Rutgers men’s basketball completed the first half of Big Ten regular season play with its second best record since joining the league eight years ago. Despite the 6-4 start in the conference, the Scarlet Knights are staring up a steep hill to climb to fulfill even their own expectations for this season.
Postseason aspirations that have been on the ropes for the majority of Steve Pikiell’s sixth campaign at Rutgers after a rocky November received a standing eight count on Saturday night against last place Nebraska. It wasn’t until Paul Mulcahy knifed his way through the paint to grab a crucial offensive rebound and scored on a putback floater with touch that Rutgers took its first lead of the game with just 1:32 to play. The defense held the Huskers, now 0-10 in Big Ten play, in check and the Scarlet Knights escaped with a mandatory 63-61 victory.
“We try not to really worry about what they’re thinking about,” Geo Baker said after leading Rutgers with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals. “We worry about us and what we’re trying to do, and we needed a win. Can’t really think about not being the first team to lose to them. We need to win this game, so that was really our mindset.”
Rutgers survived, barely, and now face the backend of the Big Ten schedule that includes a stretch of eight consecutive games against Quad 1 opponents. The good news is there are plenty of opportunities to build a NCAA Tournament worthy resume despite the early season losses to Lafayette (Quad 4) and UMass (Quad 3). The bad news is the road ahead is treacherous enough that if the Scarlet Knights don’t play to their potential, they’ll likely suffer a string of losses that will knock them out for good.
A troubling trend is that RU has trailed by double digits in the first half in each of its last four road games in Big Ten play. While they have gone 2-2 over that stretch, putting themselves in a consistent hole is a long term recipe for failure, particularly with the schedule ramping up. It happened against Maryland in their last home game as well, trailing by as many as 20 points in the opening frame that was a hole too deep to recover from.
Tuesday night’s game at Northwestern is their only non-Quad 1 away contest remaining, but it won’t be easy.
Asked about the slow starts being a concern after Saturday’s win, Pikiell said “I thought we were ready to play obviously. We didn’t make shots at the beginning of the game, had some defensive breakdowns that got them up early and we turned the ball over a lot in the first half. I don’t like it, but I like the way we played in the second half. I’d like to be good the whole game, that’d make life easier, but it isn’t like that in this league.”
One issue for Rutgers on the road that is contributing to its slow starts is with foul trouble. Against Nebraska, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy all had two fouls in the first half. Harper Jr. struggled all night while finishing with four fouls and just 7 points. RU was called for 21 fouls overall and are averaging almost 17 per game over their last four road contests.
“Have to do a better job with that,” Pikiell said. “You can’t defend the foul line. I’ve said that many times.”
Another key is bench play and the Rutgers’ reserves have outscored the opposition’s substitutes in five straight games, including 20-4 against the Huskers. While Aundre Hyatt and Dean Reiber have had moments over the past month to spark Rutgers, it was Mawot Mag who shined on Saturday. In the best performance of his young career, Mag scored 13 points on a perfect shooting night and grabbed 7 rebounds in 20 critical minutes. His +/- of 16 was a team high with no other teammates reaching double digits.
“To see him thrive like that is super special and in really important moment, too,” Baker said. “We really needed this win on the road. We needed a boost.”
“It feels great, not only for me but for everyone on the team,” Mag said. “Beginning of the game things didn’t go our way, but we stayed together, stayed connected and pulled it out.”
Aside from his statistical production that included a clutch three with RU trailing by four points with just over three minutes to play, it was Mag’s defense that contributed to Nebraska failing to make a field goal the final 3:28 of the game. Former 5-star recruit Bryce McGowens torched the Scarlet Knights for 29 points but missed his final four shots of the game with Mag defending him.
“Mawot did a really good job,” Pikiell said. “Mawot didn’t allow him to get the ball back in his hands. I love the fact that our guys, all of them, in the huddle said, ‘Mawot, Mawot, Mawot guards him,’ no matter who I subbed in the game. I love when our guys are in tune to the game like that.”
Pikiell added of Mag that “He’s a hard worker, he’s a good kid, and he defended down the stretch. Did a real good job on McGowens. Really excited for him.”
Mag has had glimpses of excellence this season, including a 12 point, 3 rebound performance in the upset of then No. 1 Purdue. However, he suffered a serious injury with having teeth knocked out in the win against Michigan. He’s had countless procedures with his mouth over the years after having the same injury in high school. His toughness should never be questioned and when he can harness it and play under control, he is an asset on the floor for Rutgers.
When asked what it meant for his teammates and head coach to trust him in such an important spot, Mag said, “It meant a lot. I come in obviously to do whatever we need to help my team win. Whatever that is, I’ll do it.”
The Scarlet Knights likely need Mag to do as much as possible the rest of the way and he could end up being the missing ingredient this team has been desperately looking for all season.
For Rutgers to be a serious contender to advance to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season, they likely have to replicate the 6-4 record they completed in the first half of the schedule. While it’s going to be difficult to achieve, this group always seems to play best when their backs are against the wall.
A major key to the second half of the Big Ten season for Rutgers is their defense. When the Scarlet Knights defend at a high level, they can beat any league opponent. Holding Nebraska to 29% shooting is what enabled RU to catch up at the very end despite shooting just 38% on their own. While they are currently fourth in conference play in defensive efficiency by a wide margin, they have been inconsistent.
Pikiell admitted as much about the defense after the win, stating “We haven’t shown it every night and that’s something I have to take responsibility for.”
Overcoming slow starts is also about the veteran core of this team stepping up and ensuring Rutgers gives themselves a chance to earn some much needed Quad 1 victories down the stretch.
“We have to stay solid. We can’t be overconfident, we can’t doubt ourselves,” said Baker. He added, “You have to have a short memory. Basketball is an imperfect game. I’m an imperfect player. I know that, but these guys and the coaches trust me to try and make a play at the end of the game.”
“That’s what it takes to win in this league,” Pikiell said. “You need your veterans. They’ve been in those moments before.”
While that’s true, the odds are so stacked against Rutgers that if they want to overcome and go dancing in March, they need all hands on deck contributing moving forward.
The veterans need to lead by example and the starters need to stay connected. The bench needs to consistently show up and the effort on the defensive end and the glass has to be relentless. Offensively, Rutgers needs to share the basketball, attack the rim and finish at a higher rate inside the arc then they have all season.
They’ve been counted out more than once already this season, but with each win they do earn, it keeps them alive for another day. Tuesday at Northwestern is essential towards gaining momentum before a critical two game homestand against Michigan State and Ohio State. A loss wouldn’t end postseason hopes, but it would make it very difficult to envision six wins in the final nine games with the 2-8 Wildcats having the worst record of any remaining opponent on the schedule.
For now, the Scarlet Knights live to fight another day. It took contributions from many to survive what would have been a death blow at Nebraska. How much does this team have left in the tank to keep getting off the mat? We are about to find out.