Rutgers final thoughts, player grades from historic upset of No. 1 Purdue: Ron Harper Jr., Steve Pikiell ceme – NJ.com

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Rutgers stuns No.1 Purdue, 70-68
Rutgers pulled off the biggest upset in program history on Thursday night, toppling No. 1 Purdue, 70-68, in what was the Scarlet Knights’ first-ever win over the nation’s top team.
In the short term, it made Rutgers the talk of college basketball for the night and turned what was becoming a lost season into a winter suddenly infused with hope.
In the long term, it will be remembered among the greatest victories in Scarlet Knights lore, a night fans will brag to their friends, their families, their future children and grandchildren that they were there. There will be framed photos of the court storm at Jersey Mike’s Arena, in local dive bars and on the computer and phone background of hundreds of Rutgers fans for the upcoming days, weeks, months.
And in the very short term — as in this Friday morning — Rutgers’ epic win over Purdue will be remembered in detail through these player grades and final thoughts: (for the criteria of the grades, head here):
Ron Harper Jr.
Stats: Career-high 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting (5-of-7 on 3s, 5-of-5 on free throws), 10 rebounds, one assist, one steal, four turnovers in 38 minutes.
Harper Jr. should never have to buy anything in Piscataway ever again — not a beer, not a meal, not a stick of gum, not a thing — after that.
The junior forward put together one of the greatest individual performances in program history, carrying the Scarlet Knights to their biggest upset win ever and restarting what looked to be a lost season. Harper poured in 17 of his career-high 30 points in a tremendous first half to put the Scarlet Knights up at the break and then scored 13 of Rutgers’ final 21 points to lead it to victory, capping off his unforgettable night with an assist and two clutch baskets in the final minute of the game.
Forget his five missed shots and four turnovers; this was as close to a perfect game as a player can get in college basketball. His game-winning half-court buzzer-beater will be replayed in every Rutgers basketball highlight video for the rest of time.
Harper entered Thursday night as one of the main protagonists in the most prosperous era in modern Rutgers basketball history; he ended the night by cementing his legacy as an all-time great Scarlet Knight.
Watch highlights from his performance here.
Grade: 5
Steve Pikiell
Pikiell put together a masterclass in coaching leading into and on Thursday night.
He had to prepare his team for the No. 1 team in the country while it fought through a flu outbreak that affected seven players — half the roster — and left him without his senior leader Geo Baker, who not only did not play, but was not in the building because of his flu diagnosis. He had to rally the troops after a 35-point loss on the road to Illinois last Friday had the season teetering on the edge of disaster. He had to overcome the noise surrounding him and his team after it fell well below the sky-high preseason expectations he set.
In the face of all of that, Pikiell put his team in position to hold the nation’s most efficient offense to:
– by far its lowest scoring output of the season (68; previous low was 77 points, entered Thursday scoring 90 points per game).
– by far its worst 3-point shooting performance (7/26, 26.9%; its previous worst was 39.3% on 11/28 shooting).
– its second-least efficient offensive performance (1.04 points per possession; entered Thursday leading the nation at 1.25 PPP).
He did it behind the defense which has become the identity of his program, a swarming, aggressive, fearless unit that embraced the monstrous challenge ahead of them.
And in the times the defense lagged and left shooters open on the perimeter (which is inevitable against the Boilermakers; they are that good), Pikiell received help from the volcanic atmosphere at Jersey Mike’s Arena created by the fanbase he dragged back into those seats over the course of his tenure. He dug Rutgers out of a decades-long hole of mediocre basketball, so they keep showing up. When they struggled to start the year, Pikiell implored them to keep showing up, keep believing in this team, the one he called his best one yet.
The jury is still out on that statement, but for the Scarlet Knights, what is important is that Pikiell, his players and his fanbase believes it. They all showed their faith on Thursday; the players gutting out a historic win and the fans showing up in droves to see it, rattling a Purdue team playing its first true road game in two years into missing open look after open look, and storming the court once Harper’s miracle shot hit the bottom of the net.
Pikiell, who has now become the first Rutgers coach to bring down No. 1 a year after snapping a 30-year NCAA Tournament drought, gets credit for all of that. None of it happens without him.
