IOWA (13-5, 4-3) VS. RUTGERS (14-4, 5-2)
Riding high on a three-game winning streak and some long-overdue national credibility for its star junior, Iowa prepares for a Wednesday night game against one of the nation's hottest teams...
[puts on glasses]
[holds card far away]
It says here, "Rutgers"?
That's right, ladies and gents. The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, a program that hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament in 19 years, have won four of their last five and are just a game out of the Big Ten lead.
Credit Steve Pikiell, who is four years into his tenure in Piscataway and probably due for a new dill. Pikiell cut his teeth at Stony Brook, where he taught defense and hoped to find enough offense to get by. He's using the same formula at Rutgers, and the defense is really, really good. The Knights are seventh nationally in defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.87 points per possession for the season and a conference-best 0.916 points per possession in Big Ten games. Opponents are shooting at just a 42.6% effective rate, and only 41.7% on two-point attempts and 29.4% from three. Here's a list of Big Ten teams that have scored 70 on Rutgers: Michigan State. That's it. That's the list. And that game was on December 8, and nobody has scored 70 on them since.
How do they do it? It's pretty simple: Contest everything without fouling, and own the boards. Rutgers is eighth nationally in block rate, with blocked shots coming from unusual places. Yes, 6'11" sophomore center Myles Johnson (8.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg) is one of the nation's best rim protectors. But undersized power forward Ron Harper Jr. (6'6", 245) and guard Geo Baker (6'4", 185) also throw back a shot per game. In total, Rutgers throws back about one-in-seven shot attempts and rebounds three out of every four opponent misses; again, Johnson and Harper lead the way there.
As for the whole "hope for some offense" part of the equation, well, Rutgers is still hoping. The Knights are 92nd nationally in offensive efficiency, and averaging less than a point per possession in Big Ten games. The scoring comes from the usual sources: Harper (11.8 ppg) leads the team in scoring. Baker is the only other guy in double-digits (10.7 ppg), though Johnson (9.2 ppg) and British import Akwazi Yeboah (6'6", 230, 9.1 ppg) aren't far behind. Yeboah is an interesting case study: He started the season on the bench, but took over as a starting forward after the loss to Michigan State; Rutgers is 8-1 since.
A couple of things to watch on the offensive end: One, Geo Baker is only two games back from a broken left thumb. He played 22 minutes in each of those games, wins over Indiana and Minnesota in the RAC, but scored a total of 12 points on 3/12 shooting. If he can't score, Rutgers will have to rely on 6'7" sophomore Caleb McConnell (7.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who has been Rutgers' only real outside threat (39% from three) but lost his starting spot to Yeboah in mid-December. The other thing is more long-term: Junior point guard Jacob Young (6'2", 185) plays off the bench but averages more than 20 minutes per game. He's also an offensive black hole, with a gargantuan usage rate, a huge turnover rate and a 43/22/64 shooting line. The more that Young plays -- and he's played a ton since Baker's injury -- the better.
Much of Rutgers' recent run of form can be chalked up to the schedule: Rutgers is 13-0 at home and 1-4 anywhere but home. The Scarlet Knights have one of the conference's most pronounced home court advantages, and have only won on the road at Nebraska (though we all know how hard that can be). Michigan State handled them with relative ease at Breslin, and Illinois scraped past them in a 54-51 slugfest earlier this month. They lost to Pitt in Pittsburgh, and to St. Bonaventure in Toronto. They got seven of nine at home and took them all.
But to look past Rutgers would be inviting disaster. If you want proof of that, look back to last March, when the Scarlet Knights last came to Carver Hawkeye Arena. Iowa celebrated Senior Day for Nick Baer, and then Rutgers beat the Hawkeyes down behind 27 points from Harper. That loss stuck with Iowa's guys, as well it should have. Beating Rutgers might finally mean something, but that doesn't make it any easier. It's going to be a fight.