10 THOUGHTS ON THE NIT FIRST ROUND GAME
Rutgers ended its post-season victory drought with a 76-71 victory over Temple at the RAC in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The Scarlet Knights had lost their previous five post-season games (two in the Big East Tournament [BET] and three in the NIT) and had missed the post-season entirely in two of the past three years. Rutgers overcame a passive start to beat the Owls for the second time this season after winning 77-67 in early December at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights overcame a 6-point halftime deficit to win its first post-season game in five years. Here are ten thoughts on the NIT opener.
1. It's Only Yale. Two years ago, Head Coach Gary Waters' first Rutgers team hosted Yale in the NIT opener. The overconfident and uninspired Scarlet Knights bumbled their way to a 67-65 loss to their Ivy League opponents who, though less talented, showed the discipline and heart needed to control the game and steal the win. Water's teams have shown an alarming propensity for overconfidence at the slightest whiff of success. The result is typically a humbling loss that somehow fails to engrain itself upon the collective memory of the team. The first round NIT rematch with Temple had all the hallmarks of another stumble. Rutgers beat the Owls by 10 points earlier this year after leading the game by 20 points. And the Scarlet Knights had bumbled through a first round BET loss to Virginia Tech. The Rutgers fans were not exactly embracing the NIT with the fervor needed to maintain the RACmosphere so crucial to Rutgers' home court success. And reports that SG Quincy Douby was thinking about transferring out of Rutgers were a distraction. Yet, despite all the warning signs, the Scarlet Knights came to play against Temple. None of the sloppiness so prevalent against Virginia Tech in the BET was exhibited. And Rutgers raised its level of play in the second half to earn the comeback win. A very nice post-season change of pace for Rutgers fans.
2. Quincy Douby. Wednesday night, Waters gave Douby his first career start. And played him 38 minutes. Douby answered the call. Brilliantly. He scored a career (and Rutgers season high) 28 points on 7 of 14 FGAs, 6 of 11 3PAs, and 8 of 8 FTAs. Douby dissected the Owl zone effortlessly. He was the catalyst behind the 16-2 second half run that gave Rutgers the lead. He made three 3-balls and scored 11 points during the run.
Douby's start coincided with reports in the Wednesday Courier News in which both Waters and Douby denied reports that Douby is unhappy at Rutgers and considering transferring. Rumors about a possible Douby transfer first surfaced on the Internet two weeks ago. The rumor was confirmed and subsequently reported on the Rutgers Insiders after the BET loss to Virginia Tech. However, the Courier News article quoted both Douby's high school and AAU coaches as being concerned that Douby isn't starting. It struck me that there was smoke billowing out of this report that there was no fire.
Waters apparently yielded to the pressure from Douby's inner circle. Was it necessary? Good question. Does Douby deserve to start? You could argue that he is valuable either starting or coming off the bench. In which role will the team function best? That's Waters decision to make. But, Douby is now dictating personnel moves to Waters. Waters has given control of his teams to unreliable players for three years now. And was unable to regain control.
Is he opening Pandora's Box again? Will Douby be any different that Jerome Coleman or Herve Lamizana? What are the relative risks of losing Douby to transfer or giving him run of the team? What happens next year if Quincy isn't getting enough shots? Or is playing soft defense? Or is averaging one rebound per game (he grabbed one rebound in 38 minutes against Temple)? Does this undermine Webb's role as the team leader? Does Douby focus more on individual accomplishments rather than team accomplishments? Does Douby hit the weight room as hard as he needs to get stronger to better compete physically in the Big East?
The irony is the whole starting issue may have been rendered irrelevant if Calvin Wooten had been a regular contributor on the team. Waters could have started Douby as the third guard and used Wooten/Wiggan as offensive/defensive subs. But with Wooten being written off, Douby's scoring was really needed off the bench.
3. Attacking the Zone. Head Coach John Chaney's Temple Owls are renowned for their 2-3 matchup zone defense. The Owls, perennially one of the best defenses in the country, are holding opponents to 42% on FGAs and 65 ppg. Although Temple held Rutgers to 31 points in the first half, the Scarlet Knights were efficient in shooting 50% on FGAs. Rutgers exploded for 45 points in the second half while shooting 52% on FGAs. Rutgers recorded 18 assists on 23 FGAs – a remarkable achievement. The Scarlet Knights didn't settle for perimeter passing and 3-jacks. Instead, Rutgers attacked the Owl zone with dribble penetration and found the open man once the defense collapsed. It's a drum I have beaten all year. The Rutgers offense works best when the Scarlet Knights attack off the dribble.
4. Marquis Webb on David Hawkins. Webb played yet another strong game, doing his best work in an area that doesn't show up on his stat line in a boxscore. Webb recorded 10 points (3 of 4 FGAs, 1 of 1 3PA, and 3 of 4 FTAs), 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. A solid game, but nothing to get excited about. However, as usual, Webb drew the toughest backcourt defensive assignment – Temple's David Hawkins, the nation's fourth leading scorer at 24 ppg. While Hawkins scored 25 points, he needed the equivalent of 25 shot attempts to do so. With Hawkins struggling, Chaney needed his supporting cast to compensate. The other Owls did so in the first half, scoring 30 of Temple's 37 points. However, Hawkins didn't get help after halftime, outscoring his Owl teammates 18-16 in the second half. Webb added another lockdown to his collection.
