led a Rutgers basketball team to do something that hadn’t been done in three decades. This group essentially did it twice. Why would we think going into the season that they wouldn’t do it again, even with some new pieces?

Sadly, that’s now how life works. Progress is not a given or necessarily linear. Success and setbacks are side by side and the line of demarcation is thin. We are all human. So many variables are involved and certain changes, even small, can lead to far different results. The way this team has failed to develop makes it hard to believe things will turn around this season.

We know what has happened. The why is the harder question to answer.

Blaming the loss of transfers is easy to do and of course production lost by the departures of Myles Johnson, Jacob Young and Montez Mathis were significant. However, the inability of the seniors to elevate this team has been disappointing and from my view, surprising. The newcomers haven’t contributed the way this team has needed either. Second year players have all taken steps forward, but not significant enough to carry this team forward.

Our Dave White summed up the sentimental feelings with this group well and why they deserve continued support the rest of the way. Watching them the rest of this season by appreciating all of the large and small things this group has accomplished over the years is important.

Who knows. Maybe this Rutgers team has an improbable run left to make. Maybe they fall apart and finish under .500 in Big Ten play for the first time in three seasons. This team is unpredictable and runs hot and cold. Opportunities remain for this team to get back into postseason contention, but time is running out.

“The rest of the season, we got to take it one game at a time,” Harper Jr. said in the postgame. “There’s a million opportunities. I think the team that wins the league this year is going to have four, five, six losses. There’s opportunities everywhere. We just got to keep seizing the moment and getting better. We’re going to watch the film, stay the course and keep fighting.”

“We have a lot of basketball left,” Pikiell said. “Last year, we had to win the last game of the season at Minnesota. It’s a long season. We just keep plugging through. This is a league where a lot of teams are going to have a lot of losses. Then we have the tournament after that, so there’s a lot of different ways we can make our season into what we think it can be.”

It’s true, but in order to do so, Rutgers simply has to play at a much higher level on both ends of the floor. They’ve been consistently inconsistent and played down to their competition. If this group has taught us one thing, it is that anything is possible. They’ve looked both remarkably bad and delightfully good throughout the last three seasons at different points. This season has had more lows than highs though.

Hope is on the ropes right now and rightly so. Rutgers still has a chance to make things interesting. In the loss to Maryland on Tuesday night though, it was painfully boring and even worse, just sad.