Paul Mulcahy can carry Rutgers basketball to new heights Politi

Paul Mulcahy is beginning to wonder: Is there something about his face?

It is, without exaggeration, the most mauled mug in college basketball, a magnet for opposing elbows and forearms and even the occasional knee. The Rutgers guard took another hard shot directly to the bridge of his nose on Thursday night that sent him flying into the basket stanchion at Jersey Mike’s Arena.

“It stayed together all right,” Mulcahy said, before playfully double checking with his fingertips. “I kind of expect it by now.”

That latest shot to his face and resulting flagrant foul sparked a 15-5 run that allowed the Scarlet Knights to pull away in a 64-50 victory over Maryland. For a player who only cares about one line in the box score — wins – another forehead welt was all in a good night’s work. Mulcahy can hide the bruises under his headband, after all.

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The Scarlet Knights turned a potential trap game into a routine victory, dominating the Terrapins with a smothering defense while doing just enough offensively. If the victory over No. 1 Purdue three nights earlier got the attention of the hoops world, this win confirmed that it better not look away. This Rutgers team is good.

And Mulcahy makes it go.

The senior from Bayonne was a perfect six-for-six from the floor against Maryland for a game-high 15 points, a performance that seemed like a continuation of his second half in the 65-64 upset of the top-ranked Boilermakers when he headed coach Steve Pikiell wisely made sure the ball was in his hands at all times down the stretch.

Rutgers won that game because of its defense against 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, but it was Mulcahy who created the shots — including guard Cam Spencer’s game-winning 3-pointer — after Purdue erased a double-digit lead. He was the calming presence at the hostile Mackey Arena when it seemed like everything might unravel.

“Paul does a lot of things for us,” Pikiell said. “Points get all the accolades, but, it’s all the stuff that you watch on the film that you love about Paul, and that’s why since he’s been here we’ve done nothing but win. It’s the winning part of him that I love.”

Perhaps it’s that part that makes him, uh, less lovable for opposing teams and their fan bases. Mulcahy cracked on a podcast recently that “a lot of people in the Big Ten don’t like me for reasons I don’t know,” but he has fully embraced the role of a college-basketball heel.

The constant hand clapping. The non-stop motor. Do an internet search on his name, and you’ll come up with social media tributes such as this: “I’d love to send Paul Mulcahy to a Russian prison.” In college hoops, vitriol is the ultimate compliment.

“Hey, I wouldn’t like me either if I was on another team,” Mulcahy said. “I get it, 100%. It comes with the headband, it comes with my persona. But people who know me, I think love me, and people who don’t know me — if they knew me, I think they’d love me.”

They’d love him because of his backstory that includes overcoming a house fire in 2015 that stole all of his possessions and briefly left his family homeless. But, mostly, they’d love him because he is, in Maryland head coach Kevin Willard’s estimation, “one of the better passers I’ve seen in college basketball in a long time.”

Willard recruited Mulcahy hard while he was at Seton Hall and believes the Scarlet Knights were transformed last season when he became the primary ball handler over Geo Baker. Rutgers defeated four straight ranked teams during one stretch to save the season and reach a second-straight NCAA Tournament.

It’s still early January, but the Scarlet Knights are starting to make a third straight trip feel like a forgone conclusion. They are 11-4 this season. Mulcahy missed two of the losses with a shoulder injury and the referees botched another. To say he is indispensable is an understatement.

“I’ve got to be aggressive,” Mulcahy said. “I’ve got to look to score more because it opens things up for my teammates. If teams are going to play me like a passer, it gives me room to do what I do, and I don’t think people respect my game enough.”

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The opposite, of course, is coming soon. Teams will have to gameplan to keep the ball out of Mulcahy’s hands as much as possible and see if his teammates can beat them. Pikiell said Rutgers has “an equal opportunity offense,” but if there’s one reason to be concerned in Piscataway, it’s that the Scarlet Knights still often look lost in the half court.

One player can change that. No Rutgers team has had a ceiling this high in decades, and if the Scarlet Knights are going to climb in the Big Ten standings and beyond, it’ll be Mulcahy who takes it there. He’s ready for his close up, bruised face and all.

MORE FROM STEVE POLITI:

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I was a bird-flipping Little League menace — and it’s time to come clean

The search for Luther Wright, once NJ’s greatest hoops talent

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Steve Politi can be reached at spoliti@njadvancemedia.com.

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