The ups and downs that have defined a young, talented Rutgers Scarlet Knights team continued tonight when it suffered a shocking 60-58 upset at home to the Hartford Hawks.
Though Hartford led for a good portion of the contest, the game went back and forth until the final buzzer.
The Hawks hit the ground running to begin the game and opened an early 16-8 lead. Rutgers then stormed back and grabbed a lead as large as seven in the first half thanks to a 19-4 run.
After trailing by two at halftime, Hartford eventually regained the lead again in the second half and led by seven points with under 12 minutes remaining. As each team did for the entire 40 minutes, Rutgers answered and knotted up the game at 55 with two minutes remaining.
Though the Scarlet Knights trailed by four with under one minute in regulation, Rutgers had the opportunity to tie or take the lead with under 20 seconds. Corey Sanders cashed in on a three-point play to cut the deficit to 59-58 with 47 seconds left. The Scarlet Knights then made a crucial defensive stop and had the game in their hands. Unfortunately for Rutgers though, Hartford managed to hold on a pick up the victory.
Let’s see what we learned from the nailbiter in New Brunswick.
What We Learned:
1. All momentum gained by Rutgers has been lost
Up until this past week Rutgers has not been playing like, well Rutgers. It would not be a hot take to say that through the first month and a half of the college basketball season, there have been noticeable positive changes in Steve Pikiell’s program.
The first step of the turnaround was avoiding any “buy game” non-conference upsets. Up until this week, that had been accomplished. Added to that, the Scarlet Knights had been able to hang around against multiple NCAA Tournament teams in a five point loss at home to Florida State and a 10 point loss at home to Michigan State. The early season success culminated into a packed stadium and an upset victory over then No. 15 Seton Hall.
Unfortunately home losses to Stony Brook and now Hartford to close out non-conference has dissolved any positive vibes and hype throughout the Rutgers basketball program. It is almost as if Pikiell must once again start from square one.
The Scarlet Knights were not gonna be a tournament team this year. The probably would not have been for the next three years at the least. But before this week, Coach Pikiell had has program moving in the right direction to where getting a tournament at-large bid could be attainable in the near future. This week’s losses to Stony Brook and Hartford disproved that and reminded us that Rutgers is still Rutgers.
2. Free Throw Shooting is Rutgers’ Achilles Heel
Any team that isn’t converting at the stripe obviously recognizes free throw shooting as a major issue. However, Rutgers’ performance at the free throw line is honestly more crucial to its overall success as a team compared to most programs in the country.
Impressively, the Scarlet Knights are currently leading all of D1 in rebounds per game with an average of 45.4 per game. That’s a major reason why Rutgers has attempted the 36th most free throws so far as a team this season. Plain and simple, the Scarlet Knights’ ability to rebound effectively grants them the capability to collect a significant amount of points from the stripe each game.
However, Rutgers free throw shooting has been absolutely horrendous this season. Before playing Hartford, the Scarlet Knights were shooting 62.1 percent from the line. That number ranked them 343rd in the country. That sounds bad enough as it is. But, for some clarification, there are only 351 D1 teams.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t solve any of their free throw woes against Hartford either, as they made only 12 of 22 free throws. Rutgers’ free throw struggles was a decisive factor in its loss tonight and it has been before as well. When the Scarlet Knights were upset by Stony Brook by two last week, they went 8-19 from the line.
3. Rutgers Identity Remains Unknown.
It’s evident that the current Scarlet Knights squad is the best we’ve seen in quite some time. There is a significant amount of potential surrounding Rutgers and it should be exciting to see them improve over the next few seasons.
Considering the Scarlet Knights have finished under .500 in 11 consecutive seasons, a 10-5 start this season is very encouraging. However, it’s still unclear as to how improved Rutgers really is.
After winning six straight games to begin the season against inferior opponents, the Scarlet Knights dropped three straight games to Power 5 schools. Granted, two of those three games were very close. But, at the time, it seemed the Scarlet Knights weren’t quite at the level required to beat legitimate competition.
But, then Rutgers picked up a marquee win over no. 15 Seton Hall. It looked like Rutgers got over the hump. But, now they are on a two-game losing streak to Stony Brook and Hartford.
The bottom line is that despite its talent, Rutgers’ youth had led to some major inconsistencies.
4. Lack of Production from Eugene Omoruyi Major Reason for Current Skid.
Omoruyi has improved immensely since his freshman campaign during the 2016-’17 season. The big-bodied forward is averaging 6.8 more points and 3.3 more rebounds this season and has proved that he is a valuable asset.
Not only is Omoruyi an asset, he has become someone Rutgers has somewhat needed to depend on.
Though the Scarlet Knights have won games in which Omoruyi’s contribution has been minimal, it’s no coincidence that Rutgers has lost the last two games while Omoruyi has simultaneously had his worst games of the season.
The forward has combined for only four points and 11 rebounds in the last two games. To put that into perspective, Omoruyi is averaging 9.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season.
5. It may be awhile till we see Rutgers win again.
As previously mentioned, the Scarlet Knights will now stumble their way back into Big Ten Play and the schedule does not give them a chance to take a break.
Coming out of their New Year’s break, Rutgers will travel to Mackey Arena to take on No. 14 Purdue. Two days later they host an average Wisconsin team before making the return trip to East Lansing on Jan 10. to take on the Spartans. Unless the unexpected happens, it is safe to assume all three of those games will be dropped and the Scarlet Knights will fall to 0-5 in conference play.
With that tough stretch, Rutgers’s may not have a chance to win their next game until a three day stretch when they host an unproven Ohio State squad on Jan 14. and a bad Iowa team on Jan 17. If they manage to come out of that stretch winless, it could be a long time until we see Rutgers return to the win column.
If Rutgers wants to string together some wins during Big Ten play, the first thing it will need to do is improve significantly from the free throw line.
Rutgers has also proven that it can compete with elite competition, but also lose to teams it most certainly should beat. As the Scarlet Knights mature, this inconsistent play will become less frequent.