“When I tell you guys that (this is my best team yet), that’s how I feel,” Pikiell said. “I believed in this team the whole time. These guys know it. We’re not that far away. We’re a couple of 3-point bombs away from being where we’d like to be. But we’ve hit a lot of obstacles. I don’t need to be vindicated. These kids work their tails off, they do all the right things. That’s why we sell this place out and fans come. Because of the work they’ve done. They’ve led us to two straight NCAA Tournaments. We’ve been pretty good. And when I say my team is good, you saw them tonight. I think they’re pretty good. I’ll say it again and I’ll stand by my team. You can blame the losses on me, these guys work and these guys are great at what they do. These guys deserve tonight. They really do.”
Grade: 5
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Mawot Mag
Stats: Career-high 12 points on 4/6 shooting, three rebounds in 29 minutes.
Mag made his first career start with Baker missing his fourth straight game and freshman guard Jaden Jones coming off a brutal battle with the flu. The second-year forward made the most of his opportunity. He scored 10 points in a highly-productive first half, then stamped his mark on the historic win with a thunderous dunk that brought Rutgers within 1 point of Purdue with a minute remaining. Mag also played some of the best defense of any Scarlet Knight on the night.
Mag has been stacking up strong performances, and this was his best one yet. The young forward showed a lot of promise in a huge spot, playing a big part in a remarkable victory. His work did not go unnoticed: when he checked out of the game late in the first half, he received a much-deserved standing ovation from the home crowd.
“I just want to thank the coaches and my teammates,” he said. “They give me more confidence to play and do whatever it takes. I feel like my confidence is going up every game.”
Grade: 4.5
Paul Mulcahy
Stats: 0 points on 0/5 shooting, eight assists, one rebound, one steal, three turnovers, four fouls in 29 minutes.
Mulcahy’s cold scoring streak continued — he’s now missed four of his last 23 field goal attempts across the last three games — but he made up for it by setting up others with a career-high in assists.
Mulcahy has been tremendous as a distributor as of late, turning around his early-season struggles. After turning the ball over seven times in the first two games of the season, Mulcahy has nine turnovers in the past seven games. He dished 34 assists in that stretch for an impressive 3.7/1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
This is what Mulcahy will be at his best this season: limited scorer, brilliant distributor.
Grade: 3.5
Caleb McConnell
Stats: 12 points on 4/8 shooting (4/4 on FTs), five rebounds, five assists, two steals, two turnovers, four fouls in 29 minutes.
McConnell is consistently playing sound basketball now, which makes a world of difference. He’s taking and making shots in spots where he’s comfortable, he’s making smart decisions with the ball in his hands for the most part and he’s finding a good balance of aggressiveness on the defensive end (he leads the Big Ten in steals at 2.3 per game).
McConnell scored 8 of his 12 points in Rutgers’ game-winning 23-11 run, including four clutch free throws. Harper’s late-game heroics will get the attention it deserves, but McConnell’s closing performance deserves just as much praise.
Grade: 4
Cliff Omoruyi
Stats: 11 points on 5/10 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, three steals, one block, two turnovers, three fouls in 29 minutes.
Omoruyi had the tall order of defending two of the best centers in the country in Trevion Williams and Zach Edey, a challenge he said he embraced. That was evident in the extremely solid defense he played against them. He got scored on a handful of times — that’s going to happen against that duo — but he made them work for just about every shot they took.
Here’s a stat that sums it up: Edey and Williams scored 17 of their 34 combined points on 7-of-15 shooting in the 29 minutes Omoruyi was on the floor; they scored the other half on 7-of-10 shooting in the 11 minutes he was off.
Offensively, Omoruyi scored the first bucket of each half and took advantage of defensive miscommunication from Purdue multiple times. He was solid on that end.
Grade: 4
Ralph Agee
Stats: 2 points on 1/1 shooting (0/1 FTs), one assist in 7 minutes.
The graduate transfer was eaten alive by Trevion Williams. He put up little resistance as Williams snagged an offensive rebound and a putback on back-to-back possessions immediately after Agee checked in for the first time. Williams hit four buckets in two minutes with Agee guarding him.
While he hit a putback lay-up and dished an assist in the second half, Agee could not make up for the 9 points he gave up to Williams in the seven minutes he was on the court. At times, Agee just looked like he didn’t belong on the floor.
Grade: 2
Jalen Miller
Stats: 0 points on no shots, one turnover in 9 minutes.
The freshman is fearless. As he guarded Purdue’s veteran point guard Eric Hunter, he gestured toward him on at least two possessions, signaling something along the lines of “come at me.” His defense, in which he regularly picked up his assignment full-court and followed him all over, was pretty good.
Miller is a long way from contributing anything offensively (he has 4 points and two assists in 29 total minutes across three appearances), but his defensive intensity, desire and confidence is at an elevated level. That is how he carved a role on this roster and it will be an asset for Pikiell to employ strategically.
Grade: 3
Oskar Palmquist
Stats: 3 points on 1/2 shooting, two turnovers in 8 minutes.
He hit a 3-pointer for the second consecutive game, the first time in his career he has done that. He also committed a pair of silly turnovers. He did not flash much otherwise.
Grade: 3
Jaden Jones
Stats: 0 points on 0/1 shooting (0-of-2 free throws) in 7 minutes.
Jones was one of the Scarlet Knights impacted by the flu, with Pikiell saying he was “sick as could be” and hinting he did not practice this week.
Grade: N/A
Aundre Hyatt
Stats: One assist in 5 minutes.
Like Jones, Hyatt was one of the Scarlet Knights impacted by the flu, with Pikiell saying he was “sick as could be” and hinting he did not practice this week. He played in one five-minute spell and did not return to the floor.
Grade: N/A
Dean Reiber
Stats: 0 points, one block in 3 minutes.
He was forced into action with Omoruyi in foul trouble and Agee struggling to contain Purdue’s bigs. Reiber was completely overmatched against Edey, giving up back-to-back layups off of post-ups without putting up any resistance. He did not return after his rough initial shift, so he did not play long enough to be graded.
Grade: N/A
Luke Nathan
Stats: Two fouls in one minute.
With Omoruyi in foul trouble and neither Agee nor Reiber able to stop Edey by themselves, Pikiell threw out the former walk-on for his season debut. Nathan’s duties seemed simple: if the Scarlet Knights allow an entry pass into Edey, foul immediately. That’s exactly what happened on Purdue’s final two possessions of the first half, and Nathan hacked Edey immediately upon receiving the entry pass. Edey hit 3 of the 4 ensuing free throw attempts.
Grade: N/A
DNP: Geo Baker (non-COVID illness)
FINAL THOUGHTS:
Where does this win rank among Steve Pikiell-era victories?
The victory over Clemson that snapped a 38-year NCAA Tournament victory drought will not be topped in any month other than March or April. Likewise for the season-finale road wins over Purdue at Mackey Arena in 2020 and Minnesota at Williams Arena in 2021 that served as de-facto NCAA Tournament bid clinchers.
Outside of that? It’s tough to find a bigger victory for Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights. The two home wins over Seton Hall are significant in the way all rivalry victories are, but Rutgers has beaten the Pirates dozens of times; Thursday night’s win is in a class of its own as the first and only win over a top-ranked team in what was the program’s 10th attempt. Along with historic significance, it has the potential to be the turning point of what could be a memorable final three months of the season; if the Scarlet Knights somehow reach a back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the second time in program history, beating Purdue will be the biggest reason why.
What a call
Austin Johnson’s first season as the color analyst on Rutgers basketball’s official radio broadcast hit its signature moment nine games in, and the former Scarlet Knight met the moment. In a similar vein to Adam Morrison’s euphoric call of Jalen Suggs’ all-time game-winner for Gonzaga over UCLA in last season’s Final Four, Johnson let his emotions take over, turning back the clock and reacting as he would in his days battling on the court as a Scarlet Knight. The result was raw emotion fitting of the historic moment.
Hat tip to Jake Schmied of WRSU Sports, the University’s student radio station, for his clever call as well.
Rutgers is heating up from 3
Through six games, Rutgers was shooting 24.7% on 3-pointers. Only nine teams in the country were shooting worse.
Things have changed radically for the Scarlet Knights in that area over their last three games. After shooting 50% (7/14) against Purdue, Rutgers is now a combined 21-of-50 (42%) from the perimeter in that stretch. That ranks 34th nationally over the last two weeks. Harper leads the way by going 10/16 (62.5%) in that span, but Mag (3/4, 75%) and Palmquist (2/4, 50%) have contributed too.
Is it a blip or a sign of things to come? Whatever it is, it was instrumental in two of the Scarlet Knights’ last three wins.
Jersey Mike’s Arena is still a fortress
It was mentioned above, but the home-court advantage was vital for Rutgers in this victory. It continues a trend from the last season fans were allowed in the stands; the Scarlet Knights have won 10 of their last 11 Big Ten home games with a crowd present. The name has changed, but the RAC spirit remains alive and well in the Jersey Mike’s Arena era.
Does Rutgers own Purdue?
Thursday marked the Scarlet Knights’ fourth consecutive victory over the Boilermakers, but three of those were in Piscataway. If Rutgers wins for a second straight time at Mackey Arena in February, it has a legitimate claim as the Boilermakers’ modern boogeyman. For now at least, Purdue views Jersey Mike’s Arena the same way the rest of the conference views Mackey: a house of horrors.
Free throw watch
Rutgers went 13-of-18 from the line, a 72.2% clip. That drops the Scarlet Knights to 66.9% on the season, which would easily be their best finish under Pikiell but is far from the 70% mark they haven’t reached since the 2014 campaign.
Harper and McConnell went a combined 9-of-9 from the line, hitting six crucial attempts during Rutgers’ 23-11 run to close the game.
Tip tracker
Rutgers is now 7-2 on the opening tip this season. Eden, who is 7-foot-4, probably leads the nation in this category.
For our friends in the desert
Rutgers not only covered the 13-point spread, it earned moneyline betters a nice +700-or-so payout.
The Scarlet Knights are now 2-7 against the spread.
Next Up
The Scarlet Knights head 27.5 miles up the N.J. Turnpike to the Prudential Center, where they’ll meet in-state rival Seton Hall for the first time in two years. The Pirates, ranked No. 23 in this week’s AP Poll, welcome Rutgers after earning their own top-10 home win on Thursday, defeating No. 7 Texas in Newark.
There should be even more juice than normal for this one between the pent-up aggression following a year off and the potential postseason implications coming out of it; the game is Rutgers’ last chance at earning a non-conference road win, and for the Pirates, it would serve as another signature win in what is growing into a potential top-4 seed resumé.
Day After Rankings
KenPom: 93 (+3 spots last game; -26 from preseason ranking)
Bart Torvik: 107 (+9 spots from last game; -49 from preseason ranking).
Note: Using Bart Torvik’s date filter to remove preseason bias by beginning tracking on the day the college basketball season started (11/9), Rutgers is ranked 134th nationally in his adjusted efficiency rankings.
Season GPA through 9 games:
Ron Harper Jr.: 3.56
Paul Mulcahy: 3.06
Caleb McConnell: 3.06
Cliff Omoruyi: 3.5
Steve Pikiell: 3.16
Aundre Hyatt: 3.06 (8 graded appearances)
Jaden Jones: 3.06 (8 graded appearances)
Ralph Agee: 2.44 (8 graded appearances)
Mawot Mag: 3.3 (6 graded appearances)
Geo Baker: 3.5 (5 graded appearances)
Dean Reiber: 3 (2 graded appearances)
Oskar Palmquist: 3 (3 graded appearance)
Jalen Miller: 3.25 (2 graded appearance)
Luke Nathan: N/A
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Rutgers stuns No.1 Purdue, 70-68Rutgers pulled off the biggest upset in program history on Thursday night, toppling No. 1 Purdue, 70-68, in what was the Scarlet Knights’ first-ever win over the nation’s top team.In the short term, it made Rutgers the talk of college basketball for the night and turned what was becoming a lost…

Rutgers stuns No.1 Purdue, 70-68Rutgers pulled off the biggest upset in program history on Thursday night, toppling No. 1 Purdue, 70-68, in what was the Scarlet Knights’ first-ever win over the nation’s top team.In the short term, it made Rutgers the talk of college basketball for the night and turned what was becoming a lost…

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