Well folks, it’s been 5 years in the desert, but today is officially the day when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team returns to the NCAA Tournament, as Mike Brey and the boys are set to tip off against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at 9:10 PM ET as the last of the First Four play-in games in Dayton.
The Irish just barely squeaked into the tournament despite finishing 15-5 in regular season ACC play and 2nd in the conference, as a lack of resume-building wins and a couple head-scratching performances down the stretch made ND fans sweat it out last weekend, wondering if their team would finally return to the Big Dance or once again be sent packing to the NIT. Sure enough, Notre Dame was the final at-large team to make the cut, and they’ve been rewarded with an initial match-up against the 18-13 (12-8 Big Ten) Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who’ve had a tumultuous season themselves featuring some embarrassing losses and some huge victories.
If you’re anything like me, your focus in watching college basketball this year has mainly been on ND and the ACC, with some Top 25 matchups tossed in occasionally for good measure. Thus, I came into today knowing very little about Rutgers. Luckily, I was able to speak with Aaron Breitman, the Managing Editor over at On The Banks, the Rutgers SB Nation site.
Aaron, in one of the more detailed and insightful Q&As I’ve probably ever done — especially on the basketball side — answered all of my questions thoroughly while also humoring my more...inane...question. He covers Rutgers’ up-and-down season, how Steve Pikiell rebuilt the program, the key names to know along with the team’s strengths and weaknesses, how he sees these two squads matching up, and what Rutgers greats he would choose for his St. Paddy’s Day drinking squad.
I implore you all to dive in below and arm yourselves with knowledge before the Irish’s big game tonight — you absolutely will not regret doing so.
1. Rutgers has had a wild season, with some low lows and some high highs — what’s it been like covering this team, and how confident are you that the Scarlet Knights could make a serious run over the next week or two?
Aaron Breitman: It’s been a literal roller coaster covering Rutgers men’s basketball this season. This team has been on the brink of elimination from NCAA Tournament contention several times. They looked terrible the first six games of the season.
They beat Lehigh in overtime in the first game and scored 48 points against Merrimack in the second game. After a 3-0 start against all sub-300 KenPom teams, they lost on a late three-pointer in three straight games at DePaul, at home against Lafayette and at UMass after blowing a 15 point second half lead. The loss to Lafayette at home in the fourth game of the regular season felt like it was an unrecoverable situation. The loss to UMass confirmed it. Both of those were true buzzer beaters but also both without Geo Baker, who got hurt with ten minutes to play against Lafayette. A more miserable start to the season could not have been possible.
To make matters worse, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell came on our On The Banks podcast (shameless plug) before the season and declared this was his best team in his six years with the program.
To say fans were freaking out would be an understatement. Then they beat No. 1 Purdue with a half-court buzzer beater and hope was somewhat reignited. Actually there was anger too because we all knew what this team was capable of but they were underachieving.
Ultimately, it just took time for this team to figure out their roles despite having five players back from last season’s rotation. There was a winnable month in January they squandered with a stretch of three losses in four games against the bottom of the league teams. Heading into February they had a brutal month ahead and instead Rutgers became the first non-ranked team in college basketball history to beat a ranked team in four straight games. It was remarkable and literally saved the season.
In a nutshell, Rutgers has proven they can literally beat or lose to any team in the country. It’s why I could see them losing by 10 to Notre Dame in this game or winning and playing into the second weekend. I do think the fact that this team has had to win huge games the last week of the past three regular seasons to make the NCAA Tournament, their experience from last year’s big dance and the fact that some significant careers are about to close, Rutgers could make a serious run here. The elements are there but if they can’t defend and rebound the way they need to in this matchup, it could all be over quickly. I lean towards being confident it’s not going to end that poorly, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did either.
2. There’s a solid chance Notre Dame fans haven’t gotten to watch much of Rutgers this season. For our education, what do the Scarlet Knights do best, and who are the key names for Irish fans to be aware of on Steve Pikiell’s squad?
Aaron Breitman: When Steve Pikiell was hired six years ago, Rutgers was the worst high major in college basketball. They had a KenPom ranking of No. 279 and had never won more than three games nor finished out of last place in a Big Ten regular season. He completely changed the culture and trajectory of the program and while it took time, it was still faster than anyone had imagined he could do it in. It happened by bringing in under recruited players who were willing to buy into what Pikiell believed.
By year four in the 2019-2020 campaign, Rutgers won 20 regular season games and was poised to make the NCAA Tournament before COVID-19 cancelled it. Last season, they were four minutes away from knocking off Houston and going to the Sweet 16 before blowing a 9 point lead.
