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Rutgers enters must win January in a positive way

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The Scarlet Knights showed real growth in the win over Michigan.

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

The slogan for the 2021-2022 season for Rutgers men’s basketball should be “Not Dead Yet.”

After a catastrophic loss to Lafayette (KenPom No. 299), in addition to two other disappointing losses to DePaul (KenPom No. 102) and UMass (KenPom No. 133), the hope for a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament was on life support by Thanksgiving weekend.

Since then, Rutgers has gone 3-2 against KenPom Top 50 teams including wins over No. 5 Purdue, No. 43 Clemson and No. 27 Michigan on Tuesday night.

With an 8-5 record overall and 2-1 start in Big Ten, Rutgers moved up twenty spots to No. 122 in the NET rankings on Wednesday. Not ideal, but the Scarlet Knights have plenty of opportunities to improve with 17 regular season conference games remaining.

The program’s first ever win over the Wolverines came against a short bench but the game was decided by the starters for each team. While Hunter Dickinson had his way inside leading Michigan with 25 points and a 42-18 edge with points in the paint, Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. were sensational. They played like two stars should in setting the tone early, making big shots, ensured their team played together and ultimately close out the game without ever allowing Michigan to get within striking distance.

“They’ve played well a lot....was it the best? They can play a lot better too, but they were good today and we needed it,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Geo has been shooting the ball really well, and its good to have him back. I don’t think anyone realizes, we lost a lot of games without Geo Baker, and that’s not the recipe for me getting sleep. But it was everyone, Aundre came off the bench and gave us good minutes, Jaden came in and gave us good minutes, Dean was good, I know it was a tough matchup for him. I thought we have a good blend, and they all played well.”

Through three games, Rutgers is shooting a league best 46.3% (25 of 54) from three-point range in Big Ten play. They made 11 of 23 against Michigan, tying a program best in Big Ten play. A major reason why is Harper Jr., who was 5 of 6 on the night and has made 11 of 16 attempts from behind the arc in league action. He is now shooting 43.1% from deep this season. There have been contributions from others as well with Baker (3 of 7), Caleb McConnell (3 of 6), Mawot Mag (3 of 4) and Jaden Jones (2 of 5) all connecting on multiple attempts in three Big Ten games. Geo Baker is shooting 39.6% this season so far.

If Rutgers, particularly Harper Jr. and Baker, can continue to shoot around 40% this season, it gives them a real chance to make another postseason run.

“These guys are all good shooters when they’re in rhythm,” said Pikiell. “Sharing the game is important and we’ve embraced that, we’ve had a stretch of 20 assists or more and we have to keep it going.”

Baker added, “Those are shots we take everyday. I think a good shot starts with a good pass, and we did a really good job passing today.”

In addition to Baker (27 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds) and Harper Jr. (20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals), the two other veterans in the starting lineup made a big impact as well.

Paul Mulcahy had a solid performance against Michigan with 7 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds. After struggling in the first month in his new role as primary point guard and without Geo Baker, Mulcahy has really settled in. His steadiness and unselfishness have had a major impact. Rutgers has the 8th best assist rate in Division I at 63.9% in large part due to Mulcahy’s intent on making sure the basketball doesn’t stick in the halfcourt. The Scarlet Knights also have the 48th lowest turnover rate in the country at 16.8%. Mulcahy himself has an almost 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio this season running the point. He has dished out 60 assists and committed just 21 turnovers, 7 of which came in first two games. In his last 11 games, he has a 3.8 assist to turnover ratio. He is not a dynamic point guard, but if he finishes the season with his current average of 4.6 assists per game, it would be the highest for any Rutgers player since Brian Ellerbe averaged 6.2 assists in the 1984-1985 season.

“We’re a really good passing team,” said Pikiell. “Paul, tonight had seven assist and one turnover. He also got his 200th assist. His turnover to assist ratio the last four games has been off the charts. Geo shares it, Ron shares it, Caleb is a good passer, Cliff is a good passer out of the post; its contagious. These guys know how to share the game and play together, and we’re starting to see the results.”

After getting into foul trouble early, Caleb McConnell was excellent in the second half. He finished with 9 points, 5 boards and 4 assists. His two three-pointers were both timely and doubled his output from behind the arc for the entire season. McConnell’s play has significantly improved since the start of the season and he is in contention for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The way he impacts opposing offenses with his defense and can start the break off of steals, as well as crashes the glass make him invaluable.

While Cliff Omoruyi only scored 4 points compared to Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson scoring 25, he was able to play an important and career high 36 minutes. That led to 12 rebound and 2 block effort. While he wasn’t able to contain Dickinson inside, a common problem across the Big Ten, Omoruyi was able to help Rutgers to a +5 rebounding margin and limit Michigan to just 6 offensive rebounds. He continues to develop and learn, which could lead to an even better version of himself by season’s end.

One area Rutgers really struggled with early on this season was getting points in transition. They held a 15-6 advantage with fast break points against Michigan. McConnell forcing mistakes and Omoruyi’s improvement as an outlet passer off of rebounds are two reasons why Rutgers is getting more transition baskets.

The bottom line is Rutgers needs a great month of January to have any chance at dancing once again this March. Their schedule for the rest of January is as follows:

No. 141 Nebraska

At No. 82 Penn State

At No. 58 Maryland

No. 23 Iowa

At No. 84 Minnesota

No. 58 Maryland

At No. 141 Nebraska

It doesn’t get any more manageable playing in the Big Ten then this stretch that Rutgers has now entered. They are off to a great start with the win over Michigan, but anything less than going 6-2 in January will make it extremely difficult for this team to finish league play with a winning record. While the first game of February is another winnable matchup at No. 40 Northwestern, the following eight contests are against Top 32 teams. They include games against Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue (away), Illinois and Wisconsin twice as well as both Indiana and Michigan on the road.

January’s stretch is essentially a run of must win games, followed by a February slate chock full of quad 1 opponents. Anything less than a 12-8 regular season record in Big Ten play will mean that Rutgers’ only hope of making the NCAA Tournament would be an improbable run in the Big Ten Tournament. However, if the starting five can play together as well as they did on Tuesday night, this season is far from over. Finishing in the top half of the conference is still possible.

“They’ve been through some wars, they’ve been through a lot together,” said Pikiell. “They know what its like, we haven’t had a lot of success against Michigan, and they understand how hard it is to win a basketball game against Michigan or any team in this league. Its nice to have a veteran group, especially after 13 days of no practice. We were running in quick sand the first couple of days, but we’re starting to get our legs back and Brandon Knight did a terrific job with the game plan. In two days they were able to soak it in and execute it.”

The ability to continuing to develop, adjust and adapt over the next two months will be paramount for Rutgers in order to get to March with their goals still attainable. The positive is against Michigan, the Scarlet Knights displayed real growth that breeds hope that continued success is sustainable the rest of this season. This team played with barely a pulse in the first month, but are now very alive and kicking. January is their month of opportunity.