The day began with some good injury news for the Scarlet Knights: point guard Paul Mulcahy was cleared to return to the lineup, putting the Scarlet Knights at full strength for the first time this season. On the Hoosier bench, star freshman point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino was forced to sit out the game after suffering back spasms during pre-game warmups.
Rutgers entered the match at 5-2, blowing a double-digit lead midway through the 2nd half in Coral Gables against the Miami Hurricanes this past Wednesday. The Hoosiers came into play rolling at 7-0 and No. 10 in the nation, owning impressive victories over Xavier and North Carolina, whom they rolled over this past Wednesday in Bloomington.
Following the Miami loss, I made the mistake of visiting a couple of Facebook and Twitter fan threads. The vitriol dished out by armchair point guards is not for the feint of heart. “They suck”, “the season’s over”, and “they will get trashed by Indiana” were some examples of the frustration unleashed by a somewhat angry segment of the fanbase. I do believe though that any sane Rutgers fan has seen the resiliency of this program under Coach Pikiell. It’s no longer a surprise when the Knights follow a tough road loss by taking out a strong opponent at home, in front of a raucous, sold out Jersey Mike’s Arena (aka The Rac).
Indiana came into the game ranked 27th in offensive efficiency and 11th defensively, according to the latest KenPom metrics. Rutgers entered 112th offensively and 7th defensively. It was clear that for Rutgers to win this game, they would have to do it with the Coach Pikiell staples of defense and rebounding.
Now, what if I told you that Knights big man Cliff Omoruyi would only play 3 minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls in 20 seconds and net 6 total points? And sharpshooter Cam Spencer would only tally 3 points? Not good right? Well, that’s why they play the full game and coach Pikiell gets paid the big bucks.
Rutgers was able to withstand nearly the entire first half with Omoruyi on the bench through relentless rebounding and attacking the rim. Indiana would tie the game at 10-all with 13 minutes remaining in the first half but the Scarlet Knights would then take a 12-10 lead on a layup by Aundre Hyatt and would not relinquish the lead again until the 2nd half.
Coach Pike’s defensive strategy was clear - pack the paint, double-team Indiana star forward Trayce Jackson-Davies and make him work for every single point inside and force the Hoosiers to beat you from outside. Jackson-Davies was his usual stellar net protector on defense but on offense, he was only able to tally 5 first-half points and 13 for the game. Northwestern transfer Miller Koop was able to keep the Hoosiers close in the first half with 13 points, and led all Indiana players with 21 points overall.
Neither team shot well in the half, with Rutgers hitting 32% of their shots and Indiana 29% but when you dominate your opponent on the glass with an astounding 14 offensive rebounds, you get to head to the locker room with a 31-24 seven point lead.
In the 2nd half, Indiana looked to finally be calming down and settling in. Down 33-27, the Hoosiers rattled off 8 straight points to take a 35-33 lead with just under 14 minutes left and Knights fans were left to wonder if we would see a similar fold down the stretch as witnessed against Miami.
All was not lost though. Old reliable, Caleb McConnell, would hit a clutch 3-pointer at the 12:52 mark to put the Knights up 38-37 and then budding freshman star Derek Simpson would put the team on his back, scoring 10 straight points and whipping the Jersey Mikes's fanbase into a frenzy. The Knights would continue to play suffocating defense while Mag, McConnell, and Simpson tallied buckets and Big Cliff notched two free throws as the team cruised to a 63-48 victory.
The Hoosiers were clearly rattled by a raucous JMA crowd. Trayce Jackson-Davies spoke after Indiana’s rout of North Carolina this past week on how they were tired of losing to Rutgers and looked forward to the challenge of breaking the 5-now-6 game losing streak to the Knights. Unlike the poised, dominant team they have been early in the season, Indiana was chippy, over-emotional and let Caleb and the swarming Rutgers defense get under their skin far too often, resulting in costly fouls and turnovers.
Fans may remember Indiana guard Xavier Johnson putting his hands around Mulcahy’s neck during last season’s 2022 season finale that ultimately was won by Rutgers when Ron Harper Jr. nailed a 3-pointer with seconds remaining to ruin the Hoosiers’s senior day. Today, McConnell, who like an elephant forgets absolutely nothing, made sure to get in Johnson’s ear every opportunity he could and it went as expected for the Hoosiers and their point guard.
Speaking of Harpers, 5-star Dylan, who has received offers from both schools, was in attendance. Dylan may not attend Rutgers but I would bet Indiana is officially off his radar after today’s game.
A star is born. After Cam Spencer’s poor performance against Miami, Scarlet Knights fans rightfully wondered who would fill the scoring void. That was answered today with the clutch performance of Simpson. Watching young guard Simpson put up all of his 14 points in the second half, creating space for his shots and with speed that Indiana’s quickness could not contain, as well as the ability on defense to draw charges and cause turnovers, it’s clear he’s going to be a big-time player for this program. There will be times this season when Simpson’s shots are not falling but this is one player that absolutely must keep shooting the ball.
Had he gone into a shell after a slow first half today instead of having the confidence to put the team on his back and take the money shots, a victory may have been very much in doubt.
Having Mulcahy back in the lineup was truly a calming presence for all involved. Paul’s ability to see the floor and calm the pace of play during adverse stretches really helps the other four on offense play their game. It’s downright fun watching Simpson fly down the court, taking a long pass from Mulcahy in stride, and knocking down a wide open three. Though Omoruyi wasn’t able to exert himself down low today against Jackson-Davies, look for Mulcahy to rack up assists feeding the big man the ball against less athletic Big Ten squads.
Mawot Mag looks fantastic. Mag finished with 7 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks. He’s crashing the glass and rebounding - that’s ask No. 1 from the coaching staff. But Mag is also attacking the rim and scoring in the paint. He’s not settling by chucking up threes anymore and he is no longer wildly flinging up shots towards the basket.
Caleb McConnell is in mid-season form and making life miserable for the opposing offense. McConnell finished with a team-leading 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 steals and one would imagine he’s only going to get better this season.
Aundre Hyatt added a quiet 11 points, trailing only Simpson. If he can limit his urge to chuck up 3s (1-6 today) and concentrate on high-percentage shots, he will be a crucial contributor on offense all season.
Good solid work by Reiber and Woolfolk to hold down the fort while Cliff sat. While they both didn’t contribute offensively, each had 2 rebounds and Woolfolk had a nice block. Both did a nice job clogging up the paint on defense.
The Trapezoid of Terror is as terrifying as ever. 8,000 raucous fans and a swarming, physical defense is going to make life a living hell for many teams this season. When this team is running top-10 squads off the court, it’s fun.
Another challenging road match, this Thursday, December 8th, in Columbus against No. 25 Ohio State. It will be interesting to see how the Scarlet Knights at full strength matchup against a Top 25 road foe.