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KenPom Update: Rutgers Basketball Trending Upward Edition

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We take a look at the advanced analytics to make sense of Rutgers’ strong recent performances, and explain the path forward in the weeks ahead

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

Welcome to the first KenPom hoops update of calendar year 2022!

If you’re new to this space, this is a general overview of how Rutgers men’s hoops is performing from an advanced analytics perspective (with a particular focus on KenPom). You can read OTB’s guide to KenPom here, if you’re more interested in a general understanding of how these numbers work. I’d recommend, if you’ve never read any of these articles before, at least breezing through the guide first so you can understand what I’m talking about.

This disclaimer aside, here’s what the KenPom numbers are telling us about Rutgers basketball so far in the 2021-22 hoops season…

A Season, in Two Parts

Here is a chart showing how Rutgers’ overall KenPom ranking has changed over the course of the season:

A few things to note about this picture; first, Rutgers has never had a particularly good ranking this season. The high-water mark (the vertical axis on this chart is reversed intentionally) was the pre-season ranking of #67. As a general rule, #67 ranked teams don’t make March Madness as an at-large bid (you typically need to be in the top 40, give or take, for that), so Rutgers has lots of ground to make up to not only meet, but exceed, their preseason KenPom ranking. You’d want to see Rutgers in the 40s, at least, by mid-March. That’s the goal here.

Second, though Rutgers has been playing much better of late, these improvements have not yet made their way into the KenPom rankings. Rutgers stands at #86 at the time of this writing, second-to-last in the Big Ten above only Nebraska (but Minnesota is at #85 and Penn State is at #75, so Rutgers has company where it currently sits). That’s better than the season low point of 105 right after the Maine game, but only makes up half of the difference to the preseason ranking of 67.

So, why are the advanced analytics not seeing (yet) what should be clear to Rutgers fans who’ve watched the last few games? As far as I can tell, the big reasons why are twofold. One, Rutgers has played four really solid games recently, but two of them were against low majors the model already expected Rutgers to dominate by about the same scores Rutgers actually won those games by, so KenPom doesn’t give them as much credit for those victories. And two, all four of Rutgers’ recent wins have been home games. As a general rule, home game victories don’t count for nearly as much “bump” in the rankings as a road victory against the same caliber of opponent. All of this is to say, if Rutgers beats Penn State and/or Maryland on the road next week, that’s when you’d expect the rankings to begin to shoot upwards. KenPom loves road victories, and tends to weight them greater in terms of impacting how a team is ranked. So, stay tuned on this.

Individual Accolades

Even though Rutgers has had an up and down season this year, several of its players are currently ranked in the top-500 nationally in the metrics KenPom tracks and values. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Cliff Omoruyi: 125th most efficient offensive player in the country; 169th in defensive rebounding rate, 288th in offensive rebounding rate
  • Ron Harper, Jr.: 394th most efficient offensive player in the country (325th if you factor in trips to the line!); 356th in defensive rebounding rate; 130th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage (!!)
  • Geo Baker: 390th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage
  • With respect to assists, I’m going to call Rutgers Assist City now, with three players ranked in the top 500 nationally; they are Paul Mulcahy (96th nationally), Geo Baker (140th) and Caleb McConnell (496th)

Again, I can’t overstate this enough, these are full season numbers (which include the really rocky start Rutgers had to the season), and yet there are many places where Rutgers players are performing really well at parts of the game which really matter.

My other point on this is the 3-point shooting, where right now Rutgers has two players in the top 500 nationally (Ron Harper, Jr. and Geo Baker). Going back through the KenPom era, which started in 2002, the only other Rutgers teams to have two national top-500 sharpshooters were the 2013 (Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears) and 2006 teams (Quincy Douby and JR Inman). Those were, arguably, the two most offensively prolific Rutgers teams of the past 20 years, and that, to me, is the ceiling for the 2021-22 Scarlet Knights as well (crazy as this may be to say right now).

Intermission

These articles sometimes get dense with data and stuff, so I like to break up the density with some music.

Here’s a music video from one of my favorite all-time bands, The War on Drugs, who I’m (hopefully) getting to see live for a hometown show at the Met in Philadelphia later this month. This particular song, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”, has a distinct 80’s vibe and a really great hook. Enjoy as you read the rest of this post.

