Improved ‘D’ keeps RU?in tough games
The Rutgers men’s basketball team has undergone a visible change.
The Scarlet Knights had no issue scoring the ball during their nonconference schedule, cracking 75 points in more than half of their 11 games against non-Big East opponents.
But the Knights also allowed four of those teams to score more than 70 points.
In 12 Big East games, only Syracuse earned that distinction. Rutgers has scored at least 70 points only once during that span.
The issue was on full display Tuesday, when the Knights defeated in-state rival Seton Hall, 57-55, snapping their six-game losing skid.
Much of that can be attributed to Rutgers’ improved defensive effort.
“I think it just shows what kind of team this is and the capabilities of the players that we have here,” said senior forward Austin Johnson. “Everybody contributed, and that was great for us.”
The Knights held the Pirates to a 36.7 percent shooting percentage, nearly eight points lower than their season average.
Rutgers also recorded 11 blocks, its most in a Big East game under head coach Mike Rice.
“It was great that we were able to play good defense without fouling at times,” Johnson said. “Blocks were integral and helped us get out in transition.”
Those blocks proved the balance the Knights have developed on the defensive end.
It was not the case earlier in the game, when Rutgers gave up 70 and 80 points per game and defensive contributions were limited.
Now the Knights have developed a consistent defensive presence, receiving input from more and more players.
“I think, at the end of the day, if we can continue to play like [we did against Seton Hall], we’ll win a lot more games,” Johnson said.
Sophomore forward Kadeem Jack has noticeably improved. Jack spent much of last season on the sideline as he recovered from a foot injury.
Jack leads the team this season with 24 blocks, four more than senior wing Dane Miller and 10 more than junior forward Wally Judge, who both average more playing time.
“Kadeem was so active. He was all over the place,” Rice said Tuesday. “That’s the Kadeem Jack [I want to see], and I need to get that more consistently from [him].”
Jack had four points and a team-high eight rebounds — six on defense — in addition to two blocks.
He spelled Judge, who suffered early fouls, and provided much-needed effort on the defensive end.
But Tuesday was not the first time Rutgers showcased more consistent defense.
The Knights defeated Pittsburgh on Jan. 5 to earn their first Big East win. The Panthers now hold the conference’s best shooting percentage at 48.3 percent.
The Knights held them to a 37.5 percentage and 62 points.
Rutgers’ problem has been that it cannot execute its offense against some of the toughest defenses in the conference.
Cincinnati, Georgetown, Louisville and Syracuse, which account for five of Rutgers’ eight conference losses, all hold opponents to a scoring average below 60.
In those five losses, the Knights broke 60 only once — in Saturday’s game against the Hoyas.
If Rutgers wants to work its way up the standings and make a late run at a Big East Tournament bye, it needs to solve opposing defenses.
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.