We spoke with Rutgers basketball beat writer Aaron Breitman of On the Banks to get a sense for what to expect on Wednesday night when IU faces an emerging Scarlet Knight squad.
The Daily Hoosier also answered questions about Indiana basketball for On the Banks here.
Indiana (13-3, 3-2) and Rutgers (12-4, 3-2) tip off at 7 p.m. ET at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey.
1. Obviously losing Geo Baker to a broken thumb is a big deal. What impact have you seen on the team thus far, and who needs to step up in his place?
AB – There is no doubt the loss of Baker has been significant, as he is the primary ball handler, the go to guy at the end of games, a captain and true leader on and off the court for this team. However, a lot of positives have come from his absence as well.
Jacob Young has emerged in his place and finally started to fulfill the potential everyone inside the program felt he would before the season began. After sitting out last season due to transferring from Texas, Young was expected to be one of the best players on the team from the start. Perhaps it was rust or taking longer than expected for him to find his role on the court, but Young struggled quite a bit the first twelve games of the season on the offensive end. While he was one of the best defenders right away, he was out of control and a turnover machine with the ball in his hands. After a breakout game right before the New Year, he has carried himself with a confidence and comfort level that has resulted in his production skyrocketing since Big Ten play resumed.
Freshman point guard Paul Mulcahy has gotten more minutes as well and he is the best passer and creator on the team. He brings a calmness to the offense and is the type of player that makes everyone else better. Mulcahy needs to develop physically and on the defensive end, but it’s clear he is able to positively impact any game on the offensive end, as he recently had a stretch where he dished out 18 assists and committed only 2 turnovers over a four game span, all wins.
Caleb McConnell, who started earlier this season, was reinserted to replace Baker and starred against Nebraska with a perfect 8 of 8 shooting. His ability to making winning plays is hugely important to this team and Baker being out has sparked him to a degree.
Of course, as Big Ten play continues, the longer Baker is out, the harder it will be for Rutgers to continue to surprise the conference with its improved play. His absence was felt the most in the start of the Penn State game, which they eventually won anyway but trailed by 10, and the 3 point loss at Illinois this past weekend. It was estimated he would miss 3-4 weeks and he has been out for two weeks so far. Head coach Steve Pikiell said on Monday he was being reevaluated this week, so I’d expect him to return at the end of this month at the latest.
2. Rutgers has generated some buzz nationally with an impressive start and big wins. What has been the reaction locally? Are people buying in? What kind of environment do you expect on Wednesday night?
AB – Fans are fired up, as it’s been a long three decades. Aside from multiple scandals and futility on the court over the years, the program has the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any power conference/high major team at 29 years. There is legitimate hope that streak will end in a couple months. That would put Steve Pikiell’s rebuild ahead of schedule in my eyes, as reasonable expectations ahead of this season were for Rutgers to end a 14 year streak without a winning season and without a postseason appearance. 17-19 wins and an NIT bid was the hope, but all of a sudden Rutgers is firmly in the mix to go dancing in March.
It’s really an incredible thing considering in April 2016 when Pikiell took over Rutgers finished tied with its fewest wins (7) in the modern era and a KenPom ranking of 279th. Today they are 32nd in KenPom and a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender. Fans have mostly loved Pikiell since his hiring as he is very engaging in building support and inspired belief things would be different this time. He is proving that to be the case and any level of success he ultimately has will be amplified due to all of the losing that came before him.
The biggest key to an NCAA Tourney bid becoming a reality is for Rutgers to win as many games as possible at home. They are 11-0 so far at the RAC, a small but intimidating homecourt for Rutgers that brings the best out of this team. During a three game stretch in December against Wisconsin, Seton Hall and Lafayette, RU began with a combined 40-0 run in the opening minutes of each contest. Trailing by 10 in the first half against a ranked Penn State team last week, once Rutgers gathered itself, the RAC exploded during its comeback and it turned into a runaway in the second half.
There have been two sellouts so far (Seton Hall and Penn State) and Wednesday’s game against Indiana was announced as one as well on Monday. In short, the RAC will be ready to rock on Wednesday and if Rutgers can start reasonably well, the crowd will be a major factor the entire game.
3. In recent years the identity of Steve Pikiell teams has seemed to be playing hard defense and throwing a lot of size at teams. Does that continue to be the case or what makes the year’s team different?
AB – Defense and rebounding has been the foundation of the rebuilding of the program on the court. Rutgers was greatly improved in both areas in year one under Pikiell. However, the talent level and depth was nowhere near that of a Big Ten team. He has steadily improved the talent on the roster to the point that seven different players have led Rutgers in scoring in games this season. In addition, the defense has jumped a level to elite this season, which didn’t look possible in November. The players have completely bought in to Pikiell’s system and style of play. It’s really paid dividends the past month and the reality is this team hasn’t even played its best yet. As for rebounding, Pikiell has always preached an all hands on deck approach, especially on the offensive glass. The biggest difference this season is that Rutgers is vastly improved shooting from two-point range (53.0%). While they still struggle from behind the arc and the foul line, improved defense and improved shooting near the rim has spurred the progress made this season.
4. What is the perception of Indiana outside of the bubble in Bloomington right now? Blue blood? Just another team? Is this a game that Rutgers fans expect to win?
AB – Even though that haven’t played at an elite level in a few years, they are still a program rooted in history on the national and Big Ten stages. Beating the Hoosiers definitely resonated with the Rutgers fan base in the past. Perhaps the way things are trending this season and if Rutgers can beat IU for the third time in four meetings, a shift will occur in that thinking. It would be quite a reality if Rutgers was simply expected to beat Indiana on a regular basis. However, most Rutgers basketball fans have a love for college basketball and therefore respect Indiana a lot. I’m not sure beating them will ever feel truly normal, but it would be major progress to battle for positioning in the Big Ten standings year after year.
As for this game on Wednesday, I think fans are hopeful that Rutgers will win and understand its a hugely important game with NCAA tourney implications.
5. Myles Johnson is putting up some elite rebounding and block numbers, but seems to struggle to stay in games. How important is he to this team?
AB – I think he is the most important player on the team due to the fact that he is irreplaceable. He is the best rebounder by far, one of the best passers, is shooting 73.3% from the field and gives them a true rim defender. His development has been tremendous, as he barely played as a high school senior due to injuries and had no high major scholarship offers other than Rutgers. Now he is an indispensable player for a Big Ten program on the rise. He is a perfect example of the type of work Pikiell and his staff have done in recruiting the right guys for the program followed by developing them into major contributors. Ron Harper Jr., the team’s leading scorer, is another example.
6. What is your prediction for this game?
AB – I think a big difference with this Rutgers team is their mentality. They expect to win every game now and they aren’t happy about letting a road game slip away like it did Saturday (tied with Illinois with two minutes to play). I think Rutgers will bring a lot of defensive pressure and force Indiana to take shots out of its offense. I think clamping down on Phinisee will be a key. The battle on the boards will be key as well. Rutgers has a negative rebounding margin for just the second time all season in its last game. Avoiding foul trouble against a team that has such a high free throw rate as Indiana will be important too. Ultimately I expect a close game that Rutgers pulls out down the stretch as their defense and raucous home crowd wear down the Hoosiers. Rutgers 72 Indiana 65.
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