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Rutgers Hoops elite defense will be key for potential upset of Purdue

Rutgers’ March Madness chances are hanging by a thread and now the margin for error is extremely slim, but a win at 3rd-ranked Purdue on Thursday could go a long way and put the Scarlet Knights in a better position.

So, how will Rutgers be able to pull off the unthinkable in one of the toughest and most grueling atmospheres in all of college hoops on Thursday?

It’s simple.

Rutgers needs to play elite defense.



All season long, Rutgers has relied heavily on its defense to win games and to compensate for the poor offense.

Yes, the offense has been horrible for most of the season, but during the Scarlet Knights’ recent four-game winning streak, the defense has been off the charts good.

As a matter of fact, the defense was so good, for about two weeks in a row Rutgers was the “best” defensive team in all of college basketball, according to KenPom. Currently, Rutgers ranks as the nation’s 2nd best team in adjusted defensive efficiency, behind Houston and ahead of Iowa State.

During Rutgers’ four-game winning streak, the Scarlet Knights each held Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, and Northwestern well below the national average of 0.994 for points per possession, according to KenPom. It was during this stretch Rutgers forced previously 11th-ranked Wisconsin and Maryland to play their least efficient games offensively in the Big Ten this season.

On the season Rutgers is holding opponents to 31.2% shooting from three-point range, 45.4% shooting on two-pointers, and 46.0% effective field goal shooting.

During the four-game winning streak, Rutgers held its opponents to a combined 26.0% shooting from three-point range, 41.9% shooting on two-pointers, and 41.1% effective field goal shooting.

Not only has Rutgers done a great job of limiting their opponents’ shooting abilities, but the Scarlet Knights have also gotten it done by forcing turnovers and registering blocks.

It was truly remarkable to witness Rutgers force a total of 61 turnovers in just four games. After all, forcing turnovers is one of the biggest components of a Steve Pikiell defense. Forcing turnovers certainly helps Rutgers turn defense-into-offense and score points in the fast break, something the Scarlet Knights have become very good at this season. Rutgers ranks 1st in the Big Ten in forcing turnovers defensively and 1st nationally for generating non-steal turnovers.

Shot blocking has become almost second-nature to Rutgers this season. It should come as no surprise, Cliff Omoruyi is truly one of the best shot blockers in all of college basketball. Omoruyi is currently 2nd nationally, averaging 3.28 blocks per game and 3rd nationally with 82 total blocks. During the four-game winning streak, Omoruyi registered 18 of the team’s 27 total shot blocks.

Despite struggling earlier in the season with rebounding, Rutgers has really turned it on in Big Ten play and has rebounded the ball much better. During the winning streak, Rutgers was able to out rebound Michigan, Maryland, and Wisconsin by a combined +12, but failed to out rebound Northwestern by -3. Consider this a major improvement since Rutgers was destroyed on the boards in December by a combined 49 boards to Illinois and Mississippi State.

Listen, what happened in Sunday’s 81-70 loss to Minnesota was not Rutgers basketball. Although the shots were falling left-and-right for Rutgers in the half, it was only a matter of time until the Scarlet Knights would run out of gas in the second half and were unable to keep up with Minnesota’s high-tempo offense.

For most of Sunday evening, Rutgers’ defense could not figure out Minnesota’s offense and the Golden Gophers went on to shoot lights out from the field at 51.0%, including 30 points in the paint, as well as 8 made three-pointers at 50.0%. It ended up being the worst defensive performance of the season by Rutgers.

“We scored plenty of points (to win) and didn’t play Rutgers defense,” said Pikiell after Sunday’s loss.

Give Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson credit. Minnesota eliminated Rutgers’ passing lanes near the basket, which limited any chance for Cliff Omoruyi to score in the second half. Also, the Golden Gophers refused Jeremiah Williams entry in the lane to the basket. However, on the defensive end Rutgers failed to close out on shooters along the perimeter and limit big man Pharrel Payne, who wound up having a career night with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

But all of that is in the rear-view mirror now, and Rutgers must look ahead to Thursday for an opportunity that could certainly boost the Scarlet Knights’ chances of possibly entering the picture for the NCAA Tournament.

Jeremiah Williams has certainly been the catalyst behind Rutgers’ most recent winning streak as he has given them a much-needed boost on the offensive side of the ball, but the Scarlet Knights’ elite team defense has helped them finish the job and win games.

The first time Rutgers and Purdue battled this season was a little less than a month ago, and the Scarlet Knights took the Boilermakers to the brink without Jeremiah Williams. Rutgers did everything they needed to do defensively to limit the Boilermakers to 26.3% from behind the arc; generate 15 turnovers; and out rebound Purdue by +4.

I said earlier this season that this team’s identity remains its defense, and the Scarlet Knights need to rely on it. It’s this team’s biggest strength, and it’s what’s certainly helped them win games.

Forget what happened in the game on Sunday against Minnesota. That doesn’t matter anymore. The only game that matters right now is the game on Thursday.

As much as some fans hate “Pikiell’s Speed Limit 65 Club”, Rutgers is indeed 13-1 in games where they have held their opponents under 65 points this season. If the defense can hold Purdue to 65 points or less, chances are likely Rutgers will win the game.


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