Before I get to the article itself, I want to confess how I spent the time between the end of the Big Ten Conference Championship game and Rutgers being selected as an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament. I was alone, alternating between pacing around my basement, and standing in a low crouch like I was in a defensive stance. (This is similar to how intense I get when I watch Rutgers basketball on TV. I am an adult in my late thirties, and maybe it isn’t healthy to care this much, but what can you do?) I didn’t think I’d be sweating it so much, I even wrote as much in the recent OTB roundtable, but I was really sweating it. So glad we all have the opportunity to watch more high-leverage Rutgers men’s basketball on Wednesday. Now, to the article...
Rutgers plays Notre Dame on Wednesday, but in this article, I want to talk first about Rutgers’ 64-66 win over Ohio State on February 9. This is the game otherwise known around these parts as the Caleb McConnell steal game. In a season of improbable victories, this Rutgers victory was perhaps the least probable; with 3:30 left in the game, Rutgers trailed Ohio State 64-56 and had a 3.4% chance of winning that game. Then, of course, RU went on a 10-0 run to steal it, including the aforementioned steal and layup by Caleb McConnell. Here is the win probability chart from the Ohio State game, courtesy of kenpom.com:
It wasn’t just that Rutgers had to pull of a miracle finish, it was truly the case that until the final three minutes of that game, Ohio State was more likely than not to win the game throughout the entire game.
I bring up the Ohio State game not only because it was an awesome, improbable result for Rutgers — though it was — but because there is no other team on Rutgers’ 2021-22 schedule as much like Notre Dame as Ohio State. How similar? Take a look at this comparison between the two teams’ efficiency ratings, again with data courtesy of kenpom.com:
Look between the two charts, where you can easily compare data across charts by the color shading. If you do this, you see a ton of similarity between the two teams (though, pound for pound, Ohio State is the more efficient team relative to Notre Dame — I want to make this clear at the outset).
Both teams are stronger offensively than defensively; both play at a similarly slow tempo. On offense, neither team has an obvious weakness from an efficiency perspective, though are other indicators suggesting Notre Dame might not be as physical a team as Ohio State. Specifically, relative to Ohio State, Notre Dame doesn’t crash the offensive boards at all (though they’re much better at preventing offensive rebounds from their opponents, I wonder if it’s just a function of ACC opponents not being all that interested in crashing the boards themselves). Notre Dame is also not great (see red shading) at blocks, steals, and generally forcing opponents to turn over the ball (good news against Rutgers, who sometimes can be turnover prone on offense).
From a height perspective (not displayed in the image above), I’m always impressed with how physical and strong a rebounding team Ohio State is, with zero rotational pieces above 6’8” in height. Notre Dame has greater overall team height than Ohio State, but like OSU they don’t have an obvious physical, “traditional five” type player (their tallest rotational piece is the 6’10” Nate Laszewski, they also have the 6’9” Paul Atkinson). This means, like in the Ohio State game, Rutgers needs to slash and drive to the hoop on offense as much as possible and maximize their opportunities at easy buckets. There were plenty of Geo Baker makes in the Ohio State game within five feet of the basket, it would be great to see more of the same on Wednesday.
What Notre Dame also doesn’t have (though anything can happen on any given day) is a player of the caliber of Ohio State’s EJ Liddell, whom KenPom rates as the 6th most valuable player in college basketball this season. The absence of an elite scoring threat on Notre Dame should make this an easier game planning task for RU with respect to defensive assignments.
I’m typing all this to say if Rutgers approaches this Notre Dame game as if they’re playing a more finessed, less physical version of Ohio State, they have a decent chance of winning the game — and hopefully not needing a late-game, 10-0 run in order to do so. As Aaron mentioned in his recent article, Notre Dame is a talented shooting team, so Rutgers needs to worry about that. But looking at the metrics, they haven’t seen a team play defense at Rutgers’ level in quite a while (the strongest defensive team from an efficiency perspective in the ACC this year is Duke, at 44th nationally — four Big Ten teams, including Rutgers, rank better).
If anything concerns me, it’s that Notre Dame has two highly efficient inside players as well with the aforementioned Laszweski and Atkinson. They are both putting up 115+ offensive efficiency ratings this season, which count as top-500 nationally. It’ll be important for Rutgers to put bodies on both players at once while simultaneously defensing the three. I wonder philosophically if this will be the game where we see Dean Reiber with some minutes at the 4 alongside Cliff at the 5 — their games seem to match up with Notre Dame’s two bigs. There’s risk attached to this move (what if someone gets in foul trouble?) but if there’s a time to do it, it might be this game.
No matter what, if Rutgers can play a strong defensive game and close out on Notre Dame’s three point shooting, it should maximize their chances at a First Four victory and another tournament game on Friday.
NOTE: Though I didn’t have an opportunity to link it directly in the body of the article, I found Pete Winter’s film review article of the Ohio State game extremely helpful in writing this. It’s worth a re-read if anyone wants to go deeper into how Rutgers won that game.