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Role development key to Rutgers’ historic winning streak

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The Scarlet Knights have come together as a team in a major way.

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

A major key to the winning streak over ranked opponents in the last four games for Rutgers men’s basketball has been the ascension of the starting lineup as a unit and each player fulfilling new roles. The balanced scoring, team defense and contributions from everyone in multiple areas has elevated this team’s play to an elite level. Let’s review how the roster has performed as the Scarlet Knights have gone from March afterthought to potential postseason matchup nightmare.

Paul Mulcahy

Averages: 14.5 points, 7.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio

Shooting: 22-36 FG (61.1%), 5-8 3-pt FG (62.5%), 9-10 FT (90.0%)

The most improved offensive player in the Big Ten over the past three weeks has completely changed the dynamic of this Rutgers team. He’s actually scored in double digits for six games in a row after doing so just five times in the first 19 contests of the season. It started with his offensive rebound and putback that was the game winner against Nebraska, finishing with 10 points with that clutch basket. His 31 point outburst against Northwestern followed in what was nothing short of a heroic performance even in defeat. It was the catalyst for his newfound mentality of looking to score first.

It’s changed the way teams have to defend Rutgers. Mulcahy has learned to use his size advantage (6’6”) against his almost always smaller defenders that guard him. His lack of first step quickness that is key in penetrating off the bounce has been nullified by his crafty approach of physically creating space in the paint by backing down his defenders off the dribble instead. With his confidence now high, he is generating better looks at the basket and making a much higher percentage of shots. He did do some of this earlier in the season, but not with the same authority or assertiveness, which resulted in more missed shots than makes.

In addition, the reason his score first mentality is working so well is that his decision making and passing ability are on a elite level. His aggressiveness in looking to score actually has opened up opportunities to create scoring chances for his teammates. That’s partly why his assists per game is even higher during this four game stretch than it is for the season. The fact that Mulcahy is handling the rock even more so now and his assist-to-turnover ratio is still very good speaks volumes about his play.

Teams can no longer focus just on Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. as scoring threats. If they do now, Mulcahy will lull them to sleep and make them pay. His willingness to take shots in big moments has been something during this streak and he’s come through time and time again. Now he’s added a two man game with Cliff Omoruyi with the high pick and roll, as well as taking advantage of the big fella’s improved awareness and footwork inside to find him in better position to score.

Add in Mulcahy’s steady improvement this season defensively, from the free throw line and on the glass this year and the result is a legitimate point forward with a unique skill set that has become a matchup nightmare for Big Ten opponents.

Cliff Omoruyi

Averages: 13.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks

Shooting: 23-31 FG (74.2%), 9-14 FT (64.3%)

The emergence of Omoruyi in the past month has been extremely impressive as we’ve seen him blossom despite the competition increasing. Like Mulcahy, his improvement scoring wise started in the loss against Northwestern when he scored 22 points in the 1 point loss. Their willingness to play off of each other has made them both harder to defend and Cliff’s positioning inside, as well as his ability to post up and make shots 5-10 feet from the rim has been a key development. While his highlight dunks are still his strength, you can see the growth in his game offensively. His shooting efficiency is improved and his free throw shooting better as well, which is a big upgrade from that position last season.

Another more subtle development in Cliff’s game has been on the defensive end with his block to foul rate. He’s only committed more than two fouls once during this four game stretch when he picked up 3 against Ohio State. He was called for three or more fouls in five of the first six games this season, as well as six of the first nine and eleven of the first seventeen contests. The 3 fouls against OSU is the only time he’s exceeded 2 fouls over the last eight games. Incredible. At the same time, Omoruyi had just 6 blocks in the first 12 games this season. In his last 13 games, he’s blocked at least 2 shots in a game 11 times, including in all four wins over ranked foes the past two weeks.

With rebounding, Omoruyi totaled double digit boards once in his first 11 games but has now grabbed 10 or more boards in 7 of his last 14. He actually didn’t rebound as much against Michigan State and Ohio State (9 total) in part because Rutgers shot over 50% in both contests.

