As the Rutgers men’s basketball team is gearing up for the start of the season, it's still working hard to improve on certain areas of weakness from last year.
One of these areas is defense.
“I don’t like where our defense is," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "It’s just not where it should be for having veteran guys.”
Looking at the Scarlet Knights' defensive stats last year, there is room for improvement. They ranked just 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams in points allowed per game, with 68.8. They also ranked 10th in opponent field goal percentage, with 42.5%.
With that being said, Pikiell stressed that he sees potential for improvement.
“We just have to become more consistent. We’ll go on a three day stretch (in practice) where I really like us a lot," Pikiell said. "Then we’ll go two days where I think ‘oh boy, we have a long way to go. We’ve got to continue to harp on it and be good at it. I think we have a chance, because our length is outstanding. We’ve got the longest team we’ve ever had, but we have to be tougher. We have to be disciplined, and believe in our teammates.”
The team’s frontcourt does have some towering players, including 6-foot-11-inch sophomore forward Luke Nathan, 6-foot-9-inch senior forward Shaq Carter and 6-foot-10-inch sophomore center Myles Johnson.
Johnson offered insight into his role on the team and how he will help them improve.
“Me being the biggest, I’m more of the post presence and rim protector," he said. "But we’re dividing the responsibilities equally, everyone needs to do their part.”
Look for him to use his height and rim-protecting skills to help Rutgers block shots in the paint. This was yet another subpar defensive category for the Knights last year, as they ranked just 10th in the conference with 124 blocks. Johnson himself was second on the team last year, with 23 blocks.
Another area of concern is free throws. Pikiell gave a comedic response to a reporter bringing up the team’s 63% free throw percentage, ranked the worst in the conference.
“It’s a new year now, we’re at 0%. We have to improve in that area, certainly. We’ve spent a ton of time with it, and you hope that the right guys are taking the free throws, too," Johnson said. “I certainly believe adding (true freshman guard) Paul Mulcahy, and (junior guard) Jacob Young will help. (Graduate student forward) Akwasi Yeboah shoots well over 80% from the line for his career. That helps, but our other guys have to get better too.”
One of those “other guys” is Johnson, who made just 40% of his free throws last year.
“Every day we shoot free throws” Johnson said. “We make it a big part of our practice to get on the line and make free throws. We’ve been doing challenges to simulate the pressure of making it in a real game. We added incentives and punishments for making and missing shots. Personally, I changed my form as well.”
Rutgers will hope to build on its hard work this preseason to turn these two areas into strengths. The good news is that the majority of the team is healthy going into the year, which gives them an opportunity to keep developing and improving.
“Knock on wood, our health is good,” Pikiell said. “Other than the regular nicks, we’re pretty good in that area for this time of year. I’ll double-knock to that.”
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