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March Madness Preview: Rutgers Basketball

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Is Rutgers Good? It Depends...

Indiana v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

#7 Clemson (16-7) Vs #10 Rutgers (15-11)

NCAA Tournament, Round 1

9:20 EST - TBS

Bankers Life Arena, Indianapolis Indiana

Rutgers Basketball

As everyone was celebrating Clemson’s NCAA tournament draw, I was curled up in the fetal position, pondering the cruelties of fate. As a Purdue fan and a contributor for the Purdue SB Nation site, I’ve seen waaaaaaaaaay too much Rutgers basketball over the last few seasons. The Scarlet Knights are kryptonite to my Boilermakers. Honestly, if you asked me today if I’d rather have Purdue face Gonzaga or Rutgers, I think I might have to go with the Zags. It’s not the Rutgers is better than Gonzaga, it’s just that Purdue, for whatever reason, can’t seem to beat Rutgers. This season, without Ron Harper Jr., the Scarlet Knights knocked off Purdue 81-76, in one of the worst defensive performances in the Matt Painter era.

Luckily, Clemson is not Purdue, and Rutgers, for whatever reason, is not the team that shot 52% from deep against the Boilermakers. Granted, they can be that team on occasion, but they could just as easily be the team that got embarrassed by a horrid Nebraska squad 72-51 late in the season. Much like Clemson, Rutgers has been consistently inconsistent. They have the talent to knock off #1 seed Illinois 91-88, but can also drop a game to Penn State 75-67. When you look at their resume, it’s littered with huge wins and head scratching losses.

Is Rutgers a good basketball team?

It depends on which Rutgers basketball team shows up on any given night.

Rutgers Starting Lineup

C - Myles Johnson - Jr - 6’11”, 255 - 8.3 PTS, 8.7 REB, 2.5 BLK

If Clemson won some sort of advantage going into this game, and was able to pick a guy to leave on the Rutgers bench, I’d make them play without Myles Johnson. He’s not a great scorer, but he’s they guy that makes the Rutgers defense and rebounding work. If you tell me how many minutes and rebounds Johnson has in any given game, I can tell you who won. When Johnson plays 30+ minutes and pulls down around 10 boards, the Scarlet Knights are a hard team to beat.

The first time Rutgers played Illinois, Johnson played 30 minutes, scored 9 points, collected 13 rebounds, blocked 3 shots and had 3 steals. Rutgers won that game 91-88.

When Rutgers played Illinois in the Big10 tournament, Johnson played 17 minutes, scored 6 points, collected 5 rebounds, blocked 1 shot, and had 2 steals. Rutgers lost 90-68.

Johnson isn’t the best player on Rutgers, that distinction goes to Ron Harper Jr, but he’s their most irreplaceable player. He’s 6’11, but he might have the longest arms in college basketball. When he’s patrolling the paint on defense, if he doesn’t block a shot, he’s going to change a shot. If you try to pass around him...well...don’t, because he has quick hands and can eliminate a passing lane without moving.

PF - Paul Mulcahy - So - 6’6, 210 - 5.8 PTS, 2.8 AST, 36% 3PT

Having Johnson in the post allows Rutgers to play “small”. Mulcahy was recruited as a guard, but has settled into playing the stretch 4 position. He’s a guy that’s going to space the floor on offense, do the little things on defense, and mostly not get in the way. Mulcahy isn’t a guy that’s going to blow up the box score (although now that I’ve said that he’s probably going to go for a career high Friday night). He rebounds a little, he’s a decent 3 point shooter and doesn’t require the ball to make an impact on the game, which is perfect for Rutgers, because their other 3 guards do need the ball, and there’s only 1 to go around. He’s their glue guy.

SF - Ron Harper Jr. - Jr - 6’6”, 245 - 15.4 PTS, 5.9 REB, 1.6 AST

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because you watched his father win 5 NBA Championships in the late 90s and early 2000’s with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, because like his father, Ron Harper Jr. is a baller.

His game is tough to describe. Early in the season he was hitting 3’s at an insane (and unsustainable) clip and put up 26 points vs Syracuse, 27 points against Maryland, 28 points against Illinois, and 20 against Ohio State in consecutive games. During that stretch of play he was a combined 19-34 from 3. He looked like a potential 1st team All-American and National Player of the Year. Later in the season, he cooled down substantially , and turned into a guy that was good for somewhere between 9-15 points a game, with an occasional scoring outburst. Clemson needs 9-15 point Harper Jr. because if they get 25-30 point Harper Jr., Rutgers will win, and it won’t be close.

