Having success in the NCAA Tournament a lot of times comes down to the draw and the matchups between two teams. There are no easy games or bad teams. It’s win or go home, so every team has to leave it all on the floor but at the end of the day, it’s about execution.
The Rutgers-Notre Dame matchup is compelling for a lot of reasons including being former Big East foes. The Irish are a great three-point shooting team and of course that means RU must defend well on the perimeter. Leading scorers Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker need to attack the rim and score in multiple ways. Paul Mulcahy needs to direct the offense with poise and precision. While all of that is true, here are three areas in which I think Rutgers has an advantage against Notre Dame and must exploit in order to advance.
The Defense of Caleb McConnell
Rutgers has the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in McConnell and his ability to disrupt the Irish offense is a major key.
Notre Dame’s leading scorer is freshman wing Blake Wesley. He is a dynamic scorer and when he gets going, the Irish are a lot more dangerous offensively. However, he is their least accurate shooter and has shown the ability to get frustrated when shots don’t fall. McConnell is two inches taller than Wesley and his length could cause problems for him. Locking him down and making Wesley a non-factor would be a huge. Cutting off his ability to penetrate and forcing him to take contested jumpers is key to shutting him down.
In addition, McConnell has proven he can be disruptive aside from his on the ball defense. Jumping into passing lanes, doubling on the ball to eliminate space in the post, blocking shots in an efficient manner as well as his defensive rebounding are all things McConnell does really well. The Irish don’t turn it over much at all, but if McConnell can grab a couple of steals that get the Scarlet Knights out in transition, it will help push Notre Dame into a faster pace then they want to play in. Rutgers can’t allow second chance scoring opportunities in this game and McConnell has a chance to be a major factor on the glass.
As a whole, Rutgers needs to stay connected and play 40 minutes with relentless defensive pressure. It starts with their best defender and if McConnell comes through, it will be difficult for Notre Dame to have a great offensive night.
Inside Presence of Cliff Omoruyi
There should be no suspense as to who the most athletic player will be on the floor on Wednesday night. Cliff Omoruyi’s development from December to now is stunning. He has become a reliable offensive force inside, scoring 13 or more points in eight of his last eleven games. His dunking prowess is well documented, but his ability to operate off the pick and roll, as well as his ability to catch passes in mid-air and finish at the rim has added an element to the offense that opponents have major trouble defending. If it doesn’t work, it usually comes down to a lack of execution, not because the defense did anything to stop it.
His ability to rebound and block shots has improved as well. He has a real chance to dominate inside against Notre Dame. Their center is 6’10” senior Nate Laszewski, who is much more a finesse player that can operate on the perimeter. That will challenge Cliff defensively, as he needs to avoid being late to defend and fouling unnecessarily. His ability to play 30+ minutes has been a key to success for RU this season. Perhaps Rutgers will switch with Ron Harper Jr. at times and Omoruyi needing to contend with Paul Atkinson, who is more physical. Either way, Cliff has the potential to clamp down on defensive rebounds and create disruption in defending the rim.
Notre Dame doesn’t defend inside well and Omoruyi needs to be a focal point of the offense. Setting screens and forcing the Irish players to fight through those set by Cliff can wear them down physically. He needs to attack the glass on the offensive end as well as it could lead to a monster performance and be a major factor in this game. Rutgers has an advantage overall as a team with their athleticism and physicality in this matchup. They absolutely need to exploit it with Cliff on both ends of the floor.
NCAA Tournament Experience
Notre Dame is an old team with plenty of experience, as their seven man rotation includes six seniors. However, forward Paul Atkinson is the only player with NCAA Tournament experience, scoring 9 points in 19 minutes off the bench for Yale in a first round loss to LSU in 2019. Part of seizing the opportunity in a win or go home situation is not letting the moment feel too big. The Irish shouldn’t be overwhelmed but their lack of March Madness experience could prove critical down the stretch if the game is tight.
On the flip side, the starting five of Rutgers played significant minutes in last season’s NCAA Tournament. They experienced the joy of advancing with the win over Clemson, while also experiencing the agony of letting a trip to the Sweet 16 slip away in the closing minutes against Houston. Obviously, having gone through the highs and lows of March Madness doesn’t guarantee anything. However, this team knows what to expect and understands how quickly it can be over. I believe that gives them a mental edge in this game. Limiting mistakes and maintaining poise is key. The Scarlet Knights can’t allow the Irish anything easy down the stretch and need to close the game out strong.
As I wrote, it all comes down to execution. Having the right focus and handling the pressure of the moment is essential and Rutgers has been through it before.
For all of our coverage of Rutgers’ second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, click here.