Overall, his improvement can also be traced to his own confidence and mentality. What has struck me the most is his fearlessness inside and that was on full display against Kofi Cockburn, the best big man in the conference. Kofi was difficult to stop on the offensive end, but Cliff was the one who had more control of the game. He played with an edge that this team desperately needs and its becoming a regular occurrence. Omoruyi is just scratching the surface of his potential and the possibility of his continued progress in the stretch run of this season is an exciting prospect.

Caleb McConnell

Averages: 7.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 steals, 0.8 assists, 1 season saving block

Shooting: 13-28 FG (46.4%), 2-6 3-pt FG (33.3%), 2-3 FT (66.7%)

McConnell’s absolutely catapulted himself into the conversation for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year during this four game winning streak. His block against Ohio State might eventually be remembered as the most important play of the season as it changed the game and the trajectory of this season. He followed it up by limiting third leading scorer in the Big Ten, Johnny Davis, to just half of his season scoring average and didn’t allow him to take one easy shot. Against Illinois, he held their second leading scorer and the top transfer player in the league, Alfonso Plummer, to just 4 points.

Over 4 games, McConnell has swiped at least four steal in each but it’s the impact of them that’s been such a big deal. Several times during this streak, the opposition was gaining momentum and Rutgers needed a stop. McConnell came through with steals that led to layups on the other end. His disruptiveness on the floor has been a big reason the Scarlet Knights have dominated in transition, holding a stunning 52-7 advantage in fast break points during this winning streak.

On the flip side, McConnell has settled into a secondary role on offense. He isn’t playing iso ball anymore or taking as many contested jumpers out of rhythm. He’s letting scoring opportunities come to him and focusing on rebounding. He hit a very difficult shot in a big spot midway through the second half at Wisconsin when Rutgers was struggling offensively and needed a basket.

McConnell is fearless, but he’s also playing very smart and within himself. Great teams have one starter who is the defensive stopper that is tough as nails, grabs rebounds, wins 50/50 balls and makes winning plays. He reminds me of Ray Jackson from the Fab Five. He’s always been a glue guy for this program, but he’s elevated his game to an elite level during this streak.

Geo Baker

Averages: 15.0 points, 4.8 assists, 2.0 rebounds, 1.0 steal, 0.8 blocks, 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio

Shooting: 20-40 FG (50.0%), 8-19 3-pt FG (42.1%), 12-16 FT (75.0%)

I’ve said it for years that Geo is much harder to defend when he plays off the ball. He’s had to handle the rock the majority of his career out of a necessity at times, but the development of Mulcahy has been beneficial for Baker, who is playing the most complete basketball of his career. His 108.2 offensive rating this season is easily the best of his career, but it’s been his willingness to play different roles depending on the game that’s been the most impressive development in his own game. This winning streak is the perfect example.

After playing arguably the worst game of his career in being held scoreless in the 1 point loss at Northwestern, Baker has responded like a true winner. He’s making sure the ball move on offense and is playing very solid defense. He took over the end of the Ohio State game by scoring 8 points and dishing out an assist in the 10-0 run to win the game. He made sure Rutgers started strong against Wisconsin by scoring 16 first half points. Against Illinois, he wasn’t in the flow on offense, but he didn’t try to force things either. And when the Illini were threatening late, it was Geo who Rutgers needed with the ball to settle things down on the press.

His scoring and shooting percentages are up during this win streak but so are his assists. His support and encouragement of Mulcahy during all of this should not be discounted either. He’s helped lead this team while also not needing to be the primary scorer all the time. His maturity and growth as a player has been a storyline not as obvious but important nonetheless.

Ron Harper Jr.

Averages: 15.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 1.0 block

Shooting: 19-48 FG (39.6%), 8-22 3-pt FG (36.4%), 14-18 FT (77.8%)

The leading scorer for Rutgers has actually averaged just under his season scoring average during the winning streak and has shot below his norm as well. He’s struggled to finish near the rim at times and isn’t getting the calls inside that a player of his caliber typically gets in the Big Ten. Even so, Harper Jr. is showing a toughness and resolve that has been key for this team.

Harper Jr. during this four game stretch is scoring in a way that you look up late in the game and are surprised he’s gotten as many points as he does. He’s knocked down some big threes, but he’s also attacking the rim and getting to the foul line. His consistency has been important all season but he’s maintained his production while the rest of his teammates have improved on their own. That has been a key part of this four game winning streak.

