How Rutgers Escapes the Big Ten Cellar

Eddie Jordan’s first season as a college head coach was far from successful.

It’s difficult for any coach to take over a program after his predecessor has been fired, but when the situation was as extreme as Rutgers’ — Mike Rice was fired months after videotapes surfaced that showed the third-year coach verbally and physically abusing his players — Jordan had a low-bar to clear in year one. Several players either transferred or decommitted following Rice’s dismissal, and Jordan’s inheritance desperately needed stability.

Jordan’s inaugural season was significantly choppy — Rutgers finished the season 12-21 and only won five American Athletic Conference games — and while his second year won’t be easier, there are several positives and possibilities to examine before the Knights’ season tips on Sunday (against George Washington).

Nearly 50% of the team’s minutes from last season are missing, but those absent Knights are best viewed as addition by subtraction. JJ Moore’s offensive rating led the team, but the forward was a possession black hole; the starting forward recorded just 29 assists in his final season. He was a defensive wash as well — during the month of February, the heart of the Knights’ AAC schedule, Moore grabbed just eleven defensive rebounds. Wally Judge never lived up to his recruiting hype, and though the Kansas State transfer boosted Rutgers’ thin frontcourt, Judge continuously struggled to stay on the court, committing more than six fouls per 40 minutes.

This analysis isn’t meant to diminish their contributions — the two bigs were significant frontcourt scorers — but mainly to highlight that giving more minutes to other Knights could better serve Rutgers during its first Big Ten season.

So how does Jordan and his staff improve Rutgers’ standing and avoid the conference cellar? By upgrading the Knights’ defense, specifically the transition defense. Rutgers didn’t pound the offensive glass a year ago — Judge and now senior forward Kadeem Jack were the only two Knights to grab more than 50 offensive rebounds — so logically Rutgers should have easily kept opponents from scoring off the break. According to Hoop-Math.com, though, the squad struggled to prevent teams from reaching the the rim — both their transitional defensive effective field goal percentage and percentage of attempts finished among the bottom half of Division I teams. And when teams weren’t attacking the basket, they excelled at converting from deep, taking 34% of their transition attempts from beyond the arc (and making 36% of those shots). Ken Pomeroy has led and won the crusade against attributing a low three-point defensive percentage to a team’s half-court defense, but being aware and flying at shooters on the break should come as second nature, and the Knights were too often disjointed.

While Rutgers’ half court defense wasn’t overly stingy either — the team allowed 1.11 points per possession, a rate that ballooned to 1.16 ppp during conference play — the team was somewhat unfortunate to allow a high percentage of both free throw and three-point makes. Rutgers couldn’t contain their opponents and fouled often as a result, posting a defensive free throw rate that ranked last among AAC teams (45%), so the points quickly accumulated after opponents shot 73% from the stripe. Similarly, opponents didn’t take many threes, but those attempts were largely on target (37%), and when combined with a defense that didn’t pressure the ball or patrol the defensive glass particularly well (Myles Mack, who stands 5’9″, grabbed the third-most defensive rebounds), Rutgers often began their possession after a made basket.

Mike Williams, a freshman guard who left NYC to play in the Garden State, could be the squad’s defensive salve. He was known as a pure shooter in the high school ranks, a classic “2,” but Williams’ main priority in his first year will be to shore up the team’s perimeter defense. He isn’t, and can’t be, an offensive black hole (the team needs a Knight other than Mack to stretch the defense from deep), but a key in whether he is a significant part of the rotation will be his defensive contributions.

Defensive upgrades were Jordan’s main priority as he retooled Rutgers, and the staff believe they have accomplished this task by enhancing their front court athleticism through recruiting. Though the bigs are raw, those extra bodies will help buttress the Knights’ defense. DJ Foreman and Shaquille Doorson, a 6’11” center who had been committed to Pittsburgh, should use significant minutes, and will join Jack and a rejuvenated (and fully healthy) Greg Lewis on the interior.

Junior Etou entered Rutgers with significant recruiting hype (as well as questions raised by Deadspin’s Dave McKenna regarding his actual age), but the 6’7″ forward is primed to shine as a consistent scoring option. He didn’t do much with his minutes as a frosh —– a .95 offensive rating isn’t jaw-dropping, and he floated on the perimeter far too much for a player with his skill-set (and the 27% three-point percentage certainly doesn’t justify the attempts) — but after a year working with Jordan, who took an underwhelming Jack and helped mold him into an all-conference player, Etou could one of the Big Ten’s most surprising talents.

Another Knight who’ll help Etou shoulder those extra field goal attempts is Bishop Daniels, a guard who barely stepped on to the court at Miami (FL) before transferring. He spent the past year in the junior college ranks, and while it may take a few games to get acclimated to DI speed, Daniels will be immediately thrust into the starting lineup and should deflect some of the defensive glare off Mack. Another Knight who should help offensively is Kerwin Okoro, the Iowa State transfer who didn’t play much in Ames, and then was hobbled by injuries in his first Rutgers season. Like much of the Knights’ roster, Okoro is very much an unknown, but as he approaches his first fully healthy season, a significant uptick in minutes, and hopefully production, is to be expected.

Any discussion of Rutgers’ success is dependent on Mack and Jack. Both will be among the best at their positions in the Big Ten, and while the duo will lead the squad in percentage of shots taken, they’ll benefit from the improved depth and more balanced offense. Opponents didn’t perceive Jerome Seagears as an offensive threat — sure, he could hit threes, but a guard who only makes 39% of his twos isn’t worrisome — so Daniels’ addition will ease Mack’s burden, specifically when he attacks the rim. Despite his size, Mack has the speed and bounce to get to the bucket, but since he was the only backcourt Knight capable of creating for himself, he had to juggle setting up his teammates and getting into the interior. He could handle the assists — his rate rose from 19% to an impressive 31% — but his efficiency converting at the rim slipped. A move off the ball, or even Daniels spelling Mack on occasion, would be beneficial to Rutgers’ offensive efficiency.

Adding backcourt depth will also help Jordan’s quest to push the pace; he has been abundantly clear that he wants to run this season. This type of proclamation is total coach-speak, but Rutgers did use 68 or so possessions in 2014, and during their lone exhibition game (versus Baruch), the Knights upped the tempo to 72 possessions. There has been a movement within the Big Ten to shake off the ghost of Bob Knight – Iowa led the conference with 69 possessions, and several teams are right at the national average — so perhaps Jordan and Fran McCaffery can form an up-tempo coalition.

Jack quietly had one of last season’s most successful campaigns. The 6’9″ forward not only upped his minutes, he attempted nearly 350 two-point field goals, and was on the cusp of converting 50% of those shots. He did cut down his shots at the rim — the percentage dropped precipitously — but he worked on his outside touch and now possesses a reliable mid-range jumper that he can unleash the majority of Rutgers’ half court possessions (he made 38% a year ago). Jack is one the nation’s most unheralded players, and the move to the Big Ten will only help boost his notoriety.

It’s easy to predict Rutgers will be overwhelmed by Big Ten opponents. The roster, outside of Mack and Jack, is full of uncertainties, and the Knights aren’t enticing on paper. But if the team can control their impulse to hack and stop a few of their opponents from waltzing down the court, the Knights will win more than a handful of conference games.

Matt Giles covers the Big East and a host of other conferences for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @Hudsongiles.

 

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