Wisconsin is riding high after two quality wins last week, but Greg Gard’s squad will face a seemingly improved Rutgers squad on Monday night at the Kohl Center.
Rutgers (5-2, 0-1 Big Ten) upset Miami on the road early last week and put up a tough fight against No. 9 Michigan State at home before ultimately falling to the Spartans on Friday night.
Head coach Steve Pikiell appears to have his team trending in the right direction early on this season, but they face a resurgent Wisconsin (7-1, 1-0) squad coming off a big road win at Iowa to start off the conference season on the right foot.
- Points per game: 70.1
- Opponents’ points per game: 59.6
- Field goal percentage: 42.2 (180 for 427)
- 3-point percentage: 36.9 (62 of 168)
- Free throw percentage: 57.5 (69 of 120)
- KenPom.com team rank: 106
- KenPom.com adjusted offensive efficiency: 99.6 (251st in nation)
- KenPom.com adjusted defensive efficiency: 93.2 (19th in nation)
Notable Scarlet Knights to watch
- Junior forward Eugene Omoruyi: 15.1 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game (leads team in both categories); 24 turnovers in seven games; season-high 24 points versus Drexel
- Sophomore guard Geo Baker: 14.6 points per game, 4.9 assists per game; Shooting 44.6 percent from the field (37 of 83), 45 percent from three-point range (18 of 40)
- Sophomore guard Peter Kiss: 9.9 points per game, 2.1 rebounds per games
We spoke about Rutgers football just a few weeks ago, but what’s the general feeling about the men’s basketball program now that they upset Miami on the road and played No. 9 Michigan State tight at home?
There has been general optimism around men’s basketball since Steve Pikiell arrived two and a half years ago. It continues to grow as signs that the program is moving in the right direction are clear to see. This is a very young team with the first four players off the bench all being freshman, but the talent and depth is much improved. There is definitely a sense that something special is developing and it will just take a matter of time, as well as two big additions to the backcourt next season (former four-star recruit & Texas transfer Jacob Young and four-star point guard Paul Mulcahy). While a winning record and potential NIT bid seems too optimistic for this season, watching this team develop has already been an enjoyable experience a quarter through schedule. The realistic hope is that Rutgers finishes better than last for the first time since joining the Big Ten and possibly win six to seven league games. With only one senior on the roster, the core group returns next season and this year is really about gaining experience and learning how to win. In regard to Pikiell, he has been building the right way since day one and the fan base, except for the win now football fans who are looking for something to celebrate, are extremely confident in the work he is doing.
At 5-2 overall, where are the greatest strengths of this team, and where are some of the areas they need to improve?
Pikiell wants the identity of the team to always be based on defense and rebounding, which it was his first two seasons and allowed them to be mostly competitive despite a lack of talent and depth. This season the freshman class brings a diverse skill set and more talent, but Pikiell made it clear they were far behind defensively in the preseason. However, after the third game of the season, Rutgers delivered three straight great defensive performances, including tying an NCAA record for points allowed in a half (four vs. Eastern Michigan) and held Miami 29 points below its season scoring average. While there is plenty of work to do on that end, as witnessed in the Michigan State loss, Rutgers comes into this game ranked 18th nationally with its adjusted defensive efficiency rating.
Rebounding has been solid, with a point of emphasis on the offensive glass. The big surprise this season has been the significant improvement from behind the arc, as Rutgers is averaging 37 percent as a team from three-point range and averaging nine makes per game. They’ve been terrible in this area for years, which has been a huge disadvantage, but have four legitimate shooters from deep on this team, all of which are averaging 39 percent or better so far this season. Rutgers also leads the Big Ten in block shots early on.
Turnovers have been a major problem, which isn’t surprising considering there is no natural point guard on the team and attacking the rim through dribble penetration has been a struggle. Free throw shooting hasn’t been good (57.5 percent), but it’s mostly due to the freshman who seem to be adjusting.
Junior forward Eugene Omoruyi leads Rutgers in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (9.1). What skillset does he bring each time he steps out on the court, and who else should Wisconsin fans know about?
Omoruyi is the poster boy for player development in the Pikiell era. He was lightly recruited out of Canada and just keeps getting better, as Pikiell labeled him the most improved player on the team the past two years. Omoruyi has become a very good rebounder (four double-doubles in seven games), but the biggest surprise in his game has been his newfound ability to knockdown three-pointers. He was 0-16 in his career entering this season, but has started 10 for 22 this year after being vocal in the preseason that he would be proficient in this area. His defense, leadership and toughness are important aspects of his game as well and he already has drawn 12 charges this season after 28 last year.
Geo Baker has taken the next step in his development as well and despite shouldering the load of running the offense, he has become a more complete player (14.6 points, 4.9 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals per game).
Wisconsin fans will hopefully notice the improved athleticism of this team, especially when the bench enters the game with intriguing freshman Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis, Myles Johnson, and Caleb McConnell. They will make mistakes and this is just their second road game ever, but they are making solid contributions and showing growth early on this season.
We’re starting to ask every site this, but who do you feel will guard Ethan Happ?
Happ pretty much beat Rutgers by himself down the stretch in the overtime win at Madison Square Garden two years ago, but struggled last season when Wisconsin lost at the RAC. I think starting center and seven footer Shaq Doorson will be the primary guy on Happ, as he also guarded him last season, but he will get help. I expect reserves Mamadou Doucoure and Johnson to have some time guarding Happ as well, as Pikiell will want to keep as many fresh bodies on him as possible. You may even see some off the ball help from guys like Omoruyi and Harper Jr., too.
Where do you feel Rutgers could have the upper hand against Wisconsin, but also were could the Badgers have the advantage?
If Rutgers can make this an offensive struggle and contain the Badgers from behind the arc, they have a chance. The uglier this game becomes, the better. They’ll need to win the battle on the boards and limit turnovers, while holding an edge on points off of them. Of course, making free throws and three-point shots are a must for an upset victory on the road. Wisconsin holds the edge on most everything, but Rutgers actually has more size and will need to be effective in making them work for every basket. Staying out of foul trouble is important as well, something that really hurt them against Michigan State. With this being the third game in six days for Rutgers, they’ll need contributions from every player who sees the court if they want to pull off the upset.
Lastly, what’s your game prediction?
The odds are slim that Rutgers can win but this team, despite being young, plays with confidence and a fearlessness that served them well in upsetting Miami on the road. I think Wisconsin is a much better team and after a putting up a fight, eventually wear down Rutgers the final ten minutes of the game. Wisconsin 68 Rutgers 59