TheKnightReport - Defense has become Rutgers Basketball's identity (2023)

Today, many college basketball analysts, writers, coaches, and players will tell you that Rutgers is probably one of the nation's toughest and most physical teams. Big Ten teams loathe playing Rutgers on any given night. Just ask Michigan State's Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo who over the years has repeatedly praised Rutgers' toughness and how difficult it is to play the Scarlet Knights.

In 2016, when Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell to become the next head coach its men's basketball program, Pikiell explained what brand of basketball he was going to bring to Rutgers.

"Every job I've been at, we've won the league by being the leading scoring team, and then one year we won the league by being the best defensive team." - Steve Pikiell, 2016 introductory press conference

Since that speech, Coach Pikiell has changed the tone of Rutgers basketball from being a bunch of walkovers teams could push around every night to becoming a team nobody wants to face on the court.

Coach Pikiell's teams have always played with passion and intensity, but one thing is certain and has been emerging over the years, and that is Rutgers ability to play elite defense. This current team may be one of Coach Pikiell's best defensive units yet.

TheKnightReport - Defense has become Rutgers Basketball's identity (1)

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Currently, Rutgers ranks 2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom and Bart Torvik's T-Rank. The last time Rutgers ranked in the top 10 for defensive efficiency was during the 2019-20 season, according to KenPom. Rutgers finished the 2019-20 season 8th in the country for defensive efficiency.

This season when Rutgers holds teams to 65 points or less, the Scarlet Knights are a perfect 8-0 in the Big Ten, and a combined 16-1 overall. The only blemish for Rutgers when holding an opponent under 65 points was when the Scarlet Knights lost at home in the Garden State Hardwood Classic to Seton Hall, 45-43.

According to NCAA Statistics, Rutgers is holding their opponents to 58.4 points per game, which is 5th best in the nation and 1st in the Big Ten. Only Tennessee, North Texas, Houston, and Saint Mary's are holding opponents to fewer points per game than Rutgers.

Rutgers is currently holding their opponents to shooting 37.5% from the field this season which ranks 4th best in the country. The Scarlet Knights have also done a wonderful job protecting the perimeter this season as they are holding opponents to 29% from 3-point range, which ranks 15th in the country. When Penn State traveled to Piscataway on January 24th, the Rutgers held the nation's best 3-point shooting team to 15.4% from deep.

Not only is Rutgers holding majority of their opponents to shooting low percentages from the field, but the Scarlet Knights have amplified the pressure on their opponents this season by forcing turnovers and steals. Rutgers ranks 12th in the country with 9.4 steals per game, and 39th in the country for forcing 12.0 turnovers per game, according to NCAA Statistics. Last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell and Cam Spencer are both ranked in the Top 15 in the nation for averaging 2.3 or more steals per game.

Although Rutgers ranks 73rd in the country as a team for blocks per game, the Scarlet Knights are 5th in the Big Ten. Clifford Omoruyi is averaging 2.04 blocks per game, which ranks 26th in the country and 3rd in the Big Ten. Clifford Omoruyi is the nation's 23rd best defensive rebounder with 6.78 defensive boards per game. Omoruyi has truly been a dominant rim protector for the Scarlet Knights.

It surely doesn't show up on the stat sheet every game, but defensive contributions from Derek Simpson and Aundre Hyatt have been extraordinarily valuable this season, especially from Mawot Mag. Mag has been exceptional on defense this season by making the correct decisions when to apply pressure and provide help. Mag has also made the correct reads on defense and has helped stifle opponents in the post. Mag is also a very unique player because he is versatile, athletic and presents size issues for other teams. Mag has the ability to guard and defend almost anyone on the floor.

Coach Pikiell has constantly thrown many different defensive combinations at teams but he has also increased the defensive pressure from end-to-end of the floor. Through the majority of their games this season, Rutgers has applied full-court pressure in order to dictate and slow down the tempo of games.

Rutgers has been brilliant when applying full-court pressure because they have been able to discombobulate and disrupt their opponents' flow to the game and generate steals and turnovers, which turn into fastbreak points. Rutgers is 47th in the nation and 1st in the Big Ten in fastbreak points.

TheKnightReport - Defense has become Rutgers Basketball's identity (2)


It's no mystery Coach Pikiell loves defense because it was the cornerstone of his philosophy at Stony Brook and it's the cornerstone of his philosophy at Rutgers. In 2016, New Jersey college hoops beat writer Jerry Carino of the Asbury Park Press wrote:

"Good defense was a constant during Pikiell's 11-year tenure at Stony Brook. In each of the past five seasons, his Seawolves ranked among the Top 70 nationally in defensive efficiency, peaking at 11th in 2012-13."

Since Pikiell arrived on the banks in 2016, Rutgers has ranked in the top 25 in defensive efficiency at least four times including this season, according to KenPom. In his first season at the helm, Rutgers finished 72nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, which was a vast improvement from the previous three seasons under Eddie Jordan.

Pikiell's philosophy really starts with the type of players he recruits. During last year's Big Ten Media Day, Pikeill shared, "... you know, a lot of teams want to stockpile you know whatever they consider talent or five-star, six-star, eight-star - whatever you want to give... I'm trying to find guys that are going to fill the needs that we don't have and try to fit with the personality of the team...You know, just because a guy has this many stats doesn't mean he's going to be able to be plugged in and have those same stats at the next school."

It has become evident, Coach Pikiell recruits many of the overlooked tough, physical players that have the willingness to learn and improve their defensive prowess. Assistant coaches Brandin Knight, TJ Thompson, and Karl Hobbs have worked tirelessly on the recruiting trail finding the type of players Pikiell seeks to fit the team's mold.

Caleb McConnell is an excellent example of a player who bought into Coach Pikiell's philosophy, and he has found great success. McConnell came to Rutgers as an under recruited player, and through adversity and tremendous hard work, he became one of the nation's best defenders. McConnell was so exceptional at defense, he was named the 2021-22 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a first for this Rutgers program.

As Rutgers has increasingly enjoyed success on the court over the course of the past several seasons with back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips, Pikiell is starting to garner the attention of some of the nation's top high school recruits.

Next year's recruiting class includes an elite player in Gavin Griffiths, rated 5-stars and the 20th best high school player in the nation per Brian Fonseca of NJ Advance Media wrote about Griffiths' commitment, "he loved the aggressive defense they [Rutgers] play, a toughness evident in the way of Caleb McConnell and his teammates defend that Griffiths identifies with." Like Griffiths, future Scarlet Knights Baye Ndongo, Jamichael Davis, Airious Bailey, and Dellquan Warren all possess great defensive abilities and all of them have bought into the Pikiell defensive philosophy.

Under Pikiell, Rutgers loves to muck up games defensively, and when they usually win...they win ugly. Rutgers' wins may not be pretty to the casual basketball fan but to Rutgers fans it's a thing of beauty. Defense has become Rutgers basketball's identity.


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