Northwestern will look to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Maryland in another road game, this time at Rutgers on Tuesday night. The Wildcats (15-11, 6-7 Big Ten) saw their final hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid fade away in College Park, but have plenty to play for in terms of Big Ten Tournament seeding, a potential NIT bid, and general pride.
It’s been another tough season in the Big Ten for Steve Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights (12-15, 2-12). They were riding high in December after knocking off a very good Seton Hall team and moving to 10-3. Rutgers promptly followed that up with back to back losses to sub-200 Kenpom teams in Stony Brook and Hartford. The conference season has been pretty brutal for Pikiell’s squad. They have home wins over cellar-dwellars Wisconsin and Iowa but...that’s it. Somehow, Rutgers took Michigan State to OT in East Lansing and lost by 2 to Purdue at home. So close, yet so far. Most of their other losses haven’t been so close. They’re currently on a seven game losing streak.
It turns out it’s hard to win games when your offense is grotesquely awful. Rutgers is 309th out of the 351 Division 1 teams in adjusted offensive efficiency and the worst Power 5 team by more than 30 spots. Hmmm...they must not be very good at shooting the ball. Let’s take a look at their effective field goal perce—OH MY GOD THE HORROR. RUTGER, FORGET THE S, IS 350TH IN EFG%. THEY’RE BEHIND CHICAGO STATE.
The numbers are all bad. Rutgers smartly doesn’t take many threes at all, because it can’t hit them. The problem is it can’t hit twos either. Or free throws. The Scarlet Knights are in the bottom 15 in the country in all three of those categories. The bottom 15.
Leading scorer Corey Sanders (14 ppg) is talented, but because he has to do so much, his efficiency is really bad. He’s shooting 21 percent from three. He did drop 31 against Purdue to keep his team in that game and has four other games of 20-plus points, but it’s been a struggle overall for the junior. Freshman 2-guard Geo Baker and sophomore wing Issa Thiam are Rutgers’ only outside threats, and neither is hitting 40 percent from deep. Down low, 4-man Deshawn Freeman is a physical presence but has really struggled on offense. They also have an assortment of bigs who can’t score.
BUT, there’s a reason why Rutgers, despite being one of the worst offensive teams in the whole damn country, isn’t one of the worst overall teams in the whole damn country (153 in Kenpom): They play some mean defense. Seriously, Pikiell’s team is 18th in defensive efficiency. They’re long, athletic, and communicate well on that end of the floor. Only Florida State and Purdue (both top-20 offenses) have eclipsed 70 points in regulation at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
What that means is to win this game, Northwestern will have to grind out a slugfest. It’ll have to avoid turnovers and take advantage of any open looks that come by. Getting to the line as much as possible would be a good idea. In an ideal world, this will end up much like the 60-52 and 61-52 victories over Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively.
Northwestern is 5-0 against Rutgers since it joined the Big Ten, although both wins at the RAC were by single digits. Let’s move it to 6-0 tonight.
Game Time, location: 8 p.m. central, Louis Brown Athletic Center (The RAC)
Mobile: BTN2Go App
Radio: ESPN 1000
KenPom prediction: 62-59 (57% chance to win)
Betting Line: Northwestern -3
Last meeting: Northwestern 83, Rutgers 61 (31-0 NU run!) in BTT on 3/9/17