5. Turnovers. Chaney notoriously hates TOs. He gets extremely animated on the sidelines when the Owls commit a TO. Temple usually is among the nation's leaders in TOs. That's no different this year as the Owls average only 9 TOs per game (#1 nationally). Temple committed only three TOs in the first half and only two more in the second half. Temple's ball control necessitated careful ballhandling by Rutgers, otherwise the TO margin could give Temple an insurmountable edge in FGAs. Had Rutgers come out with no intensity or focus – committing a rash of careless and stupid TOs as they did against Virginia Tech in the BET, Temple could have ended the game in the first half. However, the Scarlet Knights committed only 6 TOs in the first half – none in the final 7 minutes. Rutgers was even more careful in the second half, committing only three TOs. The resulting 9-5 TO differential was manageable.
6. Defensive Rebounding. With stingy Temple almost certain to win the TO battle, defensive rebounding was going to be critical for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers could not afford to allow offensive rebounds that would result in second or third shots for Temple. Had Rutgers come out uninspired, Temple would have dominated the backboards. The resulting shot differential would have forced Rutgers to shoot much more efficiently than Temple to compensate for the drastically fewer FGAs. Rutgers grabbed 11 of 15 first half rebounds available on its defensive glass. Rutgers was even better in the second half, grabbing 13 of 18 possible defensive rebounds. For the game, Temple collected 10 offensive rebounds. While Rutgers managed only 7 offensive rebounds, the resulting 10-7 deficit was surmountable.
7. Second Half Defense. Rutgers played very passive defense in the first half, allowing Temple to be the more aggressive team at the Owls end of the court. The result was 37 Owl points on 50% FG shooting. The TO and offensive rebounding margins gave Temple six additional FGAs. Which Temple turned into its 6 point halftime lead. However, Rutgers tightened the screws defensively in the second half. Temple made only 37% of its FGAs in the second half. Although the Owls attempted 3 more shots than did Rutgers in the second half, the Scarlet Knights were able to make up a 6 point deficit with better shooting. Rutgers could not have made that comeback while still allowing Temple to make half of its shots.
8. Ricky Shields. Shields scored a quiet 14 points, one off his season average. However, Shields shot very efficiently (5 of 10 FGAs, 2 of 6 3PAs, and 2 of 2 FTAs). Better yet, Shields recorded a career-best 8 assists. Ricky's passing – or lack thereof – has been one of the biggest weaknesses of his game. Too often, he camps on the perimeter and settles for long 3-balls. Or drives all the way to the rim – usually to get stuffed or throw up a shot that would do Mike Sherrod proud. His once-promising mid-range game has languished but recently rediscovered his pull-up jumper. Now, he's starting to pass off his dribble penetration. Shields attacked the seams in the Owl zone and found his open teammates. If Shields is to improve, he must continue to drive and dish. He'll find those passes get his teammates easy basket – or give him great mid-range shots because the interior defender will lay off and play the pass. And instead of shooting 6 of 16, Shields will be shooting 7 of 13. With 3 assists.
9. Attendance. In the days leading up to the NIT opener, reports emerged of an expected empty RAC. Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy issued a plea for support. The spring break recess deprived the RAC of its student element. And disillusionment with the direction of the program sapped at fan interest. Not surprisingly, the announced attendance was about 3,400. Less than half full. For a rare post-season appearance. Apathy is increasing. However, the small contingent of fans that did attend the game performed magnificently. Though small, the crowd was vocal and, especially in the second half, was able to enhance the home court advantage of the RAC. Great job by the few, the loud.
10. The Accidental Player. Calvin Wooten's one-month suspension surprisingly ended with an appearance in the BET opener against Virginia Tech. Wooten's quotes in the post-game reports hinted at his own surprise to have played. Fans have speculated behind the reasons to the end of the "indefinite" suspension. I have heard that Mulcahy, not Waters, ended Wooten's suspension. Wooten was reinstated at Mulcahy's insistence two days before the BET. Wooten was not supposed to play in the BET. He was not even supposed to be in uniform. Yet, as a result of some alternate travel arrangements, Wooten traveled to the New York with the team, dressed, and was inserted into the game as Waters desperately searched for some combination to snap his team from its lethargy. Wooten did not play in the NIT opener. Coach's decision. The backcourt of Douby, Webb, and Shields was playing effectively. And Waters wasn't desperate. It will be interesting to see what happens with Wooten. A week prior to the BET, Wooten still had a seat reserved in Waters' catapult. Will Wooten decide he's had enough? Will Waters still run him out of the program? Will Mulcahy intervene again and prevent the dismissal of a player who is meeting his obligations to the team?
With the win, Rutgers advances to the second round of the NIT for the first time since 1999. Rutgers was scheduled to play the winner of Rhode Island at West Virginia, which the Mountaineers won 79-72 Friday night. As has been its fortune, Rutgers has received the home court advantage for the second round game with West Virginia. If the Scarlet Knights beat the Mountaineers, they face the winner of Virginia at Villanova on Wednesday. The Return of Todd Billet, Part II? Let's worry about West Virginia first.
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