The Case for Optimism

Take what I’m about to say with a huge grain of salt, because I’m an unabashed homer and optimist when it comes to Rutgers sports, but I think there’s a case for optimism (especially for the rest of January) with respect to how this team is performing. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Rutgers has mostly performed to the level of its competition so far, and there are no more Quad 4 opportunities left. If you were to filter KenPom’s individual aspect rankings by “Conference Only”, you’d find Rutgers is far better team in conference play vs. against non-conference opponents. Specifically, Rutgers is 5th in conference play in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency. Going deeper, they are 3rd in effective field goal percentage and 1st in 3-pt shooting. Defensively, they are 3rd best in conference in disallowing free throw opportunities and 4th in defending the 3 point shot. You might argue with these numbers and say small sample size alert, but OK, one of the four conference games so far was a 35-point shellacking at Illinois and still these are the numbers. I trust them. There aren’t any non-conference opportunities until March (here’s hoping!) so hopefully the Big Ten version of Rutgers continues to stick around.
  2. The January schedule in particular is pretty soft (relatively speaking). There are no cakewalks in the Big Ten right now outside of Nebrasketball. This being said, Rutgers’ conference schedule is back loaded this year with an insane February but a manageable January. Looking at the next six opponents for Rutgers, every single one of those games is winnable. Even the away games are winnable. By winnable, I mean there are zero top-25 away games – the only top-25 matchup in January overall right now is Iowa, which is a home game for Rutgers (and Iowa is barely top-25 at #25). It’s not that Rutgers should be expected to go 6-0 (though that would be nice) through this stretch, but 4-2 or 5-1 should be a reasonable expectation over the next six games. (More on this later.)
  3. Rutgers’ play is trending in the right direction. I touched on this in the earlier section, so I won’t dwell on it here, but qualitatively speaking the COVID pause might have been a blessing in disguise for Rutgers. They’ve come back from it rested, focused, and motivated; you could see it at the end of the Michigan game where Michigan got chippy with Rutgers (because they were frustrated about losing, sure, but also because Rutgers wasn’t about to let up on them, and, well, good! It’s a conference game, you don’t let up unless the game is truly out of reach). Anyway, I’d expect Rutgers to continue to play with a serious chip on its shoulder. They know how the season started, and they know the margin of error they are playing with right now.

The Path Forward (and the Case for Pessimism)

Others have elaborated on this better than I could, but the path for Rutgers to become that #11 NCAA seed absolutely no one wants to play (probably the realistic, best-case scenario right now) is narrow. Rutgers is 3-1 in Big Ten conference play right now, and the goal should be 12-8 to get past the early season losses in the minds of the Selection Committee.

Doing the math, this means Rutgers needs to go 9-7 the rest of the way. Thinking ahead, 5-1 the rest of January should be the bare minimum to get Rutgers to 12-8 for the full conference slate. Here’s why I feel that way:

  • Rutgers on January 9th: 3-1
  • Rutgers on January 31st if 5-1 the rest of January: 8-2
  • If the above is true, Rutgers needs to go 4-6 in February and early March to get to the magical 12-8 number

Even if you assume the 5-1 rest of January, if you look at the KenPom game-by-game future projections, getting to 12-8 is going to be tough. I should say that even going 5-1 in any six-game Big Ten stretch is a challenge, even when each game is against the bottom half(-ish) of the conference. But let’s say for the sake of argument this happens. After that, what’s left in February is a gauntlet, with eight consecutive games against teams currently in the top 31 in KenPom:

  • At Purdue, Michigan, Indiana (KenPom likes Indiana this year) – it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rutgers go 0-3 here
  • Home games against Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State – maybe Rutgers goes 1-2 here?
  • A home and home with Wisconsin, who will probably give Rutgers fits like they almost always do – 1-1 here would be phenomenal

That leaves you with wins vs. Penn State and at Northwestern as must-wins to get to 4-6. So I’m a little bearish on Rutgers’ big-picture chances, I suppose.

If you were to ask me the chances of Rutgers pulling off the 12-8 record in conference play, right now I’d say 25% apropos of nothing – and again, I’m a huge optimist and Rutgers homer, so take this with a huge grain of salt. But that said, there’s always hope, which is nice to have…