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Men’s Basketball Begins 5-Game Gauntlet on Wednesday in Miami

The 5-1 Knights have 5 challenging games in 18 days, starting with a trip to Coral Gables

Caleb McConnell | Rutgers Men’s Basketball
Rutgers Athletics

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights currently sit at 5-1, easily running through their 5 home opponents with their one slip-up being at a neutral Mohegan Sun Arena, falling to the Temple Owls. Unlike the 2021 season however, this Rutgers team currently has no bad losses with Temple sitting at a very respectable No. 98 in the latest KenPom rankings.

Here’s a look at No. 35 Rutgers’s upcoming slate with their opponents’s KenPom ranking in parenthesis.

11/30 - @ Miami Hurricanes (No. 44) | Coral Gables, FL 7:15 PM ESPN U

12/03 - vs. Indiana (No. 11) | Jersey Mike’s Arena 4:00 PM

12/8 - @ Ohio Sate (No. 19) | Columbus, OH 7:00 PM

12/11 - vs. Seton Hall (No. 56) | Jersey Mike’s Arena 6:30 PM

12/17 - vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (No. 76) | Jersey Mike’s Arena 12:00 PM

A quick refresher on KenPom can be found here from OnTheBanks contributor Fred Gaudios. The key with these rankings is that they are entirely based on offensive and defensive efficiency, so it’s less about wins / losses and margin of victory and more about a team’s overall performance on the court. Obviously, teams that play good defense to complement efficient offenses will usually have winning records.

Reasons for Pessimism: Road Woes

My concern about Wednesday night’s game in Coral Gables is the usual one with a coach Pikiell team - will they be prepared to compete at the opening tip-off on the road or can we expect another typically slow start away from Jersey Mike’s Arena? The Knights dug themselves a 19-point hole against Temple and came up short as they furiously rallied late in the 2nd half. That’s not gonna fly against Miami on Wednesday night. A solid performance would certainly help boost the Knights’s confidence heading into the first two conference games of the season against Big Ten favorite Indiana and another very challenging road match in Columbus against the Buckeyes.

There will be no raucous RAC (aka JMA) to bail out the Knights if they are lethargic against the Canes and the Buckeyes. If Rutgers falls behind big early, look for Coach Pike to energize the team by running a full court press with McConnell back in the lineup and defensive specialist Jalen Miller able to hound the opposing team’s top guard. One can argue Pikiell waited 15 minutes too long employing the full court against Temple and that he won’t be as patient against Miami.

The Hurricanes enter Wednesday’s game at 6-1, with their lone loss also at Mohegan Sun Arena, falling to the Maryland Terrapins 88-70. Their most impressive wins to date have been at home against No. 75 Providence, 74-64 and on the road at No. 71 UCF, 66-64. Jim Larranaga, veteran head Coach of nearly 40 seasons, knows how to get the most out of his players and adjust to the game’s tempo. He’ll be ready for the Rutgers full court press and have his own plan counter the pressure.

Reason for Optimism: Coaching and Defense

For the Scarlet Knights, it’s all about playing their game, which starts with an elite No. 10 ranked defense putting pressure on the ball, defending the perimeter and rebounding. Fortunately for the Knights. Big Ten returning defensive player of the year Caleb McConnell is back, seeing his first action of the season in this past Saturday’s rout of Central Connecticut State. Against a smaller team in Miami that likes to play isolation ball with their quick guards, McConnell, along with Jalen Miller and Mawot Mag, will need to hound Miami’s shooters and contest shots while junior big man Cliff Omoruyi protects the rim and cleans up the glass.

Miami is a small team, relying on the quickness and athleticism of guards Isiah Wong (6’4) and Nigel Pack (6’0). Cam Spencer and Derek Simpson will have their hands full but help may be on the way as point guard Paul Mulcahy is potentially set to return after missing the last 3 games due to a shoulder injury. Size does matter. Freshman forward Antwone Woolfolk and junior Aundre Hyatt should have ample opportunity to leverage their size advantage in the paint and score points if Mulcahy and Simpson can get them the ball.

While Rutgers is an elite team defensively to date at No. 10 nationally, they are only slightly above average offensively at No. 107 overall. I think most Scarlet fans can agree that winning starts on D with this team and will be absolutely crucial over the next 5 games.

From my eye test, if the offense continues to run up-tempo and move well without the ball, not standing around and plodding like we’ve seen in years past, they will score enough points to be in position to win these games. Shooting the ball well and making free throws certainly won’t hurt. If Cam Spencer can continue to hit 47% on 3s, Derek Simpson’s offensive game continues to improve, and Cliff averages a double-double, this team can rack up wins. If Mulcahy potentially returns to the lineup Wednesday, look for a big game from Cliff, which will only help free up Spencer, Simpson, Hyatt, and Mag for open looks.

A Final Note

One thing we can count on - Rutgers under coach Pike has short-term memory after poor performances. We are very much likely to see a real clunker during this 5-game stretch but you can count on a coach Pike team to be resilient and follow up a clunker with an inspired performance. Regardless of the outcome Wednesday, this team will be ready to go against Indiana on Saturday.