The Iowa Hawkeyes are riding a three game winning streak that includes back-to-back wins over ranked opponents in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Now the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes look to make it three in a row in Carver and four in a row overall as they host the #24 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
This isn’t your father’s Rutgers squad, either. That is unless your father’s Rutgers squad was the ‘78-79 squad. That’s the last time the Scarlet Knights were ranked in the AP top 25. At 14-4, this year’s team has amassed as many wins as they had all year a season ago. They rank 9th nationally in adjusted defense and boast a highly balanced offensive attack.
To get a better idea of what makes this Rutgers team so good, we’ve enlisted the help of Aaron Breitman, managing editor at SB Nation’s Rutgers site On The Banks.
BHGP: Rutgers is sitting at 14-4 on the season, matching their win total from a season ago, and are ranked/on the border of being ranked for the first time since 1978/79. What’s made this year’s Scarlet Knights so good?
OTB: It’s been an amazing month plus stretch in which they’ve won 8 of 9 games behind tremendous team defense and sharing the basketball offensively. Team chemistry is excellent and they check their egos at the door. Head coach Steve Pikiell has built a team that plays very hard, is relentless on the glass and is much better at attacking the rim than even the first month of the season. They are an extremely tough team and while they are turnover prone, they don’t ever give up on a play and make opponents work for everything they get.
They play 8-9 guys and rarely is there a game they don’t get solid contributions from them all. It starts with pressure defense that takes opponents out of their offense and forces bad shots. They rebound well and limit more than one shot per possession. The backcourt and wings have size and are athletic, creating matchup problems for most opponents. The biggest weakness is three-point and free throw shooting, but Rutgers is shooting 52% from two-point range this season which is a big improvement. It’s still a young team with four sophomores starting, but they have really matured on the court and I can’t remember a Rutgers team that plays so much for each other as this one does.
BHGP: Watching a few Rutgers games, it’s really hard to pick out the star with big contributions from a number of guys on any given night. Who should the Hawkeyes look to shut down and how should Iowa fans expect Rutgers to attack on offense?
OTB: The key for Rutgers has been getting key contributions for multiple players game after game. There is no true star and they’ve had seven different players lead them in scoring in games this season.
Geo Baker was the leading scorer but broke his thumb, missed three games and is still trying to find his shot in the two games since he returned. However, he is still the guy who can change the game with one shot and his only basket on Sunday was a three-pointer as the shot clock expired in the final minutes to put Minnesota out of reach for good.
Ron Harper Jr. is having a good season and is best from mid-range or getting to the rim. He is athletic and physical, posing matchup problems for opponents.
Jacob Young is hard to slow down off the dribble and when under control he can be a menace in getting to the rim.
Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter are the only true low post scoring threats. Both are highly efficient near the rim and rarely take shots more than 7 feet from the rim.
Akwasi Yeboah and Caleb McConnell are the best three-point threats on the team but are good about not forcing shots from behind the arc. Both are versatile and can get to the rim by creating offensive opportunities off the dribble.
Paul Mulcahy is the only freshman on the team and he is the best passer on the team. He is a 6’6” point guard with great vision and feel for the game.
Montez Mathis is a defensive stopper but can score ugly inside and is a huge threat scoring in transition.
BHGP: Part of what makes the Scarlet Knights so good is their stifling defense, which ranks 8th nationally in adjusted D per KenPom. How do they approach the defensive end of the court and how can Iowa attack this defense?
OTB: All of the players have bought in defensively and are well connected as a team. They take away what the other team does best as they are an extremely versatile unit. Whether it’s closing out shooters on the perimeter, disrupting passing lanes or creases to drive, or shutting down key players, Pikiell likes to say that he has different answers to different problems that teams pose. They are fantastic with on the ball pressure and have athletic players with size on the perimeter, which creates havoc to opposing backcourts. Rutgers shows full court pressure at times and their defensive rotations have really limited gaps for opponents to attack in the halfcourt.
They are also a great rebounding team and limit opponents to offensive rebounds and second chance scoring opportunities. While the defense wears opponents down as the game goes on with poor shot selection and doesn’t typically force a lot of turnovers, their ability to score in transition make opponents pay for their mistakes. On Sunday, Minnesota only committed 7 turnovers, but Rutgers took advantage of everyone by holding a 16-2 advantage in points off of turnovers.
As for Iowa, you need to make Rutgers work on every possession and make good passes. They are prone to open shots along the perimeter if teams are willing to make the extra pass. Limit them on the offensive glass and look to run in transition to find easy baskets on the break. Having all five players attack the glass is key as well, but not something that many teams do.
BHGP: The Knights have protected the home court, not losing a game all season at the RAC. This one’s in Iowa City, however, and Rutgers has just one win away from Piscataway all year. What’s been the difference in those road and neutral site games?
OTB: Rutgers was still finding its way in a disappointing loss to St. Bonaventure in mid-November and they played their worst game of the season at Pitt in early December. Slow starts doomed them in both contests and being sloppy with the basketball. Defensively they played nowhere near their potential. However, after those two they played Michigan State relatively tough in Lansing, blew out Nebraska in Lincoln and were leading Illinois with less than three minutes in the game. The last two came without captain Geo Baker.
I think the way this team is now defending and rebounding, they’ll have a chance in every road game and will come down to how they operate offensively. They haven’t shot well on the road other than the Nebraska game, so the key is attacking the rim and establishing a rhythm on offense early on to have a chance to win.
BHGP: Alright, prediction time. Iowa’s offense is the unstoppable force. Rutgers’ defense is the immovable object. Which one comes out on top?
OTB: Rutgers comes to Iowa City with a world of confidence both from recent play and delivering its best performance of last season at Carver-Hawkeye arena. I think it’s a fascinating matchup between two good but very different teams. I think Luka Garza will be a major problem and have a big day if he can get Myles Johnson into early foul trouble. Rebounding and scoring off of second chance scoring opportunities is key for Rutgers to win the game. However, I think Iowa will be ready and if they have good ball movement on offense and make shots, it will be hard for Rutgers to score enough to win. Iowa 75 Rutgers 68.
A huge thank you to Aaron and everyone at On The Banks. Be sure to follow them on social @aaron_breitman and @OTB_SBNation. They’ve got some good stuff over there as you count down to tip-off. Go Hawks!