I’m rehashing that history because this team is led by three seniors that were integral parts of the turnaround of this program.
Geo Baker (6’4”) had one high major offer out of high school and quickly became the face of the program. He isn’t a great shooter but he has the ability to catch fire and has made countless big shots over the years. Baker is a solid defender and led the Big Ten with a 3+ assist to turnover ratio most of the season. He is more of a combo guard but ran the offense more times than not until this year. I’ve always thought he is better off the ball and has learned to contribute in doing the little things needed to win. He also was one of three Big Ten players to lead the charge in the fight against the NCAA for NIL rights for student-athletes.
Ron Harper Jr. (6’8”) also had just one high major offer and was a late bloomer despite being the son of 5-time NBA champion Ron Harper. He’s improved year over year and has had his best season this winter. A two-time finalist for the Julius Erving Award for the best small forward in college basketball, Harper Jr. is shooting 40% from three, has tremendous body control and ability to draw contact near the rim, while also shooting 80% from the foul line. His defense took a step back last season but he’s reemerged this season. He hit a half-court buzzer beater to take down then-No. 1 Purdue and hit a three with 2 seconds left at Indiana in the last week of the regular season they had to have.
Caleb McConnell (6’7”) had no high major offers and has been injured throughout his career. He’s the ultimate glue guy who will fill any role needed in order to win. McConnell decided he wanted to become the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year before the season, said so publicly and then went out and did it. He’s not a great offensive player, but he’s tough as nails and extremely disruptive on the defensive end. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, he came through off the bench to score 13 points and grab 10 rebounds to beat Clemson. It was the program’s first win in the big dance in 38 years.
The other two starters were much more highly recruited and came after the seniors. Paul Mulcahy (6’6) had multiple high major offers and has seen his role evolve over time. He was the first Rutgers player to shoot 39% from three-point range in a season last year for the first time in five years. This season, he took over the offense and Pikiell calls him the director. He really struggled to start the season which was in part why Rutgers did as well. In mid-January, Mulcahy scored the game winning basket off a put-back at Nebraska after grabbing an offensive rebound in traffic. The next game Rutgers trailed at Northwestern by 24 points in the second half before Mulcahy led a furious comeback. They lost by 1 in overtime but he had 31 points and 7 assists. He gained confidence and started looking to score first which made Rutgers harder to defend. That historic four game winning streak followed. His vision, passing and court IQ are elite.
Cliff Omoruyi (6’11”) was the highest rated recruit for Rutgers in years after being a top 50 prospect in the class of 2020. His development, along with Mulcahy’s, in the middle of the season was the biggest reason for this team’s turnaround. He’s a beast inside and has improved a lot as a rim defender this season. Fun and extremely athletic player who I think is primed to have a monster game.
3. What weaknesses has the Rutgers team shown this season (especially in their losses), and what should Notre Dame try to do in order to take advantage of those weaknesses?
Aaron Breitman: When Rutgers shoots poorly, stops sharing the basketball and play too much iso ball, they are prone to scoring droughts. When they aren’t making shots, they have a tendency to lose their intensity on the defensive end. At times they attack the glass and other times they allow too many offensive rebounds. They can be their own worst enemy with turnovers. They finished third in Big Ten play in three-point shooting percentage, but they can have really cold nights from behind the arc. The gist of it all is Rutgers is just an inconsistent team that pretty much knows no in-between.
One common thread in losses is when opponents take either Ron Harper Jr. or Geo Baker out of the game scoring wise. Ron is a lot harder to do that too but Geo can have some poor offensive nights. Getting Paul Mulcahy frustrated either with foul trouble, turnovers or physical play can change the dynamic of the game as well. Cliff Omoruyi has done a good job staying out of foul trouble but if Notre Dame got him on the bench early with two fouls, that would be a big problem for Rutgers.
4. The Irish seem to match up worst with teams featuring really good big men. How do you expect the Rutgers frontcourt to match up with the likes of Paul Atkinson Jr. and Nate Laszewski down low, both in terms of defending them/being defended by them and in competing on the boards?
Aaron Breitman: I think the frontcourt matchups in this game are fascinating. Omoruyi is mobile enough to defend Laszewski at the arc but pulling him away from the rim on the defensive end is a rebounding concern.
I think it’s possible Ron Harper Jr. switches with Cliff at times and they alternate with Atkinson Jr. I think both of Notre Dame’s big men are good but Rutgers isn’t used to playing a 5 who isn’t physical. Perhaps I’m misreading Laszewski, but if he is more of a stretch 5, I worry he gets some open looks from deep with some miscommunication.
