TEN THOUGHTS ON THE BIG EAST TOURNAMENT OPENER
Rutgers (10-18, 2-14 Big East) extended its season for at least another day with a determined 72-65 win over Notre Dame (17-11, 9-7 Big East) in the first round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The win gives Rutgers' seniors a chance to play another game. Rutgers leapt from the opening tipoff, scoring eight of the first nine points of the game. Rutgers eventually pushed the lead to eight points at 17-9 with 14 minutes remaining. Rutgers scored only two points over the next five minutes, allowing Notre Dame to eventually twice tie the game, at 21 and again at 23. After Notre Dame took its first lead 28-27 with 2:30 remaining, Rutgers responded with an 8-0 burst. The Fighting Irish scored the final four points to trail 35-32 at halftime. The score remained close in the 2nd Half as Rutgers never lead by more than seven points. Notre Dame took the lead at 58-56 with 5:30 remaining and again at 65-64 with 1:30 remaining. However, the Scarlet Knights closed the game with an 8-0 run. Here are ten thoughts on the first round BET game.
1. Let it Rip. With nothing to lose, Rutgers played fast and loose. Ricky Shields and Quincy Douby hit early 3-balls; it seemed to relax the typically tense Scarlet Knights. With Shields and Douby "on", there was less pressure on the other Rutgers players to score. And a greater willingness to take open shots or attack the basket. The result was more balanced scoring, better shots, and more points. Rutgers needs a similarly free-spirited attitude, tempered by disciplined shooting, to beat Syracuse.
2. Defensive Energy. The Scarlet Knights played defense with a passion too often lacking during the season. Shields and Douby, neither renowned for their defense, were in the shirts of their assignments, chasing them through screens. Douby held Irish SG Chris Quinn scoreless, with only one FGA, in the opening ten minutes until a shoulder injury knocked Quinn out of the game. Shields again drew SF Colin Falls, who scored 18 points and made 5 of 10 FGAs against Rutgers one week ago in South Bend. Shields played perhaps his best defense of the season in limiting Falls to only 3 points on 1 of 10 FGAs. Notre Dame punished Rutgers inside early but the Scarlet Knights responded by fighting harder for position and denying the Irish inside players good position. Rutgers limited the Fighting Irish to only 36% FG shooting, its second best defensive performance in Big East competition.
3. Ricky Shields. Ricky suffered through a desultory second half of the Big East season after Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy reamed the team in general – and Shields in particular – in the locker room following the worst loss in the history of RAC, against Villanova. Before a 21-point Senior Night effort, Shields was averaging 9 ppg (30% on FGAs and 27% on 3PAs) during the 9 game Big East stretch including and following the Villanova debacles. Shields game out firing at the Garden. He scored eight points on three consecutive possessions in the opening minutes. He scored 13 points in the 1st Half while shutting out Falls. He also scored six points down the stretch. Including a dribble drive to give Rutgers the lead for good with one minute remaining. And a steal and transition layup moments later to put a dagger in Notre Dame's heart. By all accounts, Ricky is a great kid and a fine representative of Rutgers. It was nice to see him win a game in the Big East tournament. But where has this been all year? The defense? The dribble penetration? The dishes off dribble drives?
4. Supporting Cast. Against Boston College on Senior Night, Shields and Douby had a rare convergence of hot shooting games, combining to score 39 points. However, their supporting cast combined for only 27 points. Shields and Douby stayed in their groove at the Garden, scoring 36 points. But the rest of the Scarlet Knights combined to score another 36 points. While only Ollie Bailey managed double figures with 10 points, three other players scored at least six points – Byron Joynes (8), Jimmie Inglis (8), and Marquis Webb (6). Rutgers 72 points matched their second highest scoring output in league competition. And shot a season-high (in Big East play) 46% from the field.
5. Marquis Webb on Chris Thomas. A week ago, Rutgers limited Thomas to 10 points on 3 of 9 FGAs. And many of those points occurred while Webb was on the bench. Webb again drew the defensive assignment of Chris Thomas. Marquis kept Thomas on lockdown. Thomas scored only four points in the 1st Half on 2 of 7 FGAs. Thomas added 13 points in the 2nd Half but made only 4 of 10 FGAs. With Quinn out with a shoulder injury, Notre Dame needed Thomas to step up. While his 17 points were substantial, he needed the equivalent of 19 FGAs to score those points. And he accounted for only five assists while committing an uncharacteristic five TOs. With Quinn out and Thomas struggling, Notre Dame suddenly resembled Rutgers offensively.
