The final week of the regular season was, once again, an important one for the Scarlet Knights. And once again, they came through.
It started with a win in a double-bubble game against Indiana. This one was all about the halftime adjustments. After a subpar first half for RU, Steve Pikiell pushed all the right buttons in the second half. In particular, his switch to incorporate more zone defense got the Hoosiers out of sync. It also opened up some of the transition game for the Scarlet Knights. Let’s take a look.
Trayce Jackson-Davis had a lot of success early on, but on this possession, Rutgers clamps down and doesn’t allow the ball anywhere near him. Cliff Omoruyi locks up the middle of the zone, then shows great instincts to help on the drive and swat the ball away.
This sequence leads directly to a transition opportunity and finishes with a Rutgers trademark, the Geo Baker drop-off for a Ron Harper Jr. three.
The very next possession, Rutgers is back in zone. This one is a zone that morphs into a man-to-man, but it’s executed perfectly and highlights how connected the defense is. Watch how Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy effortlessly shift their responsibilities as the ball moves into the high post and back out. Eventually, Miller Kopp makes a really poor cut and Caleb McConnell digs in and get a steal.
Rutgers took a brief lead at 38-37 but IU responded and the Knights went right back to zone. On this next one, Indiana doesn’t even attempt to bring anyone to the high post, and the active hands from the defense make an impact.
So we’ve already seen that the Scarlet Knights were locked in defensively in the second half, but for this next section, I specifically want to focus on Cliff Omoruyi. As the game progressed, Cliff improved significantly, both in guarding his man and recognizing when to help.
Late in the first half, high ball screen action from IU. This action caused a lot of problems for Rutgers against Michigan one week prior. On this one, Cliff drops back to prevent the roll, then recovers to challenge the layup without fouling.
This next one showcases something different…restraint. Xavier Johnson drives into the paint, but instead of selling out for a block, Cliff hangs back, boxes out and pulls down a tough defensive rebound.
If he goes into full shot-block mode here, it’s probably an offensive rebound and putback for the Hoosiers.
This next one is so well-executed by Cliff, it should be shown to big men throughout the country. In truth, RU’s perimeter defense breaks down here, leaving Rob Phinisee with a direct path to the rim. Cliff slides over and goes straight up to challenge the shot, then follows it up with a tough rebound in traffic. If you look hard enough, you can almost see his brain focusing on keeping the arms straight and high.
The rest of this play got a little crazy, so it’s probably better to just stop the tape here.
Next up was Penn State on Senior Day with everything on the line. As Rutgers fans, I think we all knew (whether we want to admit it or not) that this game, and this season, was going to come down to the final tick of the clock. And just like the previous two seasons, Rutgers pulled off a dramatic victory in their final game. Let’s dive in.
The game had a frustrating feel early on, as Cliff Omoruyi picked up two fouls in 61 seconds of action. Enter Dean Reiber, who immediately became a factor on both ends of the court. Offensively, he scored 7 of Rutgers’ first 9 points. Defensively, he attacked the PSU high pick-and-roll by hard-hedging to throw off the timing. Here are three examples.
Really solid work by Reiber to move his feet and hedge without fouling. And even better execution from a team perspective, bringing the weak-side defender over to help while Reiber recovers.
For the first 30 minutes of the game, I thought Rutgers did a nice job of executing their offense and generating open looks. Here’s a good example.
This is a wrinkle to the Horns action that they run quite a bit. This time, Geo drives and reads the weak side defender. When he collapses into the paint, Geo skips it over to Aundre Hyatt for a corner 3.
This next one is a transition opportunity that’s run to perfection. Drop-off from Mulcahy to RHJ, shot fake to draw the defender, pass to Geo, shot fake to clear the defender, open 3.
Two more from the second half, back-to-back dunks. In the first one, RU brings two ball screens for Geo, giving him plenty of room to get into the paint for what looks to be a short jumper. But the key here is the off-ball movement from Ron Harper Jr. Usually you see the offensive player come from the corner for the alley-oop, but Ron reads this one from his position on the wing and heads to the basket for the pass.
The next trip down, it’s Mulcahy initiating the same action. Two ball screens and again, Penn State switches everything. Mulcahy does a nice job of getting downhill into the paint, leaving Cliff alone at the rim.
We’ll see where it ultimately takes us, but a 12-8 finish in Big Ten play and a Top 4 finish is something to celebrate. Now, it’s on to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament.
Upcoming Week: Friday March 11th - #4 Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals