10 THOUGHTS ON THE NIT SEMIFINAL GAME
Rutgers (20-12) displayed the split personality that has so often characterized its performances in an 84-81 overtime victory over Iowa State (20-13) in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Scarlet Knights dominated the first half at both halves of the court in taking a commanding 40-30 halftime lead. But, as they have so often, Rutgers started the second half flat and yielded a 13-2 Cyclone run to start the half. However, the Scarlet Knights recovered their composure and a see-saw battle ensured through regulation and into overtime. The Scarlet Knights did not play well. They did not play smart. But they gutted out only their fourth win away from the RAC this season. Here are ten thoughts on the NIT semifinal game.
1. Quincy Douby. After scoring a team season high 28 points in his first career start in the NIT first round game against Temple, Douby again led Rutgers to victory was a new team high 35 points. As he was against the Owls, Douby was equally magnificent against the Cyclones. He blistered the Iowa State zone defense with four 3-balls in the opening 8 minutes. His steal and dunk capped a 16-point first half that staked the Scarlet Knights to a 10-point halftime lead. Douby used a more versatile offensive arsenal in the second half, scoring 14 points on 3-balls (six), dribble drives (four), and FTs (four). Quincy scored 5 of Rutgers 7 points in OT on a mid-range pull-up jump shot and three FTs. Douby led early, late, and in between. His longest scoring drought – eight minutes – coincided with Rutgers meltdown to the open the second half.
2. Dribble Penetration. In my pre-game keys, I highlighted the pervasive dribble penetration issue. I didn't want to see the Scarlet Knights settling for the long 3-balls off perimeter passing. I wanted to see Rutgers attack the Cyclone zone defense off the dribble. Get to the basket. Get to the FT line. Take the pull-up, mid-range jumper. Rutgers settle for perimeter jump shots against the Cyclone zone defense in the first half. Fortunately, Quincy Douby hit enough 3-balls to carry the Rutgers offense but the rest of his teammates struggled. Rutgers scored 17 of its 40 first half points on perimeter-derived shots (i.e., set up with perimeter passing or dribbling) compared to only 12 points off dribble penetrations. Douby scored 12 of the 17 perimeter points. However, in the second half, Rutgers eschewed the perimeter offense for dribble penetration. Especially Ricky Shields, who resumed his shooting woes away from the friendly confines of the RAC (3 of 13 FGAs and 1 of 6 3PAs). Rutgers attacked the basket with the dribble, scoring 17 of its 37 second half points off dribble penetration.
3. Defending Curtis Stinson. The Big XII Freshman of the Year entered the game averaging 16 ppg. At 6'2", he is also the biggest of Iowa State's three starting guards. The logical defensive assignment for Stinson was Marcus Webb, Waters' defensive stopper. Put Webb on Stinson, Douby on PG Will Blalock, and Shields on SG Jake Sullivan. Instead, Waters elected to cover Stinson primarily with Shields in the first half. Stinson scored only two points (1 of 4 FGAs) while Iowa State focused its offensive efforts inside with its big men, who combined for 20 of Iowa State's 30 first half points. Cyclone Head Coach Wayne Morgan moved Stinson the point and reoriented the Cyclone offense to focus on dribble penetration, off in combination with the pick-n-roll. The result? Iowa State shredded the Rutgers defense with dribble penetration. The Cyclones scorched Rutgers for 47 second half points, 24 of which were derived from dribble penetration. The Rutgers guards did not fight over the top of the screens. The Rutgers big men, too worried about the rolling screening, did not show long or hard enough to slow Stinson and allow Shields, etc. to recover. As a result, Stinson repeatedly got the room. He torched Rutgers for 28 second half points. Waters never switched to a zone defense even though the Cyclone offense predominantly attacked Rutgers inside either with dribble penetration or in the low post.
4. Herve Lamizana. Herve posed a tremendous matchup problem for Iowa State. Their big men – 6'9" Jared Homan and 6'10" Jackson Vroman – are bangers. Lamizana had a clear advantage with his athleticism and provided Rutgers Head Coach Gary Waters with his most promising mismatch. Herve needed to attack the middle of the Cyclone zone from the high post. When the Cyclones switched to a man-to-man defense, Herve needed to use his quickness both with the ball and off the ball. Move around – low post, high post, perimeter. And be aggressive with the ball. Herve was none of the above. He was passive. And he tried to outmuscle the stronger Cyclones rather than outmaneuver them. Rutgers biggest mismatch scored only 6 points (3 of 10 FGAs, 0 of 2 3PAs, and no FTAs). While Herve was solid on the defensive end with five blocked shots and three steals, his rebounding was also ineffectual – 3 boards.
5. Sean Axani. The newspapers raved about Axani's 17 rebound performance. His rebounding was impressive. But I didn't realize the magnitude until I saw the boxscore. As I watched the game, it seemed as if he did not play well. That was my impression. Ax got lit up defensively by Jackson Vroman (14 points on 6 of 11 FGAs and 2 of 4 FTAs), although some of that was breakdowns by teammates who didn't help when ISU set screens in the lane on Axani after Vroman rolled off his own screens. While Axani countered with 8 points, he made only 4 of 9 FGAs, missing three putbacks and two layups. Axani only scored 4 points off his 7 offensive rebounds. He does not present himself well at all on dribble penetration. When his defender rotates to the ballhandler, Sean does not aggressively stake out position on the weak side. He makes himself a very small target. Ax also lopes on pick-and-roll situations, allowing his man to help on the ballhandler at no cost. Furthermore, Axani committed 6 TOs, of which three led directly to six transition points for Iowa State.
