After a week in which Rutgers men’s basketball solidified its roster with Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. confirming their return, as well as SJSU transfer Ralph Agee announcing his arrival, it’s time to take a hard look at expectations for next season. It’s been an offseason with many questions but as the dog days of summer approach, there are now some answers to provide clarity on what this team could be next season.
(scholarship players only)
Guards: Geo Baker (6’4”), Paul Mulcahy (6’6”), Caleb McConnell (6’7”), Jaden Jones (6’8”), Jalen Miller (6’3”)
Forwards: Ron Harper Jr. (6’6”), Aundre Hyatt (6’6”), Mawot Mag (6’7”), Oskar Palmquist (6”8”)
Centers: Cliff Omoruyi (6’11”), Ralph Agee (6’8”), Dean Reiber (6’10”), Luke Nathan (6’11”)
The truth is that this roster is hard to separate into traditional categories. The size of the roster that head coach Steve Pikiell has assembled is impressive and signals a distinct strategy in how he wants to play. As I wrote earlier this offseason, the shift to positionless basketball is in full effect with how this team has been built. Lineup versatility and rotational flexibility is what Pikiell wants. Does he now have it?
With eleven of thirteen scholarship players standing 6’6” or taller. Rutgers will cause matchup problems for a lot of teams because of their overall size and make them harder to game plan against. Most of the roster can play and defend multiple positions. That will give Pikiell the ability to respond to game situations or specific matchups with many different potential solutions. Where a player is positioned on the offensive end isn’t necessarily going to be the same position they defend on the other end of the floor as well.
While Rutgers will look somewhat traditional in the starting lineup with the 6’4” Baker at the 1 and 6’11” Omoruyi at the 5, how Pikiell utilizes lineup combinations throughout the game will be fascinating to watch. Could we see a backcourt at the same time on the floor with the 6’6” Mulcahy, 6’7” McConnell and 6’8” Jones? Will he overload on the blocks at times by having Dean Reiber at 6’10” play next to Omoruyi for a stretch depending on the matchup? Or even pair the 6”8” Agee, who is a natural center, next to Omoruyi? Not necessarily, but that option and others would be possible if Pikiell wanted to experiment or mix in different looks based on situations.
An immediate positive with the roster additions is that Ron Harper Jr. will no longer be solely relied upon to play the 4 like he was last year. Expect LSU transfer Aundre Hyatt to play more in that role in an attempt to channel the way Akwasi Yeboah played two seasons ago, which he is suited for. When Harper Jr. is at his best, it’s attacking the rim from the perimeter and finding space to knockdown three’s. There was a push and pull at times last season when he appeared constrained by his role and shifting to the 3 is a more natural fit. That’s also where his pro future lies, so being able to predominantly play there this season will make him more comfortable and plays to his strengths. He’s also a better rebounder as a 3 than 4.
The experience of the roster is a strength as well. While the losses of key contributors from last year’s team in Myles Johnson, Jacob Young and Montez Mathis are significant, there are still five players that remain from the core rotation. Baker, Harper Jr., McConnell and Mulcahy have all been in the program multiple years and know what it takes to win now. They’ve taken Rutgers from the bottom of the Big Ten to respected winner on a national level, culminating in winning the program’s first NCAA Tournament game in 38 years. In addition, enduring last season during COVID-19 in isolation and playing without fans have only made them more battle tested. The leadership that Baker and Harper Jr. bring to this team is irreplaceable, but having proven contributors in Mulcahy and McConnell behind them is invaluable as well.
Omoruyi had an up and down debut last season, but his potential is immense and he now understands to what to expect playing at the Big Ten level. His training this offseason included impressing at training camp for the Nigeria men’s basketball team. Although he didn’t make the cut, head coach Mike Brown raved about him and his squad with six NBA players just defeated Team USA this past weekend in a pre-Olympics exhibition. Omoruyi’s development might be the biggest key to the season and having those four veterans around him should only help him take a step forward.
Landing Hyatt and Agee from the transfer portal also adds significant experience to the roster. Hyatt was a key contributor to an LSU team that made the Round of 32 last March, while Agee has had a journeyman career that saw him average double figures in scoring last season. He will look to get the most out of his last season in college basketball.