He wants to catch and shoot from outside the arc. When he’s able to stand on his spot, receive a pass, and fire away, he’s eventually going to get hot, and once he does, he’s the type of player that can hit 3 or 4 with a 5 minute period and put you away. When he moves inside the arc, he’s not the most athletic guy on the court, but he’s a crafty scorer who is adept at bullying smaller players with the big frame and picking up cheap points at the free throw line. When he combines his inside game with his outside game, he’s one of the better scorers you’ll find in college basketball.

Luckily for Clemson, he hasn’t done that in a while.

SG - Geo Baker - Sr. - 6’4”, 195 - 10.1 PTS, 3.2 REB, 3.1 AST

Baker is a player I expected to take off at some point in his career. He averaged 10.8 points a game as a freshman, and has sort of stagnated around that mark his entire career. It’s strange, on a team with Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young, when Rutgers needs a late bucket, the ball seems to always find Geo Baker, and he’s never short on confidence. He’s got a smooth pull up game off the dribble, and can always find a decent shot when his team needs someone to play 1 on 1 late in the clock.

Geo is a bit of a chucker on offense. He’s going to get up around 10 shots a game regardless, and when he’s feeling it, he might launch 15. He’s a streaky 3 point shooter, but he’s going to try and shoot until he hits a hot streak. He went 6-11 from deep in a win in a 20 point, 10 assist outburst against Indiana, but he’s just as apt to go 1-6 from deep, which he did against Indiana in the Big10 Tournament.

Most of the time, Baker isn’t a problem, but when he is a problem, he’s a big problem, if that makes sense (he’s always been a huge problem for Purdue).

PG - Jacob Young - Sr. - 6’2”, 185 - 14.4 PTS, 3.5 AST, 1.8 STL

Young is the type of player Clemson hopes Dawes becomes later in his career, because, in theory, they have a similar skill set. Young is a quick, tough guard who plays right on the edge of being out of control. He’s another guy that’s going to get up his shots, one way or the other, but he does most of his damage inside the arc. He’s tough to stop off the dribble and is fearless at the rim. When his path is blocked to goal, he can break out a nice little floater in the lane. Much like Harper Jr., when Young is at his best, he’s playing downhill and picking up cheap points at the foul line. He’s one of those guys with the ability to throw their body into a defender, draw the foul, and then somehow make a circus shot.

His ability to get into the paint off the dribble and either score at the rim, kick out to shooters, or dump off a late pass to Johnson for an easy dunk makes the Rutgers offense work. Much of what they do is predicated on Young’s ability to drive the ball into the lane, but because he spends so much time trying to force the ball into the lane, he’s also turnover prone. He averages 3 turnovers a game, but has thrown it away 5 or more times, 5 times, this season.

The good news for Clemson is Young isn’t much of a 3 point shooter, but he occasionally thinks he might be shooter. He struggled down the stretch from outside the arc, going 2-13 over his last 5 games. Honestly, when Young is shooting a 3 instead of putting his head down and getting into the paint, it’s a win for the defense.

Key Bench

Montez Mathis - Jr - 6’4”, 210 - 21.5 MIN, 8.5 PTS, 2.9 REB

Mathis started for Rutgers at the beginning of the season, before settling back into a bench role around the halfway mark. He’s a great athlete that does well when he can get out in transition and attack the basket. Like Young, he’s an emotional player that occasionally plays out of control, especially on defense. He hasn’t fouled out of a game yet this season, but he’s picked up 4 fouls on 6 different occasions. In the Big10 tournament against Indiana he put up a 5 minute, 4 foul, 1 turnover performance, and with the exception of a 12 points in 14 minutes performance against Minnesota on March 3rd, he’s struggled down the stretch.

If Mathis wants to shoot it from deep, it’s best to let him go ahead and try. He’s not a good shooter, but can be goaded into letting them fly anyway. I imagine that’s part of the reason why he’s seen his minutes cut as the season has moved along. At the same time, earlier in the season he put up 25 points against Purdue on a 5/5 3 point shooting performance on February 29th. He’s hit a total of 7 3 pointers since that game. Such is Rutgers vs Purdue basketball.

Caleb McConnell - Jr - 6’7”, 195 - 23.1 MIN, 5.3 PTS, 4 REB

McConnell and Mulcahy are the two guys that play the the “stretch” 4 position for Rutgers. Like Mathis, McConnell is another guy that has seen his minutes dry up a little as the season has progressed. His best attribute is his rebounding ability, but he won’t hesitate to shoot, which is one of the reasons (I assume) that he’s lost some playing time to Mulcahy. It’s not that McConnell can’t play, it’s just that Rutgers wants every possession to end in a Harper Jr., Baker, or Young shot.

