A slow start that resulted in being written off by some fans in November has made Paul Mulcahy’s emergence in Big Ten play that much more fun to watch. After struggling to adjust to his new role as the starting point guard and primary ball handler early in the season, something has clicked for the 6’6” junior from Bayonne, New Jersey. Actually, more like exploded.
This past week has been the culmination of Mulcahy’s evolution from supporting cast member to spirited leader and the guy that makes the offense work. After a 31 point, 7 assist, 7 rebound performance in which he almost single handedly willed Rutgers to victory after trailing by 24 points, Mulcahy delivered a surgical effort with 15 points, 12 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal.
“He’s been great. He’s aggressive. He’s a good player,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “He’s always done a lot of things for us that don’t show up in the box score. He’s sharing the ball, that’s what he does. He’s a joy. He comes to practice every day. He’s a winner. Really pleased. He’s worked hard to put his game at that kind of place and he’s playing really well.”
On the offensive end, Mulcahy was able to physically dictate the action, backing down his defender into the paint and setting the tone.
“Mulcahy bully-balled us,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. “We knew he was going to do that but we didn’t handle it very well with our help.”
Above all else to start this season, it appeared that the biggest issue was his own confidence. He was hesitant at times and didn’t look comfortable running the offense. After shooting 39% from three-point range last season, the best mark for Rutgers in 5 years, Mulcahy seemed to question every shot he took. Fast forward two plus months and he has become assertive and persistent both with looking to score and working to find his teammates in the best position possible to score.
His 12 assist performance was the most for a Rutgers player in 24 seasons and came on a night that the Scarlet Knights had their second most efficient offensive performance during that same time frame. Mulcahy is averaging 5.4 assists this season for a program that hasn’t had a player exceed 5 dimes per game since Brian Ellerbe did it in the 1984-1985 campaign. He’s leads the Big Ten with 6.5 assists in league action and is second in the conference with a 40.4% assist rate. Mulcahy is 36th nationally with an assist rate of 33.1% overall this season. His 2.3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio is solid for a primary ball handler and he has had 2 or fewer turnovers in 14 of 22 games played this season.
Perhaps more impressive is the manner in which Mulcahy is starting to assert himself as a scorer. Since going scoreless in a lackluster loss to Maryland, the point guard has averaged 18.7 points in three games on 18 of 25 for 72% shooting from the floor and 11 of 14 for 78.6% shooting from the foul line. Add in 7 assists per game along with a 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio, 5.3 rebounds and 3 steals during that stretch. That’s proof he is taking things to the next level and becoming a complete player.
Back to back games of 4 steals against Nebraska and Northwestern highlighted Mulcahy’s progress as a two-way player. No longer a liability, he’s become a disruptive for the opposition on the defensive end. Being physical and forcing tie ups and mistakes has become more normal for a player that was known for his offense. His confidence on that end of the floor has grown as well and it’s shown.
What’s been occurring in a more subtle way is how Mulcahy’s persona and leadership is taking over this team. With a roster that includes two notable players in program history in Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., Mulcahy’s fingerprints are all over the blueprint for success. His effort level and unselfishness has always been elite, but his confidence has elevated his ability to execute at a very high level. His defense has improved as well.
No play personified his growth more than his offensive rebound and game winning putback against Nebraska on the road. He displayed poise, athleticism, toughness and touch all in one play. It was the catalyst for his impressive performances this past week.
Throughout Mulcahy’s Rutgers career, he has agitated opponents and even played selflessly with a broken nose and finger pointed horizontal last season. He is a physically tough player with a unique skill set as a 6’6” point guard. It’s a long season and his development is an example of how things can change. With a critical stretch run almost exclusively against Quad 1 opponents, the reality is Rutgers will likely go as far as Mulcahy can take them.