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Five takeaways for Rutgers men’s basketball as B1G play resumes

It has been an eventful first few months of the season.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

It has been just under a month since Rutgers men’s basketball took down No. 1 Purdue, and the Scarlet Knights are now set to return to Big Ten play on Tuesday against Michigan. It’s been awhile since the Scarlet Knights have played an in-conference opponent, so here are five takeaways I have from my time reporting on the team for the Daily Targum this season.

Backup center is a major issue

It’s always tough to replace a player like Myles Johnson, but Cliff Omoruyi has been as good of a replacement to the all-defensive big man as you are going to get. Omoruyi has had a solid season thus far, averaging 12.4 points and 7.3 rebounds on 61.5 percent shooting.

The problem lies when Omoruyi is off the court, as Steve Pikiell has not found a reliable back up big man on the eve of Big Ten play. The lead candidate to serve that backup role was, and still is San Jose State transfer Ralph Gonzales-Agee, but he has had his struggles against the conference bigs to start the season.

Focusing on the Scarlet Knights’ two Big Ten games before Christmas, Gonzales-Agee had trouble guarding the likes of Kofi Cockburn and Trevion Williams. Dean Reiber has had his own set of difficulties adjusting to the same physicality of Big Ten play. With the likes of Hunter Dickinson, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Zed Key and then Cockburn and Williams a second time to look forward to, Rutgers will have to depend on one of these players to play reliable backup minutes when Omoruyi is on the bench.

Rutgers’ offense goes as Ron Harper Jr. goes

While Geo Baker is undeniably the heart and soul of the Rutgers program, Ron Harper Jr. is the engine that drives the offense, and that has been the case for some time.

Case in point the Purdue and Seton Hall games. When Ron Harper Jr. is on his “A” game, like the 30 point, 10 rebound masterpiece that knocked off the Boilermakers, the Scarlet Knights will be a difficult out for any team in the country.

That said, the Rutgers offense has a propensity to go on large scoring droughts, and these droughts tend to happen more often and at a greater magnitude in games in which Harper Jr. is struggling. Against the Pirates, the Scarlet Knights could not muster baskets in critical stretches of the loss, namely a 14-0 Seton Hall run before the half which opened up a deficit that Rutgers could not ultimately overcome.

I am not saying Harper Jr. has to put together Purdue-level performances every night, but he does have to be the one handling the #1 option responsibilities if Rutgers wants to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for a second year in a row.

To illustrate my point further, this season, the Scarlet Knights are 4-1 when Harper Jr. scores 15 points or more. On the contrary, Rutgers is 3-4 and when he does not pass that threshold.

The defensive end will provide Rutgers with opportunities to right the ship

With the offense having its fair share of highs and lows, the defensive end, as it has always been in the Steve Pikiell era, has been reliable through the first part of the schedule. Without the strong play on defense, Rutgers would not have been able to defeat the likes of Purdue and Clemson, and would not have had a chance down the stretch of many of the close games they have had this season.

As the saying goes, defense wins championships, and the Scarlet Knights’ ability to lock down on the defensive end will prove crucial if they want to steal some road wins and have a productive Big Ten slate.

This brings me to Caleb McConnell, whose defense has been a major factor in some of Rutgers’ best wins of the early season. Harkening back to Purdue, McConnell’s defense against Sasha Stefanovic was a huge reason as to why the Boilermakers sharpshooter finished 3-10 from the field and 2-7 from three. McConnell’s defense has been a running theme all year, as he also found success on NJIT’s Dylan O’Hearn and put on a defensive clinic in the win against Maine.

With players like McConnell, the Scarlet Knights can assure themselves of success on this side of the ball. Additionally, if they can be strong defensively, it will ultimately give them an opportunity to win almost every game they play the rest of the way.

Below is a clip from the Purdue game that showcases how McConnell took Stefanovic out of the game. In the clip, he also stunts at Trevion Williams, forcing a crucial offensive foul. For more detailed film analysis, check out our own Pete Winter’s film analysis articles.

(skip to the 7:35 mark and 12 minute mark)

Young players have shown potential

Rutgers basketball is set for a difficult adjustment next season with the expected departures of Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell. With that said, the emergence of several young players have provided some momentum for not just next season, but this season as well.

While he has only 4.8 PPG on the season, Jaden Jones has looked good in spots and has potential to be an impact player in Big Ten play. Standing at 6’8” with guard skills, Jones provides Pikiell with a quality scoring threat off the bench.

Omouryi can also be considered apart of this young core, and a facet of his game that has seen improvement over recent games is his ability to stay out of foul trouble. With the aforementioned lack of depth behind Omoruyi, the sophomore’s ability to play foul-free defense and stay on the court will be crucial in some of these future nip-and-tuck Big Ten battles.

Finally, the play of Jalen Miller and the improvement Mawot Mag has given Pikiell two additional pieces off his bench. I love the way Miller competes, especially on the defensive end as he routinely presses up on opposing guards and guards them the full 94 feet. Having a guard who is willing to do what Miller does only elevates the play of the rest of the team. If you want any indication as to what Miller’s teammates think of him, I remember Paul Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell, and Ron Harper Jr. breaking out a round of applause in the post-game press conference when Miller’s name was mentioned after making his collegiate debut against Clemson.

As for Mag, the sophomore has taken similar strides over the course of the season. His best showing by far was against Purdue, where he scored a season-high 12 points in 29 minutes. What Mag provides is added wing depth to go along with Harper Jr., Jones and Aundre Hyatt, an advantage that will prove invaluable moving forward.

Here’s a video that showcases the smart basketball Mag played in his first start against the Boilermakers:

Rutgers’ ability to capitalize off Jersey Mike’s Arena will have a huge impact on the rest of the season

For anybody who has not been to a game at Jersey Mike’s Arena, I can tell you that it gets LOUD. In fact, Rutgers games get so loud that the building has garnered the respect of some of college basketball’s biggest names over the years.

The latest testament to this was the craziness of the Purdue win. I don’t know if I had become desensitized to Jersey Mike’s Arena’s decibel levels, but I was reminded as to how loud that arena can get when the Scarlet Knights present the opportunity.

From the heckling of the referees to the roar after a made three-pointer, it was clear the Boilermakers were uncomfortable in their first true road game of the season. I say all of this to drive home the point that “Trapezoid of Terror” can do the same to more opponents this season, presenting Rutgers with a unique opportunity to salvage its NCAA Tournament resumé.

Some of the teams that the Scarlet Knights have yet to welcome at home this season are Michigan, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin. I can argue each of these teams can be beaten within the friendly confines of the “Trapezoid of Terror”.

It remains to be seen if the new COVID-19 protocols affect the number of fans who will attend games the rest of the season, but thankfully, we will not be going fan-less. This decision preserves the one-of-a-kind combination of noise, student section and proximity of the crowd to the court that Jersey Mike’s Arena possesses. Add on the last element, a tough Scarlet Knights team, and the playing field is drastically altered. Case in point: Purdue.