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Rutgers in familiar position after Michigan loss

The Scarlet Knights have their backs against the wall yet again and will need a strong close to the season in order to go dancing.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Rutgers men’s basketball suffered a painful 71-62 defeat at the hands of a shorthanded Michigan team. It was a disappointing performance yet again on the road this season and another missed opportunity. Trailing by just one possession with just over 12 minutes left in the game, the Wolverines produced a 11-0 run that the Scarlet Knights were unable to recover from. It was a fatal blow on a night that RU seemed to be teetering on the ropes most of the game even though the score was close up to that point.

“Stops were what was missing,” Pikiell said. “They got on a run there and they got into the lane. We talked a lot about that. They got on a little bit of a run, we had some timely turnovers too, instant opportunities to make some layups and some shots that we did not convert on. All that kind of snowballed. When you are on the road like this, you can’t have stretches like that. We never could seem to get three or four stops in a row either which would have helped us a great deal. Both ends of the floor kind of hurt us tonight. I thought we were just a step slow. I got to make sure we get back, get some rest and get back to our energy and quickness we need to play under.”

Despite missing starting big man Moussa Diabete and sixth man Terrence Williams along with head coach Juwan Howard, all suspended following Sunday’s incident with Wisconsin, Michigan rallied and kept Rutgers off balance all night. Give credit where its due to their players for stepping up and to their coaching staff comprised of arguably the best group of assistants in college basketball with Phil Martelli, Howard Eisley and Saddi Washington. They outplayed and outcoached Rutgers all night.

The Scarlet Knights were unable to gain an advantage in any facet of the game. They were -10 on the boards late in the game before finishing with a -5 rebounding margin. Michigan was sealing off shooters to limit follow ups, limiting RU to just 7 offensive rebounds that resulted in only 7 second chance points. They were also just 2 of 12 from three-point range and only scored 6 points in transition.

Ron Harper Jr. had 19 points on 8 of 14 shooting with 8 rebounds and 3 assists, while Cliff Omoruyi had 17 points on 8 of 9 shooting along with 3 rebounds and 2 steals. Caleb McConnell had a few key plays defensively while finishing with 9 points on 4 of 9 shooting, 9 rebounds and 2 assists.

It was the Rutgers’ backcourt that really struggled. They were unable to contain the smaller guards of Michigan on the defensive end and didn’t get many opportunities near the rim offensively, lacking touch on the shots they did take.

Geo Baker didn’t perform well on both ends. He shot just 2 of 11 from the floor for 6 points and contributing 2 steals but just 1 assist and no rebounds. Too many times he was chasing after his man and making the wrong decision off of screens. As a team, Rutgers failed to close out on shooters.

A big reason why Rutgers was outplayed though was due to the struggles of Paul Mulcahy, who had his worst game in a month when he was held scoreless in a home loss to Maryland. After he picked up his second foul of the game against Michigan, a call questioned by the BTN broadcast crew, Mulcahy sat on the bench for the next seven plus minutes. Rutgers only trailed by 2 points when he returned, but their point guard was never able to recover.

He played just 22 minutes, the third fewest in a game this season, and finished with only 5 points on 2 of 8 shooting with 2 assists and 4 turnovers. It was only the third Big Ten game that Mulcahy had less than 4 assists and Rutgers fell into too many iso sets without his presence on the floor. It resulted in just 10 assists on 27 made field goals, uncharacteristically low for a team with a top 20 assist rate nationally.

When Mulcahy did play in the second half, he forced things and his shots didn’t fall. His frustration was clearly visible as he was unable to find any rhythm after playing the best six game stretch of his career.

“There were just some calls. Foul trouble. He never really got into the flow. Every time he kind of checked into the game he seemed to draw a foul or get called for a foul. He just never got into rhythm. He’s really good, he’ll bounce back.”

As much as Mulcahy elevated the play of Rutgers in the previous six games that was a major reason why Rutgers was able to turn their season around, they were ineffective and inconsistent when he was off his game on Wednesday. For better or worse, this team now goes as Mulcahy goes, which is typical for a team’s point guard but an evolution for this team. His ability to bounce back is hugely important and there’s no reason to doubt that he will.

That goes for this entire Rutgers team as well.

It’s fair to be concerned. Their head coach is as well.

“We were a step slow on both ends of the floor,” Pikiell said. “I was worried about this stretch with our guys. I thought it kind of showed a little bit here. They just seemed a step quicker than us all over the place today. Playing as tough a stretch as any Rutgers team has ever played, then playing two games back-to-back on the road, classes, all those things they got to do, too.”

After the historic winning streak in beating ranked foes in four consecutive games and catapulting into NCAA Tournament contention after being left for dead, does this team have enough left in the tank to finish the job? If we look at the history of this core group of players, there should be real hope that the answer is yes.