Offensively, I think Omoruyi could have a big game inside and has several highlight reel dunks. Harper Jr. needs to get downhill and attack the basket. Being physical with Atkinson Jr. won’t be any different than any other Big Ten matchup he’s had. Rebounding is a huge key for Rutgers and I think they’ll have an advantage.
5. ND’s two best players and scorers are arguably Blake Wesley and Dane Goodwin, two wings who’ve had fantastic seasons, but also two guys who haven’t played super well recently. I’ve heard the Scarlet Knights are a tough, physical, defensive-minded team, which scares me a bit in terms of how easily Wesley and Goodwin will get/make the shots they want. How do you think Rutgers plans to defend those two, and how effective do you think they’ll be?
Aaron Breitman: McConnell is going to defend Wesley and is the type of player he does best against. He’s the same size as Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis and McConnell gave him all he could handle in two meetings. He held Davis 10 points off his season average the first time and shot just 37% over both games. I expect McConnell to give Wesley a lot of trouble and limiting him would go a long way towards winning.
As for Goodwin, I think it could be a combo of Baker and Mulcahy with whoever has more success stays on him during the stretch run. It’s possible Pikiell rotates all three defenders between Goodwin and Wesley as he likes to throw different looks at the opponent’s best scorers.
I do think Rutgers will mix in some full-court pressure to try and speed the game up. They’re clicking when they can score in transition and are forcing turnovers. I know that will be tough to do against Notre Dame but I expect RU to try and mix things up to try and force the Irish into mistakes.
6. Who or what is the X-factor in this one for Rutgers — what player needs to play well and/or what MUST happen in order for Rutgers to win the right to play Alabama on Friday?
Aaron Breitman: Rutgers has to defend well on the perimeter or I think they will face an uphill battle to win the game. They have to be sharp in their defensive rotations, not overcommit on double teams or jumping passing lanes and they have to limit kick-outs on offensive rebounds.
I think that leads to McConnell needing to play a strong game defensively in which he is disruptive. However, they need all hands on deck in regard to defending the perimeter and not allowing any breakdowns in the half-court.
7. You need to pick 4 Rutgers basketball players/coaches (past and/or present, up to you) to join you as your St. Patrick’s Day drinking squad, hopping from crowded bar to crowded bar with you this Thursday. Which past/present Scarlet Knights are you choosing and why?
Bonus question: what does each person drink during this St. Paddy’s bar crawl, and where (what city) does it ideally take place?
Aaron Breitman: Great question. I’m picking Jim Valvano who starred for Rutgers in the 60’s, Joe Boylan who was a long time assistant coach including on their Final Four team in 1976, Joel Salvi who was a likable sixth man, as well as current player Caleb McConnell.
Valvano and Boylan, who I actually have had a beer with, are A+ storytellers and have lots of them. Salvi has a one of a kind personality and McConnell is a straight shooter that is tough but also nice as can be. At my age, I’d probably be hurting for a week after that.
The bar crawl has to take place in New Brunswick where Rutgers’ main campus is. Valvano has Jameson, Boylan has Guinness, Salvi is doing shots and McConnell is drinking all the mistake orders because he’s a winner who won’t let the bar lose money.
8. Alright, prediction time: who wins, what’s the final score, and why do you think that??
Aaron Breitman: I think it will be a tight game the whole way and bring back memories of an old Big East battle between the two teams. I keep going back to Rutgers having played a much tougher conference schedule and having many more wins against really good teams as a sign this is their game to lose. They also have tournament experience which I think could help down the stretch.
Preventing big runs or spurts, particularly from threes, is essential to Rutgers having a chance to win. They also need to make Notre Dame work on the defensive end and also force them to get back in transition. Holding an advantage on the glass and with points in the paint is a must.
I think Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi have big scoring and rebounding nights, McConnell and Baker slows down the Notre Dame backcourt and Rutgers pulls it out 64-60 to advance.
I wanna give a massive shout-out to Aaron for answering all my questions with unbelievable detail and insight, and on a pretty tight turnaround no less. Irish fans will truly feel like they’ve learned what makes this Rutgers team tick prior to tip-off this evening.
Also, definitely toss both the On The Banks Twitter and Aaron’s Twitter some follows, as there will be no one better to follow for any late-breaking news or in-game/post-game insights on the Rutgers side than those guys.
With that said, that’s all I’ve got, folks — Go Irish, Beat Scarlet Knights, and BELIEVE IN SOMETHING!!!!