Yes, Michigan is a bad team, and yes, Rutgers is still near the bottom of the Big Ten, but this win was mighty important for the Scarlet Knights anyway. Thoughts:
The Resurgence of Cliff Omoruyi: After a lackluster start to the 2023-24 campaign, Cliff has found his footing in Big Ten play. He scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Wolverines marking the 4th time in 5 games that the 6’11 big man has been in double figures. Cliff’s defense has remained stout all season and he was active on that end on Saturday, battling constantly with Tarris Reed Jr. down low. It’s been extremely encouraging to see Cliff return to the elite play that was expected of him ahead of the season and he must keep it up despite the 20-game Big Ten slate grinder.
Jeremiah Williams Has Strong Debut: Aundre Hyatt and Austin Williams were benched in favor of Jamicheal Davis and Jeremiah Williams against the Wolverines, and the latter was extremely impressive in his debut game for the Scarlet Knights. After being awarded his injunction and receiving eligibility earlier this week, Williams scored 10 points, hauled in 6 rebounds, and dished out 2 assists in 29 minutes. This was the veteran guard’s first game in nearly 2 years, and he brought the Scarlet Knights exactly what he needed. His 6’4 frame makes him the tallest guard on the team and his leadership will help Rutgers greatly as the season goes on. Getting him back was huge and seeing him excel after such a long time off the court was tremendous.
Derek Simpson was the Difference Maker (Again): Saturday was a vintage performance for the Mount Laurel, New Jersey product as he posted 19 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. Even bigger was the fact that 14 of those points came in the second half where Rutgers outscored the Wolverines 39-20 largely due to Simpson’s efforts. He hasn’t always been consistent shooting the basketball, but he’s been the Knights’ best foul shooter all season, rebounds well, and has been a very solid facilitator for Steve Pikiell. Rutgers lacks someone who can take over a game this season like Geo, Ron, or Paul have done in the past, but Simpson has shown flashes of that ability and looked great yesterday.
Inconsistency: As I’ve said before, inconsistency has plagued the Scarlet Knights significantly this year and is apparent even in the wins. Aundre Hyatt has struggled recently and scored just 4 points against the Wolverines, Noah Fernandes hasn’t shown to be a consistent scoring threat despite having several games in double figures, and Gavin Griffiths was scoreless once again going 0-5 from the field yesterday. Steve Pikiell needs some form of consistency from his lineup if this team has any shot at making a run and we’re just not seeing that right now. Simpson, Mawot Mag, J-Mike, and Omoruyi have also struggled at times as well and that can’t happen down the stretch. It remains to be seen if someone can step up and be the #1 scoring threat for Rutgers.
Tale of Two Teams: After all was said and done in a busy slate of college basketball yesterday, the Scarlet Knights defense was the 3rd best in the entire country according to KenPom’s efficiency margins. Their offense? 300th. It’s certainly hard to lose your two starting guards in May, but that is not an excuse for Steve Pikiell and his staff to coach a team to the 300th-best offense in college basketball. While it may or may not be too late to fix this team’s offense, something needs to change fundamentally before next November. Too many times have we watched the shot clock wind down to single digits and someone takes a bad shot playing iso ball. That needs to stop. The arrivals of Dylan Harper and Ace Bailey will certainly help this offense, but if something else doesn’t change, the Scarlet Knights will not reach their potential next year.
Is this Season Salvageable? I’ll likely get to this more in-depth in the future, but what is left for the Scarlet Knights to make of this season? It’s unlikely they will make the tournament save for a conference tournament championship, but the NIT is still a real possibility. Rutgers now sits at 11-10 and has big games coming up at Maryland and vs Wisconsin this week that provide big opportunities. There are a lot of winnable games left on the schedule, but Rutgers will need to make the most of them if they want to find some success down the stretch. This may be a down year for the Scarlet Knights, and that is OK. That doesn’t mean the season is a failure though, and an NIT bid would provide some momentum heading into what could be a program changing 2024-25 campaign.