TheKnightReport - Rutgers' defense becoming one of the best in the nation
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Rutgers' defense becoming one of the best in the nation

Prior to the season, Rutgers men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell mentioned on numerous occasions that his team’s defense wasn’t up to par.

How about now?

Rutgers (13-4, 4-2 Big Ten), which is program-best 28th on KenPom and 22nd in the NET Rankings as of this writing Thursday morning, boasts the eighth most efficient defense in the entire country. The Scarlet Knights allow the 13th least amount of points per game in 59.4. Opponents are also shooting only 36.8 percent from the floor including 29.2 percent on 3-pointers. Rutgers blocks 5.1 shots and registers 7.1 steals per game as well.

Wednesday, in Rutgers’ 59-50 home win over Indiana, it held Indiana to its season low in points (50), field goal percentage (31.7), 3-point field goal percentage (10.5), field goals (19), 3-pointers (two), assists (two) and blocks (two).

Hoosiers coach Archie Miller took notice.

"Well, they do a great job on the ball,” Miller said. “They really work, they pressure, they're quick. And they have length. I thought their big guys did a really good job of impacting ball screens. They put our guards in situations to get knocked back off hedges. We didn't handle that very well. And then when we did drive at times, they did a really good job crowding the floor and our outlet passes or the balls that came out resulted in nothing. You know, most of the time when you drive the ball and you're penetrating on some of these passes, you get an easy one. We didn't get many. And when we did get them, it felt like even the guys who shot them felt sped up. It didn't feel clean or in rhythm. So again, the game is dictated by the team that sets the rules. Rutgers set the rules right at the tap. We had to adjust and had to fight through it. But the game was fast on offense for us. They really worked, they pressured and their big guys did a good job of making things very difficult around the rim. We got very few easy ones. And we were 2-for-18 from three. That's not definitely not going to get it done. We have to be able to find a way to make a couple of the open ones, especially on the road. That keeps you in the game and helps you. And for the first time in a long time, 12 free throw attempts in the game. We just didn't get to the line, and probably has a lot to do with our inability on offense to run clean stuff. And then when we did get around the basket, you know, it was one of those games when you have to finish through it.

“We didn't, but guys played hard. Certain guys really, really kind of grinded it out and hung in there for long minutes. I thought Joey (Brunk) played really hard. I thought Justin (Smith) played really hard. Those two guys played pretty well in the game for us. Our guards didn't take care of it as well as we needed to throughout the course of the game. Just didn't get enough from the three-point line. You'll look back on it when we watch the game. Can you control what you can control? Have to take care of the ball better."

Indiana entered leading the country in free throw attempts per game per game with 27.3 and free throws made per game with 18.6), but it ended up well below that mark with a 10-of-12 showing at the foul line. Rutgers also limited leading scorer, Trayce Jackson-Davis (14.6) to a season-low four points and the Hoosiers' 50 points scored was the second fewest for a Rutgers opponent in a Big Ten game, following the 50-46 defeat of Penn State at the RAC in January of 2014.

"When our guys are connected, the voices today -- I could see it in the huddle. They were locked in,” Pikiell said. “Coach (Karl) Hobbs and Coach (Brandin) Knight do a great job preparing. We couldn't defend the free throw line the other night against Illinois. We kept these guys -- they lead the country in free throw attempts -- kept them off the free throw line. We had to defend without fouling against some really good, elite front court players. We were locked into the game plan. Everyone jumped in and did their thing. It was great. We were connected."

The Scarlet Knights fed off the raucous sold-out crowd at the RAC and are 12-0 at home.

"It's loud. I love the RAC. I think the environment's great. I love that our students -- even though they're not back in school yet -- came out. I appreciate that,” Pikiell said. “The Riot Squad, our band is awesome, the cheerleaders. It all helps us a great deal. These guys feed off that. We've been traveling in this league for a while and every place is so hard to play. Now the RAC is just like those places and it's a great advantage for us. I'm very thankful. A lot of marketing, a lot of people doing a lot of things to make sure that happens. I think they enjoy watching this team play too so I like that."

Rutgers has come a long since allowing 71 points to Bryant on opening night, squeaking out a win against Drexel, losing to St. Bonaventure in Toronto, and Pitt and Michigan State on the road. Its held five out of its last seven opponents in the 40s or 50s and the other two scored 61 and 62 points, respectively.

The Scarlet Knights have another contest at the RAC on Sunday afternoon against Minnesota. The crowd will be lively. But in order to solidify their standing within the league and make a push toward the postseason, they’ll have to continue their defensive tenacity.

Even in a tight 54-51 loss to Illinois this past weekend, the Illini shot just 28.6 percent from the field, the lowest a Rutgers foe shot this year and the lowest mark a Big Ten team has shot versus the Scarlet Knights since they joined the conference.

And while offense can sometimes falter on the road, defense travels. Rutgers was picked 12th in the conference heading into the season. Pikiell reminds the team of that constantly.

"Every drill. Yea. That's where were picked. Gotta try to work hard to move up in this league,” Pikiell said. “Every team is great. We better stay that way. We've never been anything (higher than) picked 12th. We've been picked 14th. Those are the only places we've been picked. Hopefully our guys understand that and we've gotta continue to climb in the best league in the country.

“We got a lot of basketball left. A lot of road games, a lot of home games. We gotta continue to be focused on just that.”

Follow Chris Nalwasky on Twitter @ChrisWasky.