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Five things that Rutgers needs to do well to make the NCAA Tournament

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The Scarlet Knights are mired in a three game losing streak but can turn things around quickly if they improve in these areas.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 26 Wisconsin at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rutgers men’s basketball enters the final week of the regular season with their backs firmly pressed against the wall for a third consecutive year. They came through the past two seasons and have the opportunity to do it once again. While defense and rebounding as a whole are critically important to beating both Indiana and Penn State, here are five specific areas that the Scarlet Knights need to get back to doing in order to have success both this week and hopefully, in the NCAA Tournament as well.

Get Paul Mulcahy back on track

As the season has progressed, it’s become abundantly clear that as Paul Mulcahy goes, so does Rutgers, for better or for worse. This isn’t to pin all of the wins and losses solely on his shoulders, but his impact on this team is significant.

During Rutgers’ wins over ranked opponents in four consecutive games in mid-February, Mulcahy averaged 14.5 points, 7.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 0.8 steals and he had a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. He shot 61.1% from the floor, 62.5% from three-point range and made 9 of 10 free throws for 90.0%. That stretch followed a breakout 31 point, 7 assist performance against Northwestern in which he almost single handedly brought the Scarlet Knights back from a 24 point deficit to lost by 1. He had the putback to beat Nebraska the game before, which started the best six game stretch of Mulcahy’s career and was the catalyst for Rutgers turning its season around.

Since?

During the current three game losing streak, he has averaged 9.0 points, 3.0 assists, 2.3 rebounds while committing 12 turnovers and 13 fouls. He has shot relatively well, shooting 50% from the floor and from behind the arc, as well as 75% from the foul line.

Mulcahy has remained aggressive when he is in the game, but opponents are adjusting to his improved game and it’s in part, frustrating him into costly mistakes. He continues to look for his shot and is still making a high percentage, but opponents are expecting it now and less passing lanes are opening up. He’s become more predictable and forcing the issue more, as well as making more questionable decisions with the basketball.

The point guard had been called for more than three fouls just three times over the first 25 games, but has been called for more than three fouls in all three games of the losing streak. His minutes per game during the winning streak was 35.3 while he’s averaging just 27 minutes during the losing streak. Due to longer stretches on the bench, Mulcahy is pressing more when he gets back into the game and forcing the action a bit too much at times, leading to miscues.

In addition, his less effective play on the offensive end is hurting the team’s flow in the halfcourt. Rutgers was 14th nationally with a 61.5% assist rate as a team after the winning streak, but they have assisted on just 41% of made baskets in the three games since, all losses. Bad habits have returned as the tendency to fall into isolation offense with players dribbling too much and going one on one, versus ball reversals. This team has a tendency to get frustrated as a whole when good looks don’t fall and they force things offensively. The ball sticks too much when he isn’t directing the action and Rutgers is much better offensively when they’re sharing the basketball on a consistent basis.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Mulcahy’s game is his poise. When he is playing well, he brings energy, makes great decisions and Rutgers can sustain a high level of play in the flow of the game. His frustration with foul calls, both the lack there of when he attacks the rim and some soft calls when he’s played help side defense has been an issue. A lack of poise has sabotaged his play and thus the team’s. He’s as tough a player physically as there is in the Big Ten, but Mulcahy has to be more mentally strong and focused through adversity. Rutgers has to expect to not get certain calls at this point and play hard through the challenges that arise, rather than get bogged down by the officials.

All of this is to say the ceiling for this team when Mulcahy plays to his potential is sky high. He’s having the best season that a Rutgers point guard has had in decades and is on pace to be the first player in the program to average more than 5 assists per game in 37 years. Getting him back on track and leading this team on Wednesday is hugely important to their success as he makes Rutgers more dynamic, harder to defend and has become their emotional leader as well.

Shooting and Defending the Three

Rutgers has shot incredibly well from three-point range in Big Ten play this season, connecting on 38.2% of attempts through the first 15 league games. That included an even better stretch during the four game winning streak where they shot 41.9% and averaged 6.5 makes per game. However, they’ve gone cold during the recent losing streak, making just 11 of 44 attempts from deep for 25%. They’re also making less than four three-pointers per game. It’s a telling statistic because opponents shooting about the same as they were during both the recent winning and losing streaks.

Big Ten foes made 31 of 84 shots from behind the arc for 36.9% during the four games Rutgers won against ranked opponents. During this three game slide, opponents have made 24 of 64 attempts from three for 37.5%.

The difference is opponents are making roughly four more shots from behind the arc than Rutgers is during the losing streak. That differential is more impactful than actual shooting percentage. The key takeaway is that RU doesn’t have to shoot lights out from deep, but have to be more competent and make closer to around six three-balls per game.

