The #10 Iowa Hawkeyes (8-2, 2-1) head to Piscataway, NJ to face the #14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (7-1, 3-1) in what figures to be another bruising back-and-forth between the two ball clubs. Though RU may be without Ron Harper, Jr., they have plenty of firepower and were able to put the Purdue Boilermakers away earlier this week without him, 81-76.
To get the ball rolling on tomorrow’s game, we traded questions with On the Banks’ Aaron Breitman to get the lowdown on the Scarlet Knights.
1) Rutgers has had an impressive start to the season with, most notably, a win against Illinois. How has the fast start compared to what was expected of this team coming into the season?
This was the most anticipated season for Rutgers basketball in decades and high hopes for a truly special season. Six of the top eight players from last season are the core of the team and they added top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi to the mix. The non-conference schedule was only four games but when they handled Syracuse with a dominating close, it was encouraging to see this team pass their first test. It’s only grown from there and the Illinois win was certainly a statement that showed they have a legitimate chance to challenge for the Big Ten title.
The most impressive win though was on Tuesday night when they beat Purdue without two starters, Omoruyi and Ron Harper Jr., who was seventh nationally in scoring coming into the game. In addition, point guard Jacob Young played but was visibly hurting after taking a big fall last week that knocked him out of the game. Lastly, captain Geo Baker missed three weeks with a high ankle sprain and hadn’t played like himself yet. There was major concern they would be facing Iowa with two consecutive losses, but Rutgers shot the lights out from three (11 of 21) and made 11 of 12 free throws in the second half, which was remarkable considering they were shooting around 60% on the season.
The biggest reason to be optimistic about this team is the veterans on the roster. Montez Mathis has been much improved offensively and given Rutgers a consistent third scorer this season. Baker looked back to normal and is the unquestioned leader of the team, aside from his proven big shot making ability. Myles Johnson has developed into a reliable big man that can dominate a game on the boards and defensively. Harper Jr. has become a star, which I’ll get into it a minute. However, it’s been the emergence of Young that has transformed this team on the offensive end. He is the best penetrator that Rutgers has had in a long time and he creates scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates off the bounce in an efficient manner. They also have a capable sophomore in Paul Mulcahy who does the little things and is the best passer on the team. When Omoruyi is healthy, although raw, he gives them an athletic presence inside that completes a top seven rotation that I think is as good as almost any team in college basketball.
2) Hawkeye killer Ron Harper, Jr (averages 20.7 points on 55% shooting from deep against Iowa) seems dicey for the game with an ankle injury. What has his junior year leap brought to this team offensively and who might pick up the slack if he is unable to go?
The signs were there last season that he was knocking on the door in becoming a full fledged star, but he struggled with being consistent. This season his shooting has been much improved (61.7%) and he has transformed into one of the best three-point shooters in the country (25-50). His defense and rebounding remain strengths as well, so he has developed into a complete player. Harper’s swagger on the court has only made his teammates more confident and they have benefited from that a lot.
On Thursday, head coach Steve Pikiell said on a conference call that he was not expected to practice later that afternoon. I do think he is the type of player that could go without any practice time and he hasn’t been ruled out, so if there is anyway they think he can contribute I think he’ll play. However, if I’d say his status is questionable at best.
His absence on Tuesday was cause for concern, but Montez Mathis stepped up with a career high 25 points. The stunning thing is he went 5 of 5 from three, which is not an area of strength for him. It’s unlikely he will be able to replicate that kind of shooting night against Iowa, but his confidence will be high and he is at his best when he attacks the rim off the bounce. Geo Baker will need to have a big shooting performance as well if Rutgers has any chance of keeping pace against Iowa without Harper Jr.
3) In addition to Harper, numbers look up substantially across the board from many Scarlet Knights, notably Montez Mathis and Jacob Young. Is there anything specific they developed in the offseason? Have any big scheme changes occurred offensively?
Mathis has become a much more dynamic offensive player. His confidence and shot are much improved, which is leading to him finishing near the rim more as well.
Young had major problems with turnovers last season after sitting out a year due to transfer rules and finding his fit into the offense. However, he continued to get more comfortable as the season progressed and you could see his potential the last few games in late February and March. This season, his influence on the offense is immense and Rutgers relies on his ability to create more than any other player. When Young is able to push the ball on the break, Rutgers is really hard to contain. His ability to disrupt defenses leads to open looks and Harper Jr. has been the beneficiary of many of his assists this season.
It’s not really a schematic change, but Rutgers has transformed from one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country to one of the best. Mathis, Young, and Harper Jr. are all shooting 39% or better and Baker hasn’t even shot well in limited action. They are no longer a one dimensional offense and their ability to score in multiple ways has wrecked havoc on defenses. They are an unselfish team that shares the basketball. Their confidence as a team is off the charts and they believe they can beat any opponent they face.
4) Rutgers’ defensive numbers via KenPom have taken a slight dip. Is there any cause for concern here?
They definitely haven’t been as consistent on the defensive end as last season and I do think part of it has been injuries, as well as not having the RAC crowd there to energize them. However, they are still pretty good at 24th in efficiency, especially considering they have played Illinois, Ohio State and Maryland, who are in the top ten nationally in offensive efficiency. Where they have been best is down the stretch at the end of games. They have shown they are a true veteran team that has learned how to close out opponents by getting multiple stops in the final minutes, but are also able to take advantage of those stops by cashing in on the offensive end too.
5) Lastly, who ya got & why?
These two teams have played some great games in recent seasons and I do think Saturday will be another close battle. However, I think the depth of Iowa, along with Rutgers likely without Omoruyi to help in defending Garza, will spell trouble. I think Rutgers will show plenty of full court pressure on the ball to try and force Iowa into some turnovers, but they have to be careful to not let the pace of the game to get too fast and play into the Hawkeyes hands. If Harper Jr. can’t play or is limited, it will take their best defensive effort of the season to give them a chance to win in the final minutes. They’ll need great offensive games from Baker, Mathis and Young, which is certainly possible. I would never count this team out with the way they play together and seem to get better through adversity, but I think they’ll fall just short due to the offensive firepower of Iowa. I’ll say 85-79 for the visitors.