6. Dribble Penetration. The biggest problem with the Rutgers offense is that the ball moves too little and, when it does, too often it tends to move perpendicular to the basket. Catch. Hold. Dribble. Pass. Slowly the ball plods around the perimeter. Allowing the defense to adjust and contest the eventual perimeter shot. At the Garden, the Scarlet Knights attacked the notoriously soft Irish defense. The guards scored off dribble penetration. Or dished down to the big men on the baseline for wide open 12-foot jumpers. Game after game. Year after year. The offense has proven to function more effectively with dribble penetration than with the 3-jacks. It's no coincidence that the Scarlet Knights attacked the basket and shot 46% on FGAs. Cause……..effect.
7. Low Post Scoring. Rutgers has struggled with its perimeter shooting because opponents have concentrated on tightly defending Shields and Douby on the perimeter at the expense of their interior defense. That strategy has paid handsome dividends for opponents because the Rutgers big men have been unable to punish opponents inside. Rutgers lacked a polished low post threat. Joynes and Bailey are still raw. Inglis has limited mobility. These players aren't improving quickly enough because they don't get enough shot attempts. Too often, the Scarlet Knight guards stare at an open big man in the post and simply the reverse the ball. When big men work hard for position and don't see the ball, they stop working. And if they aren't getting the ball, they aren't going to improve. Against Notre Dame, the Scarlet Knights made a commitment to feed the low post. Bailey, Joynes, and Inglis combined to score 26 points on 12 of 19 FGAs. The 19 FGAs is an unusually large number of shots for the Rutgers big men. Many of the shots – and points – came off offensive rebounds. But each player scored his share of points in the paint. Which forced the Fighting Irish defense to contract. And opened the perimeter for the Scarlet Knight guards.
8. Torin Francis. Francis has had a surprisingly quiet season as a secondary scoring option on the perimeter oriented Fighting Irish. Torin is only averaging 9 ppg this season. He suffered a season-ending back injury about a year ago that required surgery. Though he appears to be in excellent shaper, his performance against Rutgers one week ago led me to wonder if he had fully recovered from his injury. He scored only 8 points on the equivalent of only 7 FGAs. When he caught the ball in the low post, he appeared tentative. Not so in the Garden. Rutgers extended its defense to smother Thomas, Quinn, and Falls. Which gave Francis room to work underneath. Torin scored Notre Dame's first seven points. He drew two fouls on Joynes and a foul on Inglis in the first four minutes. He finished the 1st Half with 13 points and 9 rebounds. I have no idea why Notre Dame stopped pounding Rutgers inside. Especially once Quinn was hurt. Francis finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Notre Dame should have ridden him harder.
9. Notre Dame's Tourney Hopes. Notre Dame entered the game solidly on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. The Fighting Irish possessed a 17-10 record overall and a 9-7 record in the Big East with a brutal league schedule comprising home-n-home series with Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and surprising Georgetown. However, the Fighting Irish lacked significant non-conference wins. Notre Dame lost to mediocre (at) Michigan, DePaul, and UCLA in crucial non-conference matchups. A win over Indiana was marginalized with the Hoosiers being sub-mediocre. Notre Dame's argument was based almost entirely upon a winning record in a very tough conference with a tough conference draw. The Fighting Irish had lost three of four games to finish the season. Notre Dame needed one win in the Big East Tournament to punch its ticket to the Tournament. A loss to last place Rutgers likely cost Notre Dame its NCAA bid. The way each team played, one would have sworn the Scarlet Knights were the team playing for their lives.
10. Where Was That? Rutgers punctuated its season with a win that almost as impressive as the season-opening win at NCAA-bound Charlotte. It was a rare opportunity for Rutgers fans to enjoy a game in a season long on misery. However, the joy of the game was affected by an undercurrent of frustration. Where was this effort and performance all season? Where was the passionate defense that a team lacking talent absolutely had to bring to compete? Where was the ferocity in contesting shots and protecting the basket? Where was the teamwork on offense – the double screens for Douby and Shields, the dribble penetration, the passing into the low post? This was the personality that Rutgers fans expected of a Gary Waters team. Which milk carton was this cast of players hiding on?
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