We are a little past the midway point in Rutgers’ Big Ten schedule. With 8 games left to play, the remaining stretch is critical for the Scarlet Knights if they want to participate in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
General Overlook on Season
Watching Rutgers Men’s basketball can be very stressful. For one stretch, it seems like the team can’t miss from beyond the arc. They are forcing turnovers and shutting down the opponent on the defensive side of the ball. Coach Steve Pikiell is getting contributions from all eight guys, while the contagious energy off the bench is creating the perfect basketball atmosphere by hyping up their teammates at every chance. At times like these, you wonder how this squad is not talked about as a national powerhouse or consistently ranked in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 Poll.
Then right after this period of excellence, a cold stretch hits, and the team’s streaky nature is obvious. Not one shot is falling. Almost every possession is either ending in a turnover or a last second heave with the shot clock winding down. Fundamental errors are plaguing the team, which gives opposing players a golden opportunity to offset the dominance displayed by Rutgers just a few minutes ago. Instead of running away with the game during this time frame and keeping their foot on the gas, the opponent is able to get right back into the game.
For example, against Northwestern on January 31, Rutgers started the game on a 22-6 run, shooting 8 for 12 from the field. The team forced 6 turnovers from Northwestern. In 9 minutes of play, the Scarlet Knights forced as many turnovers as points allowed. Once the lead stretched to its largest of the night (20 points) after a Jacob Young three pointer, they failed to make a shot from the field from the 8:50 mark to the end of the half. Rutgers only made free throws and allowed the Wildcats to bring the game within 5. Thanks to those final minutes of the half, Northwestern had all the momentum and left everyone wondering where Rutgers would find offense from.
This is a perfect snapshot that summarizes the nature of the team and its season so far. Rutgers started off 7-1 (3-1 in Big Ten play) and peaked at #11 on the AP poll. Then, Pikiell’s men went on a 5 game losing skid to fall to 7-6 on the season. They went from the 11th ranked team in the nation to not even receiving votes for the AP poll. Most recently, however, Rutgers orchestrated an impressive 3 game winning streak. This includes the Scarlet Knights’ first every victory at Assembly Hall and a 67-37 beating of Michigan State (who previously handed Rutgers their worst loss of the season). Pikiell made appropriate changes, including the addition of Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy to the starting rotation, that helped change the fortune of the team.
Assessing the overall performance of the Scarlet Knights, the season (so far) can be summed up as relatively decent, with room for much more. The streaks will continue to appear, but it is important to limit them to within the game. Hot/cold stretches will happen on the floor, but the most important thing is to continue piling up wins. As long as they aren’t streaky with regards to wins/losses and don’t go on another major losing streak, Rutgers will have a lot of fun in March. The team got a taste of what success and recognition felt like earlier in the season, and it either satisfied the players or left them hungry for more. We will see the true desire in this team over the next coming games.
Keys to Success
As mentioned earlier, the team’s fate will be determined based on how well the play in the upcoming games. Apart from games against Iowa and Michigan (which I believe Rutgers may win), the remaining 6 games are very winnable. Were they to win these games, their record would become 16-8 (12-8), which would easily solidify themselves as a March Madness team. The Scarlet Knights would finish in the middle of the pack in a stacked Big Ten conference.
In order to win these games, however, Ron Harper Jr. must return to his early-season scoring form. Harper consistently brings great energy, rebounding, and provides defense versatility for Pikiell and his staff. However, his scoring has been significantly worse as the season goes on. During his first 5 Big Ten games, he was averaging 20.2 points, compared to 11.67 points over the last 6 contests. Harper uses his body well and can successfully drive on the majority of his matchups, it’s just his 3 point shooting has dried up considerably. His ability to stretch the floor is key for Rutgers to stay on this winning streak.
Jacob Young and Montez Mathis must continue providing valuable minutes off the bench. It can be discouraging to come off the bench after starting the majority of games this season, especially when you are a senior (Young) or a very talented junior (Mathis). However, starting McConnell and Mulcahy worked for Pikiell to get the Scarlet Knights out of their 5 game losing streak, and it would be risky to revert back to old ways. What makes Rutgers special is the fact that they have 7-8 guys that can hurt an opponent, with each player providing their own unique strengths and playmaking ability to the table. It’s very easy for Young and Mathis to not play their hardest and pout at the fact that they lost their starting role. They will still be given valuable minutes to create a case to start again, sometimes even as many/more minutes than McConnell and Mulcahy. In order to remain a strong team, Rutgers needs every guy to do their part, no matter the difference in playing time or the change in starting role.
Myles Johnson needs to be conscious about his fouls. Sometimes the refs make poor decisions, but other times Johnson just makes minor errors that force him to sit out significant minutes. Cliff Omoruyi is still getting his feet wet in the Big Ten and cannot be relied on to the same degree as Johnson right now. Johnson is a defensive star who uses his length and wits to block shots, create turnovers, and force opponents into difficult shot attempts. His offensive rebounding gives the team valuable extra possessions that tire out a defense. In perhaps the most frustrating game of the season, #11 Rutgers lead #23 Ohio State by as many as 15 points on December 23rd. Johnson only played a total of 15 minutes, compared to Mamadou Doucoure’s 21. Ohio State went 4-19 from beyond the arc and still won comfortably, relying heavily on shots in the paint. They also out-rebounded the Scarlet Knights 45-25, which does not happen if Johnson plays more minutes. In such a bad loss, that also happened at such a terrible time, the turning point was Johnson’s inability to stop fouling. Staying out of foul trouble will be a top priority if Rutgers wants to avoid another tragic loss during the last few games of one of the most anticipated seasons in program history.
Rutgers’ next contest is on Thursday, February 4th against Minnesota. It will be available to watch on Fox Sports 1.