Iowa fans really need to get the bad taste out of their mouths after this Thursday’s loss to the Cornhuskers, and honestly, this game against Rutgers provides a really opportunity to hop back on the horse and gain some momentum. The Scarlet Knights are in fact 11-5, which makes them look better than Iowa on paper, but this is still not a very talented Rutgers team.
To get an idea of what we can expect from the Scarlet Knights, I talked to our good friend Aaron Breitman from On The Banks, SB Nation’s Rutgers blog. He answered my questions on new coach Steve Pikiell, their hot start to the season, their offensive and defensive tendencies, and of course, who he likes in this one.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
Max: Rutgers started the season 11-1, but have since crashed back down to earth with four straight losses. What do you believe has been the cause of their recent skid?
Aaron: The non-conference schedule was incredibly weak, with their best wins coming against DePaul of the Big East and Fordham of the Atlantic 10. They have zero wins against teams in the top 150 of the KenPom rankings. It made sense after this program has been so down the past three seasons to not schedule aggressively in head coach Steve Pikiell's first year. However, I would have liked to have seen a couple of opponents in the 100-150 range of the KenPom rankings on the schedule. While this team has many challenges personnel wise, I do think they've had a hard time adjusting to the physicality and skill level of Big Ten competition. That being said, playing on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan State in their first three conference games did them no favors.
One important note, despite playing many inferior teams in non-conference play, it was certainly an accomplishment that Rutgers did not stumble against any of them. This program lost to St. Peter's, St. Francis (PA), William & Mary, FDU, and Drexel in three seasons under previous head coach Eddie Jordan. Five Big Ten squads suffered losses this season to teams ranked lower than 150, so Rutgers made real progress in that area. This program started their rebuild so low on the totem pole, baby steps are needed in measuring tangible progress this season.
Max: Rutgers is in Year One under new head coach Steve Pikiell. What were the expectations for Rutgers basketball heading into the season, and are they living up to them?
Aaron: After this program won just 29 games in three years under former coach Eddie Jordan, the truth is we were just hoping for any semblance of a real basketball team. For example, one where the defense looks more complex and competent than your recreational league team back in middle school. The team was in such bad physical shape that Pikiell called them the worst conditioned players he'd ever seen in his coaching career (25 years).
He has completely revamped the program for the better, in terms of strength and conditioning, as well a clear emphasis on defense and rebounding. Anyone that truly watched this team the past few years is thrilled with the progress already made in year one of this massive rebuild.
The 11-1 start unfairly raised expectations with some fans, who had dreams of the postseason beginning to dance in their heads. It's just not realistic for a program that hasn't had a winning season in 11 years. I predicted 14 wins this season, which would be double their total from a year ago. That seemed attainable and still does, while the possibility of a .500 record or slightly better would equal a wildly successful debut season for Pikiell.
Max: Rutgers has a clear size advantage against the Hawkeyes. Will Rutgers be able to take advantage of this, or are their bigs fairly exploitable?
Aaron: They do have five players that are 6'9" or taller, which has helped make them a competent rebounding team and they can cause problems defensively in the paint. The issue is none of them are Big Ten quality scorers, at least what they've shown so far this season. Rutgers has done a good job on the offensive glass, even leading the country late in non-conference play, but the team overall is not strong at finishing near the rim. As you might suspect, that has been a major problem in Big Ten play and has certainly been a factor in the 0-3 start.
Max: Iowa's offense is pretty dynamic, having scored at least 78 points in 13 of their 16 games. Does Rutgers have the offensive firepower or defensive tenacity to keep up with a team that has multiple scorers?
Aaron: They absolutely do not have the offensive firepower to match Iowa, as they are not a good shooting team at all. Defensively, this team is vastly improved under Pikiell. While Michigan State lit Rutgers up and made 11 of 22 from behind the arc, they were able to frustrate Seton Hall and Wisconsin for extended periods during those games. They held the Hall to 22 points and 24% shooting in the first half of that game. Wisconsin finished 6 points below their season average and shot below their average in the game as well. Even in laying an egg at home in the most disappointing loss of the season to Penn State, they held them to 60 points and their second worst offensive efficiency rating of the season. I truly believe Rutgers will steal a couple of wins this season by playing really good defense and catching teams on off shooting nights.
Max: The Scarlet Knights look to be a balanced team and don't have one player who seems to significantly better on the stat sheet. Who, if anyone, do they rely on when they're in a tough spot and need a big play from their playmakers?
Aaron: They have been balanced with four players averaging in double figures scoring wise, but the best player on the team is guard Corey Sanders. He averaged over 16 points a game as a freshman last season, but is down scoring wise this year in part to him accepting Pikiell's wish for him to be more of a distributor on offense as the point guard. He has tried and done a much better job of getting his teammates involved, but they are at their best when he is driving to the rim and finishing in traffic. His shooting percentages aren't good, but the Sanders of last season finally appeared for the first time in the last game against Michigan State. He scored a season high 22 points and shot over 50% from the field.
Another key player this season has been junior guard Mike Williams. He is easily the most improved player on the team and has made a bunch of big shots already this season. Williams is the heart and soul of this team and has been their best shooter from three-point range. He has a knack for making a big play at the exact time they need one to keep them in the game or to push them ahead for good.
Max: What is Rutgers' biggest strength as a team? Biggest weakness?
Aaron: Defense and rebounding were points of emphasis since the day Pikiell arrived at Rutgers and are certainly their strongest areas. While they haven't gotten abused on the boards in Big Ten play like last year, they haven't dominated like they were able to during the non-conference schedule. I will say defense is their biggest strength and while they need to improve on defending the three, they can play lockdown defense in the halfcourt when they are focused and their intensity is raised.
As for their biggest weakness, it's a three way tie between two-point shooting, three-point shooting, and free throw shooting. They don't have a big man with a legitimate post game and they're shooting 30% as a team from behind the arc. While they have had a couple strong games shooting from the charity stripe, they put up a 12-27 stinker in their last game at Michigan State. For a team that struggles to score, shooting 65% on the season from the line is preventing them from overachieving against better teams.
Max: Finally, predictions. Who do you think is able to pull this one out and why?
Aaron: I'm weirdly confident Rutgers will play well in this game. That doesn't mean I think they will win, but I think they'll bounce back on the defensive end in this contest. I've always felt they have a chance against teams in the conference who are reliant on three-point shooting. While they got burned from deep by Michigan State, I'm hoping things balance out in this game. If Corey Sanders can build off his best performance of the season and if they can get any inside scoring from their bigs, I think it will be a close game. I don't see them winning this game, but I do think they'll surprise the Hawkeye faithful in how improved they are and it will set up an intriguing rematch later this season at the RAC.
Iowa 71 Rutgers 63.
Thanks to Aaron for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on Rutgers hoops, check out On The Banks and check them out on Twitter at @OTB_SBNation. Go Hawks.