In addition, Ron’s defense has been really good all season and he’s guarded bigger players during this recent stretch. He doesn’t get enough credit for his defense but it’s been a reason that this team has been so connected on that end of the floor.

He’s currently listed as day-to-day after injuring a finger at the end of the Illinois game and he’s obviously hugely important for this team the rest of the way. He’s played a ton of minutes this season and I don’t expect him to miss much time, if any, with this current injury. He’s invaluable to this team, but he also understands the importance of the development of his teammates. The chemistry is really strong and the leaders of this team in Harper Jr. and Baker should get credit for fostering that.

Bench

Dean Reiber has played between 7-10 minutes in each of the last four wins and has provided a spark most of the time. He plays with energy and has a strong understanding of his role. He hasn’t been afraid to take shots or defend inside. Reiber has his limitations, but his 12 point performance against Michigan State was a major part of that blowout victory. He had 5 points and 3 rebounds against Illinois including a three-pointer that almost blew the lid off the RAC.

The moment that Reiber showed he belonged in my opinion was in the loss at Minnesota. Late in the game, he had a huge blocked shot, a huge steal and forced a tie up for a jump ball that went Rutgers way. He made winning plays and he continues to do so in pretty much every appearance he makes. Written off FAR too early by some fans, all of sudden Reiber has been the most reliable bench player on the team.

Aundre Hyatt wasn’t a factor in the wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin, but he played 13 minutes against Ohio State and Illinois. That shouldn’t be a surprise based on the matchups with those opponents and he provided solid minutes off the bench. He scored 4 points on 3 shots against the Buckeyes and grabbed 5 rebounds in the win over the Illini while scoring 3 points. He’s been up and down this season while struggling with his shot, but he’s a tough player that isn’t afraid to mix it up on both ends. Rutgers needs him and he contributed in two of the four wins during this historic stretch.

Mawot Mag’s best game was a 2 point, 3 rebound performance in 13 minutes at Wisconsin. He tends to play better on the road and defends well at times. He’s been up and down as well but has shown potential to be a game changer off the bench in wins over Purdue and Nebraska. Expect him to be a factor soon as Pikiell is going to keep giving him first half minutes to earn second half minutes.

Can Rutgers Sustain This Level of Play?

The answer is yes and no. I don’t believe what we are witnessing is a fluke but rather this team fulfilling its potential. They aren’t playing over their heads but rather playing together. The starters have accepted roles that make the team better.

Baker and Harper Jr. understand that Mulcahy running the offense and being assertive makes them harder to defend. Mulcahy, an unselfish player, realizes the importance of dictating the action as a way to get his teammates more involved than him deferring and being passive. Cliff just wants to punish people inside and has the confidence to do it, but also a better understanding of how to be effective now. And McConnell is now solely focused on being as dominant as possible on the defensive end and shutting the best players on the other team down. When the bench comes in, they provide energy and there is little drop off. The starters keep them involved and Rutgers has had at least one of their three main guys off the bench contribute in every game.

Rutgers isn’t going to win out the regular season, but I think they’re in a good position to win multiple games. They know their identity now. They share the basketball on offense and are connected defensively. They are attacking the glass as a team and don’t allow big scoring runs from the opposition. Playing a full 40 minutes has been a huge development and cured their woes of having repeatedly poor starts in games.

The development of Mulcahy, Omoruyi and Reiber have been instrumental in this team taking a major step forward during this four game winning streak. The acceptance of their greater roles by the three seniors and meshing their own roles with them has been equally important. Steve Pikiell knows his team and has them prepared, focused and playing for each other.

Rutgers is the team no one else wants to play. They will lose a game again, but I don’t think it will be as much self-inflicted but rather the opponent deserving to win. And when that happens, the Scarlet Knights will make them earn it. They’ve turned playing hard into an art form during this winning streak. With this team continuing to play with the mentality that their backs are against the wall, they’ll fight as much as possible to make the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, Rutgers know their roles and how to play to their capabilities. The rest of the Big Ten has been put on notice.