The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team takes to the road to face the 23rd ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. We asked Aaron Breitman from On the Banks to help us preview the game from the Rutgers perspective.
TNIAAM: This isn’t the Rutgers basketball program that Syracuse fans remember from the Big East. What has Steve Pikiell done best to get the school back in the top 25 and in line to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 90-91?
OTB: He has done several things very well, but the most significant has been to improve the talent and depth of the roster. Pikiell has been a methodical recruiter, gradually increasing the talent level in each class to the point that the program is as deep and versatile as its been in decades.
The staff’s ability to develop players has been extremely important as well. Geo Baker was ranked 435th in this recruiting class but has become an All-Big Ten level player. He and Ron Harper Jr., who is on the verge of stardom and was just named to the Wooden Award Watch List, both only had one high major offer aside from Rutgers. Having former Big East Player of the Year and Pitt legend Brandon Knight as a top assistant has been essential to player development, particularly with the backcourt. They do have former 4-star recruit Montez Mathis and just landed the highest rated recruit in 15 years in Top 50 big man Cliff Omoruyi, so continued success should lead to even more talent coming to the banks in the future.
Another key has been Pikiell’s ability to find players that are good fits for his style. He loves players with chips on their shoulders that grind and live in a gym. He also has an 8 man rotation that is full of players who can play and guard multiple positions.
In regard to their play, Pikiell has made them an elite defensive team. They finished 6th nationally last season in defensive efficiency and were second in the Big Ten. Having two near seven foot rim defenders in Omoruyi and Myles Johnson might make them even strong defensively this season. They also incorporate an “all hands on deck” approach to rebounding.
Pikiell has proven to be a solid in-game coach and is able to make adjustments.
Lastly, he has built a strong culture that has led to the players completely buying in. Team chemistry has been really solid since the start of last season and Pikiell has proven to know the exact right buttons to push with this group.
TNIAAM: With over a week off since they beat Hofstra does the extra time help the Scarlet Knights prepare for the Syracuse zone?
OTB: Hofstra utilized a matchup zone in that game, so that certainly helps. Having the extra time off will help Rutgers be prepared for the Syracuse zone, but I’m concerned about how they shoot in the game after having 9 days off. I felt it was important for Rutgers to schedule a game last week to stay sharp and get more work in before Syracuse, but it didn’t happen. Rutgers has struggled from three-point range and the free throw line in the first three games, but those were big issues last season as well. They are efficient and shooting better than 50% from two-point range, so not settling for three’s against the Syracuse zone and getting to the rim is a major key.
TNIAAM: Ron Harper Jr is a familiar name to basketball fans but what has enabled him to take a step forward to improve his scoring from 12 to 21 points per game?
OTB: Despite his lineage, his mother was an accomplished player as well, Harper Jr. was a bit of a late bloomer. It wasn’t until late in his junior season that he started looking like a high major player before really blossoming his senior year. At Rutgers, his development has been steady but in the early going this season he has been playing at a higher level and is more consistent. I think he was primed to become a star this season regardless, but the early injury to the unquestioned leader of the team in Geo Baker has accelerated his urgency in taking over. His shot selection looks improved and he is being more assertive this season. Aside from his scoring ability and rebounding, Harper Jr. developed into a very good defensive player last season. Lindy’s picked him as the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and it’s certainly possible he could do just that.
TNIAAM: Both last year and early this season the Syracuse zone has been susceptible to dribble penetration. Does Rutgers have the players to be able to get in the lane and open up opportunities for shooters?
OTB: Two players who should play big roles in this game and could cause Syracuse a lot of trouble are point guards Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy. They play the same position but have completely different skill sets.
Young is extremely quick and a fantastic penetrator. The former 4-star recruit who transferred from Texas struggled last season with turnovers early on but once the rust wore off he became a key part of the team’s success in the second half of the season. He has looked fantastic this season and has been equal parts scorer and distributor. Young will be on the attack against the Syracuse zone and if he can play under control, he should be effective and have a big game.
Mulcahy is 6’7” and has tremendous vision to go along with his elite passing ability. As a freshman last season, he was effective against zones by standing at the foul line and picking them apart with his passing. His shot is still developing but is a more complete player, averaging 6.7 points, 6.7 boards and 5.7 assists so far this season. He ensures good ball movement and has the innate ability to put his teammates in better position to score in the halfcourt. Mulcahy will be key for Rutgers as well in this game.
Just to note here, Rutgers could be without All-Big Ten guard Geo Baker, who suffered a bad sprain ankle in the season opener and was in a walking boot days after. It’s possible he will play, but even if he does he might not be 100%. He is more of a outside shooter than a penetrator, but his experience and court IQ would be missed in this game if he can’t go.
TNIAAM: The Orange will be without Bourama Sidibe and that moves Marek Dolezaj inside to the center spot. Do you see Rutgers looking to get the ball inside to Cliff Omoruyi and Myles Johnson?
OTB: Rutgers is a good team in the air and will definitely be looking to lob passes for that duo to catch and finish behind the Syracuse zone. However, neither are great post up players at this stage, although Myles Johnson has his moments. Where both are most effective is on the offensive glass and against a zone could be a big problem if they aren’t boxed out well. They are both good rebounders. It’s unlikely they’ll play together as both can get into foul trouble, like most big men. If they can both avoid that and rotate throughout the game, they could really wear down Syracuse up front with Sidibe.
TNIAAM: What’s your prediction for the game?
OTB: Aside from beating the 2003 national championship team (sorry I couldn’t resist), Rutgers took a ton of beatings and suffered painful losses to Syracuse back in their days in the Big East. So it feels strange to say that they are the more talented team in this matchup. Rutgers will look to run and will likely pick up in fullcourt on the defensive end at times. They are not a great halfcourt team but also have two players that can be extremely effective against a zone in Young and Mulcahy. As I said, I’m worried about their shooting in this game and if it comes down to free throws down the stretch, Syracuse has the clear upper hand. That being said, I think the Rutgers defense will force Syracuse to earn every point they score and will wear them down as the game progresses. Harper Jr. proves why he is deserving of the early season accolades and takes over down the stretch. Rutgers 76 Syracuse 69.
Thanks to Aaron for taking time to talk with us. You can read more about Rutgers over at On the Banks and follow Aaron at @aaron_breitman.