6. Free Throw Shooting. Rutgers attempted only 3 FTs in the first half, making all of them. Iowa State was soft defensively and acquired three of their nine fouls on offensive fouls and another two on Scarlet Knight rebounds. Rutgers got to the rim inside or off the dribble. Or simply splashed shots from the perimeter. While Rutgers struggled from the floor in the second half, the Scarlet Knights attacked the basket, drew fouls, and got to the FT line. Rutgers attempted 23 FTs in the second half, making 17 (74%). Rutgers made 3 of 4 FTA in the overtime session. For the game, Rutgers converted 23 of 30 points from the FT line. Iowa State scored 19 of a possible 27 points. In a game where Rutgers struggled to score in the second half, the Scarlet Knights capitalized upon FT opportunities.
7. Transition Defense. Iowa State uses a small, three-guard lineup. The Cyclones like to push the ball in transition. Transition defense has been a problem for Rutgers all year. Waters emphasized transition defense during a pre-game interview with the ESPN2 broadcast team. Rutgers yielded only 6 transition points in the first half, while forcing 11 Iowa State TOs and scoring 5 transition points themselves. However, the transition defense got sloppy in the second half. Rutgers yielded 9 transition points in the second half (and two more in OT). Seven of these points occurred during a critical 13-2 Cyclone run at the start of the second half. Rutgers guards often failed to hustle back defensively and their teammates downcourt failed to cover the breaking Cyclones. Iowa State outscored Rutgers 17-7 in transition.
8. Inside Curls. Rutgers possessed a height advantage over the Cyclones in the backcourt. The Cyclone starters are 5'11" (Will Blalock), 6'1" (Jake Sullivan), and 6'2" (Curtis Stinson). Rutgers has two big guards in Marquis Webb (6'5") and Ricky Shields (6'4") and a tall (if scrawny) guard in Quincy Douby (6'3"). I noted this height advantage before the game. I thought that the Scarlet Knight backcourt needed to punish their shorter Cyclone counterparts inside. The best method for accomplishing this task would be to curl to the elbow off baseline screens rather than to flare to the 3-point arc. Catch and shoot the mid-range jumper. Much as Seton Hall does with SG John Allen. That was the idea. The biggest problem was that Iowa State played the bulk of the game in a combination of zone defenses. As a result, the Cyclone big men rarely vacated the lane. And Rutgers rarely tested the interior directly with passes. Rutgers scored six points inside in the first half. And none in the second half. Waters never found a means to exploit his guards' height advantage inside.
9. The RAC, Midtown. Rutgers has not traveled well in its recent history. Rutgers had an embarrassing turnout at the Meadowlands for the Jimmy V Classic five years ago. Rutgers also had poor turnout at Madison Square Garden for the ECAC Holiday Festival in recent years. Hell, Rutgers can't even bring enough people to the Meadowlands to sell out games against archrival Seton Hall. Though Rutgers' geographical proximity to the Garden gave it the potential for a home court advantage, the question was whether the Rutgers fans would travel to New York with sufficient numbers to generate that home court advantage. Mission accomplished. An estimated two-thirds of the announced attendance of approximately 12,500 were wearing Rutgers red. And they were vocal. The resonating cheers could be clearly heard throughout the television broadcast. The Rutgers fans deserve a share of the credit for a milestone victory in Rutgers history – no Scarlet Knight team has ever reached the final of any post season tournament.
10. Officiating. I thought that Rutgers benefited from quite a few very favorable calls (or non-calls) from the referees. Especially down the stretch. The technical foul whistled on Cyclone C Jared Homan, with six minutes remaining in a one-point game, was unwarranted. And a subsequent midcourt collision between Shields and Will Blalock should have gone against Rutgers, not for Rutgers, because Blalock had tipped the hastily thrown outlet pass to corral the ball when he collided with Shields. At best, a no call. At worst, Blalock is shooting two FTs because Iowa State is already in the double bonus.
Since the NIT started, I have waited for Rutgers to play away from the RAC. I had to wait four games that for to occur. But I finally got the only real test that mattered to me. With a decided advantage in crowd support, the game didn't exactly constitute a road game. But, as the shooting of Ricky Shields could attest, the Scarlet Knights weren't playing in the familiar environs of the RAC, either. Rutgers had to grind out a win against a tough, disciplined opponent who simply refused to go quietly. In fact, I'm still trying to figure out how Rutgers held on to win. Iowa State dominated inside. And Stinson was unconscious in the second half. But Rutgers simply found a way. The Scarlet Knights have won their fourth game away from the RAC. More significantly, Rutgers has advanced farther in a post-season tournament than ever before. Next up is Tommy Haymaker's Michigan Wolverines. And a chance for Rutgers to close a frustrating season on a refreshingly high note. Time to make a little more noise.
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