The flip side is that Rutgers has allowed too high of a shooting percentage from behind the arc for opponents overall but the margin for error is less now that they aren’t as efficient offensively. Closing out on shooters has been an issue in being slow on ball reversals and kick outs. Indiana is 12th in league play and Penn State is 8th in three-point shooting, so the Scarlet Knights have an opportunity to limit them from the outside. Neither team shoots particularly well from two-point range either, 11th and 12th respectively, so keeping explosive offense to a minimum is essential over the next two games.

Get Ron Harper Jr. rebounding and to the foul line

To be clear, Harper Jr. has been incredibly consistent as a scorer and his defense remains underrated in my opinion. That being said, Rutgers tends to play better when he asserts himself in the paint.

The Scarlet Knights are 10-3 this season when he grabs six or more rebounds. They are 7-1 when he grabs 8+ boards.

In addition, Rutgers is an amazing 10-1 when Harper Jr. gets to the line for 5 or more attempts in a game. He is shooting 80.9% from the charity stripe this season and is second in Big Ten play at 89.9%. However, he is only 11th in the league in attempts.

While Harper Jr. was a perfect 8 for 8 over the last three games, that simply isn’t enough attempts for such an accurate free throw shooter as he has become. Rutgers needs him attacking the basket and generating foul calls through contact. He’s also strong enough to finish at the rim on contact and is able to convert three-point plays the hard way.

He is the best three-point shooter on the team at 38.8% but he’s just 4 of 18 during the losing streak. When he isn’t hitting from three and not getting to the rim as much, its a problem. He can finish in traffic and use his strength at the basket in a way no one else on the team other than Cliff Omoruyi can. They need him to do so to reduce scoring droughts.

Pikiell has preached to Harper Jr. in the past about how often Rutgers wins when he rebounds, as they went 9-1 last season when he grabbed at least seven rebounds last season. Getting him downhill and a factor both offensively and on the boards this week is very important to this team having success when they need it most.

Bonus stat, Rutgers is 7-1 when Harper Jr. gets to the line for at least 5 attempts AND grabs at least 6 rebounds.

Transition offense

When Rutgers runs and scores on the break, they are much harder to beat. It was an area they struggled in to start the season and hence, suffered losses to inferior opponents in part because of it. During the four game winning streak, Rutgers outscored four ranked opponents by an incredible margin of 52-7. Obviously that’s not a sustainable differential, but more so in allowing that few transition baskets. When RU is pushing the pace off of steals and defensive rebounds, they are so much harder to defend. They rely less on the halfcourt sets and can use their athleticism in the open floor.

Not surprisingly, they’ve been outscored 19-17 on the fast break during this losing streak. The 7 points against Wisconsin was the most in any of the three contests. Again, defensively they’ve been fine in transition. It’s when they get stagnant and their defense fails to generate offense is when it’s a problem. Pikiell cited fouling as an issue in particular against Purdue, when they scored just 4 fast break points. The game slows and the defense can get back on makes.

The cleaner defense Rutgers plays, the better they are at forcing turnovers and controlling the boards, the better they will be in scoring in transition. It’s really a must have they want to finish the season strong and make, as well as advance in the NCAA Tournament.

Limit big runs/Slow Starts

Slow starts has been the downfall of this team all season. In November, they played down to their competition repeatedly and got burned in losses to DePaul and most painfully, Lafayette. They couldn’t ever make the Seton Hall game particularly close because of double digit deficits in both halves. Six games in Big Ten play in January and early February resulted in 2-4 record after trailing by double digits in the first half. It didn’t happen during win streak once as Rutgers often either jumped out to a lead right from the opening tip or played toe to toe before outlasting their opponents in the final minutes of the game. However, over the last week, Rutgers fell behind by double figures in the first half to both Purdue and Wisconsin. To their credit, they got back into both games, but were unable to sustain the comeback and lost both. Against Michigan, Rutgers was struggling but was within one possession of the lead with 12 minutes to play. This time, they allowed a crushing, game ending 11-0 run that they were not able to overcome.

Turnovers, poor shot selection, and allowing second chance points are a part of the problem. The other issue is the bench is not providing a scoring boost. This wasn’t as much of an issue when four starters averaged between 14-15 points during the four game winning streak. Now that things have leveled off, none of the reserves have been able to make a significant impact offensively. This makes Rutgers more prone to scoring droughts and allowing big runs from opponents. Of course, part of it goes back to Mulcahy being off the floor and poor shot selection as well.

It’s all related, but coming out of the gates with urgency, energy and discipline on both ends is paramount for Rutgers to come through for a third consecutive time in the final week of the regular season. The opportunity to go dancing is still very much alive. This team can literally beat anyone when they play to their capabilities. They’re still projected in 44 of 106 current bracket projections as of Monday per the Bracket Matrix. With a head to head bubble matchup against Indiana followed by Penn State on senior night at home, it’s up to Rutgers to take advantage of it once again.