In the 2019-2020 season, Rutgers lost six of eight games down the stretch before beating No. 9 Maryland at home and winning at Purdue to clinch what every major bracketologist projected as the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 29 years. Of course, the postseason was cancelled due to Covid-19, but that doesn’t change the reality that Steve Pikiell’s team came through in the clutch when they absolutely had to.

In 2020-2021, they did it again. Rutgers lost four of six games down the stretch with the last defeat being an embarrassing 21 point loss at last place Nebraska. With the pressure at its fullest, the Scarlet Knights won the regular season finale in heart pounding fashion with an overtime win at Minnesota. The 30 year NCAA Tournament drought was officially over and they fell just short of advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1979.

That brings us to present day. After a miserable first month of the 2021-2022 season, Rutgers was an NCAA Tournament non-contender and afterthought entering February. They weren’t even on the NIT bubble per projections at that stage. And then this team rattled off an unprecedented run with wins over No. 13 Michigan State, No. 16 Ohio State, No. 14 Wisconsin, and No. 12 Illinois in consecutive games. They’ve followed that stretch up with two consecutive road losses to No. 5 Purdue and now Michigan. Wednesday’s loss was their worst team performance in almost a month.

With three games remaining, Rutgers is once again heading into the final week plus of the season with their NCAA Tournament hopes hanging in the balance. The fan base is justifiably nervous but a moment for pause is needed.

Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy have been the core of players that have been key pieces for all three of those teams.

“(Always playing big games) is just the way it is in this league,” Pikiell said. “(The Big Ten has) great teams, challenges galore. Every game, these guys are used to it. We got to win every game from day one. Everyone asks about the tournament from day one, before the season even starts. These guys have been through that. That is not an issue for these guys. We’re confident.”

Every team establishes a personality and identity based on the individuals that they are made up of. We all have our own issues in every day life. Whether its being consistently late for appointments or events, being bad with money, incapable of avoiding late night snacks, being messy, etc. Whatever your vice is, we all have them.

For whatever reason, Rutgers has the stress causing habit of being backed into a corner down the stretch of a season while being on the verge of their ultimate goal slipping away. That’s a personality flaw in a way, but their true identity is playing at their best when this does happen and their backs are firmly pressed against the wall.

This season, they’ve decided to exercise this trait several times and have yet to flatline.

After the three consecutive defeats to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass, this team was written off.

The sky threatened to fall after a 17 point drubbing at Penn State. Back to back losses to a depleted Minnesota team on the road followed by a no show performance in the home loss to Maryland and the writing was on the wall.

The 1 point overtime loss to Northwestern on February 1 unofficially marked the end by a sizeable portion of the fan base. With a daunting schedule ahead, it was a fair thought.

And yet, time and time again, this team fights its way back from the depths of college basketball disappointment to surge into March Madness relevancy.

With a NET ranking of 83 after the loss to Michigan, this Rutgers team is fighting history once again. Instead of a program burden on their shoulders to overcome in making the big dance for the first time in three decades, they have the weight of knowing no team has ever made the NCAA Tournament with such a low standing with the computers. Thankfully, the Selection Committee is comprised of human beings. Regardless of where Rutgers finishes within the NET rankings, a strong finish lends the belief they will in fact make the NCAA Tournament in back to back seasons for the first time in 46 years.

For the ultimate comeback team, one more is required for them to avoid a season ending that would be considered a disappointment in every way.

With a home game on Saturday against a high Quad 1 team in Wisconsin that is projected as a top 4 seed, along with a Quad 1 road game at Indiana, two major opportunities to regain momentum and bolster their NCAA Tournament resume are right in front of this team. Senior Day at home to avenge an earlier loss to Penn State concludes the regular season. They’re all challenging but also all winnable. The Big Ten Tournament follows with even more opportunity.

That’s why even though the loss to Michigan is disappointing and adds tension, it hasn’t actually changed anything other than the confidence of the fan base. Nothing is off the table that was there the day before. The pressure is just greater, but that’s been proven a positive for this group time and time again.

This three year run for Rutgers men’s basketball has been thrilling and maddening at the same time, where the unbelievable becomes the reality. Baffling blowouts or last second losses to inferior opponents, road struggles and prolonged slumps are countered with historic wins and performances, stifling defense and team progression not believed possible earlier in the season.

That’s why dismissing this group now would be a mistake. This team isn’t going to blink in the face of doubt and adversity. In fact, it has always brought the best out of them in the past and because of that, you can’t count them out until it’s actually over. It’s only late February, but the madness has already started for Rutgers. That’s become the new normal for this program. Fans should embrace it just like this team always has because it’s proven to be a sign that the best is yet to come.

To hear what Rutgers needs to do to make the NCAA Tournament as well as much more about NET rankings, team comparisons, multiple scenarios and more, listen our recent podcast episode with highly rated Bracketologist Brad Wachtel here: