10 THOUGHTS ON THE NIT QUARTERFINAL GAME
Rutgers (19-12) displayed perhaps its best 40 minutes of basketball all season in a 72-60 over Villanova (18-17) in the Quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Wednesday night at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights 71-68 win over the Wildcats at the Ski Lodge in late January, though more closely contested, could be considered a better performance not only since it occurred on the road but because Rutgers controlled the game both offensively and defensively. Much as the Scarlet Knights did on Wednesday. Villanova started quickly – the Wildcats were on a 100- point pace at the first TV timeout (10 points at 16:00). Thereafter, Villanova scored only 50 points over the remaining 36 minutes. Rutgers broke from a 22-20 deficit at 10:00 to take a commanding 43-31 halftime lead. Rutgers led by as many as 19 points and never let Villanova get closer than 10 points in the second half as the Scarlet Knights blunted every Wildcat surge. Here are ten thoughts on the NIT quarterfinal game.
1. Help Defense. Rutgers' team defense was outstanding, aided by timely rotations that aggressively contested shot attempts. Villanova's offense is similar to that of Rutgers – a perimeter-oriented three-guard scheme predicated upon dribble penetration. With or without picks. However, Villanova possesses a better low post presence than does Rutgers. Head Coach Gary Waters' big men did an excellent job of defending the low post, yielding only 11 points inside. The Rutgers big men also helped with penetration. Wildcat SG Allan Ray made his first three 3PAs. Thereafter, the Scarlet Knights closed out on the 3PAs, forcing Villanova to put the ball on the floor to score, where the Rutgers big men were waiting. Rutgers recorded 11 blocked shots. Rutgers second defensive rotations were also good. Although the help defense created offensive rebounding opportunities for Villanova (16 offensive rebounds), the Wildcats scored only 6 second chance points. None inside.
2. Big Three. In my pre-game comments, I noted that Rutgers was outmatched in the frontcourt. I had no idea how Rutgers would handle C Jason Fraser and PF Curtis Sumpter. Sumpter is too quick for Waters' big men and Fraser is too tall/athletic. I speculated that Rutgers likely would need a big game from PF Herve Lamizana to prevent the frontcourt battle from being a total mismatch. I also stated that SF Ricky Shields and SG Quincy Douby needed big games, too. I wondered if Rutgers could get big games from all three. Or if somebody else could provide a big game. The Scarlet Knights received four big performances. Shields and Douby combined for 39 points (24 in the first half) as the Rutgers backcourt completely dominated its Wildcat counterparts, much as it had the first time. And the frontcourt mismatch? It was no mismatch at all as Lamizana and C Adrian Hill combined for 26 points and completely neutralized Fraser and Sumpter (27 points). Rutgers played to its backcourt strength while its much-maligned frontcourt broke even.
3. Tempo. Rutgers really forced Villanova to play the game at its tempo. Villanova is an up-tempo, open court team. The Wildcats scored 16 of their 60 points in transition. But the Wildcats managed only 44 points from their halfcourt offense. The Villanova TO machine was out in force as the Wildcats committed 20 TOs. Many in transition. Rutgers slowed the pace of the game and forced Villanova into a halfcourt slogging match. Defensively, Villanova is very soft. The Wildcats allow dribble penetration and don't rotate defensively to cover beaten teammates. Which explains why the Wildcats struggled so much this year. Villanova is talented but soft. Their offense doesn't seem much different from what Head Coach Jay Wright ran at Hofstra. But the defensive intensity of Wright's Dutchmen just isn't there.
4. Double Screens. I haven't noticed Rutgers using double screens on the baseline to free the shooters on the wings. Rutgers built its first half lead on a barrage of 3-balls (Quincy and Ricky). All were curls off baseline double screens. Those were not what I would consider good shots as the shooters had to turn, jump, and square in one motion. And the shooters weren't wide open, either, as the Wildcat defenders were in their shirts. It was just unconscious shooting by Shields and Douby. The announcers were just amazed at the shots that Ricky was hitting. I was able to visualize what John Beilein was lamenting about Shields after the West Virginia game. But these shots explain why Rutgers is so Jekyll-and-Hyde at home and on the road. Seven of Shields' nine 3PA s were not good shots. Yet Shields, supremely confident at home, knocked down five tough 3-balls (all but his final made 3PA). However, Shields lacks this same confidence on the road and his well-practiced poor judgment conspires against him as he forces bad shots. I am pleased to see the Scarlet Knights actually screening off the ball to free shooters. But I want to see better judgment o the curls. Curl inside and take the mid range jumper, as Boston College, Connecticut, Seton Hall, and West Virginia do.
5. Dribble Penetration. Rutgers scored 20 of its 43 first half points off dribble penetration. While perimeter 3-balls accounted for 15 points of Rutgers final 29 points to close the first half, dribble penetration was the bread-n-butter of the Rutgers offense. The Scarlet Knights scored only 8 points off dribble penetration in the second half. Not surprisingly, Rutgers struggled to score 29 points. Rutgers continued to attack the basket but Villanova increased its defensive intensity, absent in the first half. Fraser, so soft in the first half, blocked four shots in the second half. The Scarlet Knights – especially PG Juel Wiggan – failed to adjust to Fraser's rotations and find the open man on the weak side.
6. Herve Lamizana. Herve sprained his ankle badly during practice on Tuesday. His participation was uncertain and wasn't decided until tipoff. You wouldn't have known the difference. Herve was marvelous. Both offensively and defensively. Herve scored 7 points in the first half (3 of 8 FGAs and 1 of 1 FTA) and added 4 rebounds (3 offensive), 4 blocked shots, and 2 steals. He added 6 points (2 of 7 FGAs and 1 of 1 FTA), 5 rebounds (4 defensive), and four blocks in the second half. Herve didn't shoot well. Again. But I was surprised to see that when I saw his box score. Watching the game, I felt he played a very strong all-around game. Instead of trying to draw the foul on the 3PA, he is taking the easy one-dribble jump shot. Or just driving around the defender.
7. Quincy Douby. Douby, in his third game in the starting lineup, showed a very versatile offense, scoring on perimeter jump shots, mid-range pull-up jumpers, and floaters in the lane. Douby scored 18 points on 7 of 14 FGAs, 2 of 6 3PAs, and 2 of 2 FTAs. He recorded 4 assists against only one TO. His rebounding (3 total, 2 defensive) was a little better but still needs improvement. Douby's defense on Wildcat PG Mike Nardi was also very effective, as Nardi scored only 7 points on 3 of 6 FGAs. Quincy must hit the weight room during the offseason. He gets knocked around too easily on dribble penetration and on defense. He must get stronger.
8. Adrian Hill. Adrian Hill has been a big contributor in the post season as C Sean Axani has been quiet during his final few games. Defense. Offensive rebounding. Hustle. Hill has provided energy at a time when Rutgers' energy level was questionable. The increased use of dribble penetration has suddenly made Hill an offensive contributor. Hills is often uncovered on the weak side of the basket when his defender steps up to stop dribble penetration. Hill converted 4 of 5 FGAs in the first half – all dunks. Hill's performance has been hailed as a coming out party. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. He has been an incredibly effective garbage man. But he's still a garbage man. He didn't score once in the low post as a primary offensive option. His teammates still refuse to feed him the ball in the low post. Rutgers fans are going to have to wait until next year to see if Hill can assume a bigger role in the offense as the primary low post threat.
9. Juel Wiggan. After struggling in his first two games coming off the bench in the NIT, Wiggan played much better in the quarterfinals. And he played more, as PG Marquis Webb struggled with fouls and TOs. Wiggan entered the game with 14:15 remaining and Rutgers leading 12-10. Wiggan played the rest of the half, contributing 6 assists against only one TO. He assisted on all five 3-balls, although none were terrible creative on his part. He missed all three FGAs, twice getting his shots blocked. Wiggan played the final 14 minutes of the game, initially subbing for Douby. With first Douby and then Shields on the bench, Villanova trimmed the Rutgers lead from 15 points to 10 points. During this span, Wiggan badly missed a wide open 3PA. His perimeter shooting, solid early in the season, has fallen apart. But dribble penetration is his best contribution. The most refreshing part of his effort was that he played hard and didn't sulk. However, some concerns have been expressed that Wiggan is ignoring Douby on the court. Is this a bad habit Wiggan picked up from his buddy, former PG Mike Sherrod? It is something that I'll continue to observe.
10. Officiating. I thought the officiating was terrible. It started on the first possession, when Fraser knocked C Sean Axani down with a lowered shoulder and received two FTAs for his efforts. And continued into the second half, when Hill committed a double goaltending violation (hanging on the rim while dunking a ball still in the cylinder) but was credited with the bucket. The announcers repeatedly commented that the Rutgers fans were barbecuing the referees. But Rutgers actually received the benefit of the poor officiating. I counted 12 blown calls. Some egregious. Some more subtle. Rutgers was the beneficiary of 9 blown calls. I don't think the game was close enough for the officiating to have interfered. But I would hope the officials do a better job at Madison Square Garden.
Before the NIT brackets were announced, I stated a hope that Rutgers would have to play at least one NIT game on the road to earn a berth in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. My reasoning was simple. Rutgers ended the regular season with a 14-2 home court record. The only teams to win at the RAC – Connecticut and Seton Hall – both earned bids to the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers was undefeated at home against teams not qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. So, a three game home stand should have resulted in a virtually guaranteed NIT semifinal berth. Barring an entirely possible meltdown like that experienced against Yale two years ago. This is exactly why I wanted one road game before the Garden. The accomplishment of reaching Madison Square Garden is already getting blown way out of proportion. When, in fact, Gary Waters should be congratulated for not screwing up.
The acid test for me has been for this team to do something away from the RAC. Rutgers hasn't yet faced that challenge in the NIT. Rutgers was undefeated at home against non-NCAA teams in the regular season. That remaining undefeated against three non-NCAA teams is considered something of an accomplishment seems to me as though the expectations of many have been dumbed down. Not because the team has failed to win at home but because so often Rutgers has simply failed to show up. So, not screwing up is now viewed as an accomplishment. Kinda like making the NIT in Year 3 is being portrayed as some fantastic accomplishment by Waters because Gary so ridiculously dumbed down expectations for Year 3.
I'm not downplaying the historical significance. It's hard to argue with the best post-season in 13 years. And I'm thrilled with the results so far. I am looking forward to the NIT semis. I want to see Rutgers do some damage and give the program something real to build upon. Because the current three game winning streak won't mean squat if Rutgers still can't win on the road next year. That is the single biggest hurdle for the program at this time. I'll be impressed if Rutgers makes some noise at the Garden.
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