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KenPom Update: Halfway Home Edition

With Rutgers men’s hoops halfway through the conference slate, we look to the numbers to provide context and understand the path forward for the team.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

After Rutgers’ 63-61 win on the road last night against Nebraska, I kept hearing different things. I hear some discontent among the Rutgers fan base on social media, even after a road Big Ten conference win. But, if you listened to the BTN broadcast as well, you heard one of the announcers (I think it may have been Andy Katz) say something along the lines of “Rutgers has more than a pulse; they have a resume”. As a fan you might listen to something like this and wonder if the Rutgers fan base has been overly pessimistic the past couple months. I know I did.

Time will tell the answer to this sort of question, but in this KenPom update, I’ll look to the advanced analytics to provide some context into the current state of Rutgers basketball and what needs to change (for the better) over the next month, against some stiff competition, in order to improve Rutgers’ resume to the point where they really do have a pulse in March.

Where Have All The Easy Buckets Gone?

If you were to ask me to summarize in one or two sentences the big picture offensive philosophy of Rutgers basketball under coach Pikiell, I’d say something along the lines of “Lots of bigs, bruising inside presence, hope for the offensive rebound and turn one possession into two or three opportunities close to the basket. Also, relatively inefficient from three and from the foul line.”

The above has made this season quite the anomaly. With the caveat that I always use terms like “good” and “efficient” in a relative sense when it comes to the Rutgers offense, this season, easy buckets (layups and low post opportunities) — NOT free throws or three pointers — have been the difference between Rutgers being an inefficient vs. a good offensive team. Right now, having completed ten conference games (so a big enough sample of games), Rutgers is 3rd in Big Ten play at 3-pt percentage and 7th in free throw percentage, numbers which are by far the best of the Pikiell era. Those numbers would play.

However, and this is a big however, they remain dead last in the conference in 2-pt shooting percentage, and it’s not like the team in 13th position (Northwestern) is terribly close. When Rutgers was a tournament team the last two seasons, they weren’t phenomenal from 2-pt range, but they were something like top-150 in the nation (i.e., good enough), whereas right now they are a pretty bad 290th. Looking at Power 6 high major teams this season, there are a few worse than Rutgers (Pitt, BC, Arizona State are some examples), but not many.

Even stranger, when you consider Rutgers has been pretty good overall from deep this year, is Rutgers has taken 154 three-point attempts so far this season (average of 7.7 attempts per game) from players who are individually 28% or less from three this season. Look, as an analytics person, I honestly don’t mind the mid-range jump shot if a player is good at mid-range jump shots. I don’t mind any shot, as long as it’s taken by someone who is good at taking that sort of shot. The clear problem here is, for reasons psychological and/or scheme-related, Rutgers doesn’t have the right player taking the right shot from the right part of the court as often as is necessary. It’s not that better opportunities don’t exist from either an scheme or a rotation perspective (I’ll have some thoughts on this later), it’s just they aren’t being utilized often enough, if that makes sense.

To that end, scoring points is going to be a problem the rest of the regular season. Here is the projected number of points KenPom expects Rutgers to score over its next ten games: 62, 63, 64, 60, 61, 61, 60, 63, 57, 60. Thirty-point halves are not going to help Rutgers no matter how good their defense is, so given where they stand, I really do feel like Rutgers needs to “gamble” more on its rotational choices – more on this later.

A Quick Look at Defense (And Some Thoughts on Luck)

This might be a strange thing to say after the Minnesota and Maryland games, but defense is not the problem with this Rutgers team. KenPom ranks Rutgers 47th in defensive efficiency (4th in the Big Ten during conference play), which is a perfectly fine ranking if a team can produce well offensively; there will be plenty of teams in the NCAA tournament weaker than 47th at defense. Hidden in this ranking is some nuance, because if you watched KenPom closely, you saw Rutgers spike up to 29th after that Iowa game only to come back to earth after the Minnesota and Maryland losses.

Watching that Minnesota game in particular, it felt like that game every team probably faces each season (usually on the road) where a team who has no business shooting lights out for 40 minutes does so. Putting aside my opinion that Minnesota has a huge shooting advantage on their home court (being raised and really set back from the seats, relative to other arenas it’s a unique animal), when I watch a game, I make mental notes of the opposing team’s “lucky buckets” – not sure why, maybe because it helps me cope mentally after tough losses. Anyway, I counted something like fifteen lucky points from Minnesota in that game! Banked threes, last second shot clock heaves from three, etc. I know lots of people think Rutgers played bad defense against Minnesota, but I don’t think they did. Sometimes the other team just runs good.

KenPom measures luck in a macro sense – it thinks Rutgers has been slightly luckier than average this season (135th nationally), largely because of the Purdue win. But, what about in-game luck? Minnesota seems like but one example of Rutgers constantly getting other teams’ best shot this season. Sometimes, as in the UMass and Lafayette games earlier in the year, when Geo Baker was injured, Rutgers lost games they had no business losing. Other times, like in the Minnesota game where Geo went 7-14 from three point range, Rutgers still lost a game they (to me) had no business losing.

At a certain point, it’s like we’re talking about the anatomy of a potentially disappointing season, right? You can’t just point to one thing. It’s like sometimes the defense shows up, but the offense doesn’t. Or other times, the offense shows up, but the other team’s point guard goes off for 32. Or there’s a slow start that can’t be overcome. The players haven’t given up, and I know Rutgers fans won’t, either (except for that one dude on Reddit who posts depressing comments about Rutgers all the time. Don’t know what’s up with that guy).

The Look Ahead

KenPom now projects Rutgers to finish the regular season 15-15, 9-11 in the conference play. Doing the math, as mentioned above, that’s 3-7 over their next ten games. After Northwestern, Rutgers plays what looks to be six consecutive games against AP Top 25 opponents.

From where I sit, I kind of believe the 3-7 prediction, unless someone who hasn’t gotten hot on offense yet this season gets hot on offense. Looking at the numbers, you saw Mawot Mag have his best game since the Purdue effort last night vs. Nebraska. He clearly has potential as a 2-and-D player, and should see some more minutes down the stretch. Oskar Palmquist is 5-9 from three so far this season in limited action, and also looked pretty good against Nebraska. I worry a bit about his defense, but I also think he should see more minutes down the stretch. It would be cool to see Jaden Jones click more within the offensive rhythm over the next ten games. He should see more minutes down the stretch, especially in games where he hits a bucket or two early.

How you accomplish this while maintaining minutes for guys like Caleb McConnell who play truly elite defense is beyond my pay grade, but to me, Rutgers needs to maximize its opportunities to score points (even if it means gambling a bit more on the defensive end).

Realistically, unless something weird happens like winning the Big Ten Tournament (or winning several games as a moderate-to-heavy underdog in February), the ceiling for this team is probably now a home game in the first round of the NIT. (Which, by the way, none of us should scoff at. I’d be there screaming my lungs out. Historically, this alone is a well above average season for Rutgers hoops.) That said, because of how this schedule is backloaded, we won’t know until end of February whether Rutgers is one of those strange teams that plays to the level of their competition. With six consecutive ranked opponents after Northwestern, we’ll know after a few more games, so stay tuned.