He’s not much of a threat from deep, but he will try to be a threat from deep if left open. Like Mathis, any possession that ends in a Caleb McConnell 3 point attempt is a win for the defense, regardless of the outcome (which is usually a missed 3 point attempt).

Cliff Omoruyi - Fr - 6’10”, 230 - 15.3 MIN, 4PTS, 4 REB, .8 BLK

Omoruyi is one of the higher profile recruits in the history of Rutgers basketball. He’s a high 4*, top 50 guy with loads of potential down the road. He has all the physical tools to be a good player, but he’s not a good player yet. He’s an extremely raw athlete, who’s main job is to rebound and stay out of the way on offense.

In a strange way, he’s a good barometer for Rutgers. In competitive games, the are 1-6 when he plays 15 minutes and the one win was a 74-60 early season win over Maryland that is a stretch to put into the “competitive” category. When Omoryuyi is plays extended minutes, it means Johnson is in foul trouble. When Johnson is in foul trouble, Rutgers has a hard time winning basketball games. If you’re playing Rutgers, you want to see him on the court (unless you’re getting blown out).

Clemson Wins If...

They match Rutgers’s physical brand of basketball. If you’re passive against them, they will take the game from you. They play a high intensity, physical brand of basketball that in large part relies on their guards pressuring the ball on defense and letting letting Johnson protect the rim.

Offense

As I said in my Clemson preview article yesterday (or Tuesday, depending on when this is published), this tournament is all about Aamir Simms, and he’s got a tall (literally and figuratively) task ahead of him on Friday night. He’s got to go at Johnson early and try and get him on the bench. I don’t care if he goes 0-7 in the first 10 minutes as long as Johnson picks up 2 fouls. He’s going to struggle to post up the Rutgers big man, but I think he can drive him when he steps out to the perimeter. Notice I said “drive him” because if Simms stands outside and shoots 3’s all game, Johnson will eat Clemson up on the glass. If Aamir can get Johnson off the court, things get much easier on both ends of the floor.

The rest is fairly standard Clemson stuff on offense. 2 out of Clemson’s 4 guards have to get into double digits. I feel like this could be a Nick Honor type game because Rutgers will gamble on defense and leave shooters open. That could also play into Hemenway’s game. Even more important than scoring is Trapp and Dawes not turning the ball over. They combined for 8 turnovers against Miami, and if they do that against Rutgers, it’s going to be a huge problem. If Rutgers gets out in transition off turnovers, their energy level goes through the roof.

One player to keep an eye on is Hunter Tyson. He’ll have a size advantage against either guy Rutgers tries to play on him. I’d like to see him be selective in his 3 point attempts and more aggressive in attacking the rim, even if Johnson is their to block his path. I could see Tyson picking up a foul or two on Johnson if he takes it to the rim strong and challenges the big man to block his shot. If Johnson blocks 3 Tyson dunks but commits 2 fouls, it would be a huge win for the Tigers.

Defense

Defense is another matter, because Clemson has to try and fight the urge to over react on dribble drives. If Jacob Young wants to try and win the game shooting contested layups and floaters, Clemson should let him try. The worst thing you can do is let him collapse your defense and kick out to Harper Jr. or Geo Baker for easy looks at 3. If either of those guys get it going from the outside, it could be lights out for the Tigers. I think this is a job for Clyde Trapp, who is both strong enough and athletic enough to either keep young in front of him or bother him at the rim.

Harper is another huge problem for the Tigers, but strangely enough, he’s not a terrible matchup for Hemenway. Harper isn’t going to blow by you with quickness, and Alex can plaster to him on the outside and keep him from catching and shooting. Ideally, this is a place where Newman could significantly impact the game, but I’m not sure he’s in the right head space at the moment.

Geo Baker looks like a job for the Honor/Dawes combination, and their main goal is to not let him hit a few open shots early and turn into Super Geo for the entire game. Baker is going to get his shots up, but if they’re contested midrange jumpers off the dribble, Clemson can live with that.

Finally, rebounding is going to be at a premium. If Johnson is in the game, Simms is going to have to get a body on him, or he’ll eat Clemson alive on the glass. I’m not sure where the Tigers turn if Aamir gets in foul trouble, because I’m not sure Baehre can keep him off the glass. This could be a game for P.J. Hall if Simms picks up early fouls. It’s probably best for Clemson not to find out what happens if Simms gets in foul trouble.

Predictions

KenPom

Clemson 61 - Rutgers 64 - 45% confidence

Drew

Clemson 74 - Rutgers 68 - 0% confidence but I’m putting it out into the world.

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