Rutgers battles lack of consistency from game to game as season winds down
Knights continue shooting woes among other team issues
Very few teams can force meaningful final-minute free throws out of No. 3 Purdue and come back only two days later with an uninspired 22-point loss to Indiana.
But that two-game stretch is a microcosm of the Rutgers men's basketball team's season — strong, put-together performance against a ranked team followed by a shambolic showing against programs it should at least be competitive with.
It has become so entrenched in the Scarlet Knights' season that other teams are starting to prepare for this Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic. The Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter drew upon this after his side narrowly escaped the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) with a 78-76 win last weekend.
"I felt the team that would show up, just because of the way they lost in the Illinois game, the team that played Seton Hall, the team that played at Michigan State," Painter said. "That is what I told them. I told them you look at those two games and you watch Rutgers and if that team shows up you are going to have a dog fight. And that is the team that showed up."
Painter and his players met the team that showed up against Seton Hall, Michigan State and Wisconsin, but that is not the same team that faced off against Stony Brook, Hartford, Penn State, Illinois and Indiana, this season.
It is a trend that leaves Rutgers vulnerable to regression from last year, record-wise, sitting with two conference wins with only five games remaining in the regular season, albeit against beatable teams in Nebraska and Illinois, despite falling to them earlier in the season.
Of course, not all of the blame falls on the team itself, and head coach Steve Pikiell recognizes this and does not expect performances like those against Purdue every time out.
"I think part of it is youth, and part of it is that we have some guys out who are fighters," he said. "We've really got to figure that out."
Any squad starting two freshmen and one sophomore is going to experience growing pains, especially when preparing for wildly different teams on a short turnaround, as seen from the Boilermakers to the Hoosiers.
And to no fault of the Knights, some of the weaker teams in the Big Ten have pulled off uncharacteristically strong shooting performances. Illinois, at that point the last-placed team in the conference, knocked down 57 percent of its shots against Rutgers. On Monday, the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten in Indiana hit 45 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.
Little of that came down to the Knights' defensive effort, which has been one of the positives that has persisted all throughout the season. Despite losing two of its best defenders off the bench in senior guard Mike Williams and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, Rutgers has for the most part kept its shape and controlled the rebounding game, even in losses.
Defense is not the issue. It is — almost exclusively — shooting.
Over their current six-game losing streak, the Knights have shot 33, 40, 31, 42, 48 and 24 percent from the field, planting them firmly at the bottom of the Big Ten in field-goal percentage by a full 2-percent margin.
In games where Rutgers shoots more than 40 percent, it is largely the result of two or three players showing up — usually junior guard Corey Sanders, freshman guard Geo Baker and fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman — but when its percentage dips, it is an off night for virtually everybody.
In the 65-43 loss to Indiana last time out, where the Knights shot a season-low 24 percent, no players attempting more than five shots hit at least 40 percent from the field, owing to it being a team issue, not just the responsibility of a few players.
In ways, that makes sense.
It is the team as a whole that has felt the effects of rebuilding, losing key parts from last year and losing major players for this year.
Though the team could possibly not hit its win total from last year, that may not necessarily be a concern for Pikiell and his players at this point, or even a goal they had at the forefront.
Though lopsided losses against the likes of Indiana and Illinois are never going to look good, there is something to say for a team that can play competitively against the likes of Purdue, Seton Hall and Michigan State, something that cannot be said of a lot of the Big Ten.
For Pikiell, that is as good a sign as any that the team is right on track.
"It's part of a building process," Pikiell said. "If we did it every night we would be called (the) Golden State Warriors. We're not that yet. We're a program that is growing, we're a program that's young, we're a program that's hit a lot of adversity. We're fighting through it, and every game is a different obstacle."
For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.