Rutgers’ throwback formula paying off in 2020-21

Heading into their second Big 10 Conference game of the season, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were bound to have their hands full. 

Although the Scarlet Knights were ranked in the AP Poll themselves (#19 at the time), the towering playmakers in Kofi Cockburn, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Ayo Dosunmu for the 13th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini looked to spoil the fortunes for the home team at the Rutgers Athletic Center Sunday afternoon. 

Through the first three minutes of the game, the party crashing looked to be in full swing. The Fighting Illini rocketed out to an 8-0 lead and were already making their presence known in the paint and on the perimeter. 

Then came the Scarlet Knights, who started off the scoring with a Ron Harper Jr. layup on the fast break. 

The scoring for the Scarlet Knights would reach a pinnacle, as the efforts of Harper Jr., Jacob Young and Montez Mathis combined to score 67 of the Scarlet Knights’ 91 points in their resume-building 91-88 victory over the Fighting Illini. 

The 6-0 Scarlet Knights, basking in triumph, are now 11th in the current AP Poll installment and are one of only two undefeated Big Ten teams (Michigan). The ranking is their highest in the AP Poll since Jan. 13, 1976, when the Scarlet Knights ranked 10th, did not call a basketball conference their home, and eventually trekked to a 25-0 undefeated regular season over the course of their 1975-76 campaign as an independent. 

Times change as the decades go by. Eras in sports come and go, and college basketball is no exception. 

The current 2020-21 rendition of the Scarlet Knights, however, just might be going back to their roots as they look to build off of a once-promising 2019-20 season cut short due to COVID-19. These roots stem from their success 40+ years ago. 

How so? 

Well, let’s give it a look. 

The 1975-76 Scarlet Knights, led by the quartet of Phil Sellers, Mike Dabney, Eddie Jordan and Hollis Copeland, averaged 93.3 points per game, which ranked fifth out of 234 Division I teams. Although the team allowed 76.9 points per game (which ranked 153rd out of 234 teams), the defensive strength came from their offensive presence on the court. Sellers, Dabney, Jordan and Copeland all averaged 10+ points per game (19.2, 19.1, 14.1 and 12.9, respectively). Their scoring success, however, was warranted and even expected – all four players averaged 28 minutes or more on the court, while the remainder of the Scarlet Knights’ roster averaged 23 minutes or less. 

Fast forward four+ decades later, and you see a similar winning formula for the program. 

Offensively, the 2020-21 Scarlet Knights, while not as potent as their 1975-76 counterparts, are still averaging 82.7 points per game, which is tied for 49th out of 327 Division I teams. Their expertise in sharing the basketball has also made itself known, as the team is averaging 17.8 assists per game, which is tied for 34th.

When coupled with their 42.0 total rebounds per game (tied for 36th), you have a team that can work around a bend-not-break defense conceding 68.5 points per game (147th). Sprinkle in the team’s KenPom ranking in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency (tied for 22nd) and adjusted defensive efficiency (tied for 15th), and you have an excellent offense and a defense better than the box score is indicating. 

The fact the Scarlet Knights’ score explosively definitely illuminates some resemblance to their 1975-76 adversaries, but who is scoring, and how much certain players are scoring, are where the similarities reach a zenith. 

The top-heavy production of Harper Jr., Young and Mathis in comparison to the rest of the roster highlights how, just like their 1975-76 counterparts, there is a reliance on the production of a small, select group of players. All three players are currently averaging over 10 points a game (Harper Jr. with 24.0, Young with 16.5 and Mathis with 13.7). Additionally, all three players are averaging over 30 minutes per game played (32.2 for Mathis, 32.5 for Harper Jr., 34.5 for Young). All other players are averaging less than 32 minutes per game and aside from guard Paul Mulcahy averaging 30.7 minutes per game, all other players are averaging 22 minutes or less

The percentage of points scored the trio has put up in relation to the rest of the Scarlet Knights’ roster further emphasizes the team’s reliance on a specific unit of players. When looking at the Scarlet Knights’ six games played, the trio of Harper Jr., Young and Mathis scored 40 of 85 points against Sacred Heart (47%), 69 out of 96 points against Fairleigh Dickinson (72%), 46 out of 70 points against Hofstra (66%), 63 out of 79 points against Syracuse (80%), 42 out of 74 points against Maryland (57%) and 67 out of 91 points against Illinois (74%). On average, the trio is collectively scoring 66% of the Scarlet Knights’ points. 

Is this to say the 2020-21 Scarlet Knights will take a play out of the 1975-76 playbook and go undefeated? Of course not. This should not give Rutgers the key to the Big Ten throne, and the month of March should not automatically bow down to them, either.

What it does suggest, however, is simple. The Scarlet Knights’ are emphasizing on a core group of players to carry the majority of the offensive load. Who would blame them? So far, it is working, even against top competition like Illinois. It worked during the 1975-76 season, too. 

Eras come and go, but the philosophy for Rutgers remains, even if there is a 40-plus year difference. 

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