Rutgers will be different next season without Johnson, Young and Mathis, but they have a stable core that has been reinforced with those two veteran transfers. The other two players I expect to begin the season in the main rotation are Mawot Mag and Jaden Jones. The pair were teammates at Prolific Prep in California, which was the top ranked high school team in the country during their time there. While neither are proven at the college level, they’ve had time to marinate in the Rutgers culture this past year and are primed to play important roles off the bench this season. The sky is the limit for Jones and I think he has the most natural talent of anyone on the roster. He could develop into an offensive weapon unlike anything Rutgers has had under Pikiell. Mag is a hard nosed player that can defend multiple positions and can run the floor well in transition, making him an ideal replacement for Mathis.
A major question mark is what this team can expect from the rest of the roster. If Reiber can develop into a reliable big off the bench at times when foul trouble is an issue for Omoruyi and Agee, it would be a big plus. He plays hard and was fearless taking on some of the top trees in the Big Ten last season. Solid defense and rebounding when he is called upon would make him a plus player next season. Palmquist is probably the purest shooter on the roster and could be dangerous along the perimeter with his size. How he adjusts to the physicality of the league and holds up defensively will likely determine his impact. Miller has a bright future and is the most natural point guard that Pikiell has had at Rutgers. He won’t need to be rushed into action this season, but it’s possible his handle and pass first mentality help carve out a bigger role as the winter progresses.
Aside from how deep this roster actually is, how strong team chemistry is and how accepting each player is of their respective roles will be major keys as well. Replacing three multi-year players from the program with two transfers and a young nucleus could result in a better dynamic and flow on the court, but that needs to be cultivated. There is a clear hierarchy on the roster but comprised of veterans willing to serve as mentors to strengthen the future of the program. The return of Baker and Harper Jr. doesn’t just benefit next season, but also the long term development of the younger players.
Shooting will always be a concern until this team proves otherwise.
While Rutgers did improve from two-point range last season, making 51.7% from inside the arc, finishing around the rim is still an area they need to get better in. Three-point shooting has been a struggle and 31.2% last season isn’t good enough.
Too many times they began games 0 for 5 or 6 and fell into a deficit. Establishing better rhythm and more capable shooters this season is a must. In this day and age, being below average from behind the arc is a difficult deficiency to overcome late in the season. Baker, Harper Jr., Mulcahy, Hyatt, Jones, and Palmquist will collectively have the opportunity to change the narrative.
Of course, the inability to shoot well from the foul line has been an issue throughout the Pikiell era with RU finishing 331st nationally at 63.6% last season. As far as career numbers indicate, replacing Johnson (39.7%) with Agee (61.8%) will help, as will the addition of Hyatt (75.0%). Another key is getting Harper Jr. (71.2%), Baker (76.2%) and McConnell (79.3%) to the charity stripe more often.
Will the offensive style of this team be different? Mulcahy will have the ball more next season along with Baker. Better ball movement and spacing is crucial to the offense taking a step forward this coming season. Without Young, the team’s best penetrator in years, the way Rutgers creates scoring opportunities will rely more on the extra pass than the extra dribble. That could make them harder to defend, but at the end of the day they need to make shots.
Establishing reliable secondary scorers behind Harper Jr. and Baker is essential. Can Mulcahy continue to grow as offensive producer? Will McConnell be more consistent with his own production? Can Hyatt have the most productive offensive season of his career? Will Cliff and Agee give Rutgers reliable low post scoring? Overall, can the bench give this team a lift at times and at worst hold steady during stretches in Big Ten play? These are all key questions for next season.
Of course, two key areas that have been the identity of the program under Pikiell is defense and rebounding. Rutgers was inconsistent with both last season and how they evolve in those areas will be a major factor for how far this team can ultimately go.
Replacing an elite rim defender and rebounder in Myles Johnson, as well as excellent on the ball defenders in Mathis and Young will not be easy. However, the improved size and versatility of the roster will allow Pikiell to throw different looks and matchups at opponents. Omoruyi, Hyatt and Mag are three players that have the potential to be big contributors on the defensive end this coming season. Ultimately, players learning their defensive responsibilities and focusing on team defense is crucial to Rutgers’ success.
The Scarlet Knights saw its season end because Houston was an elite and relentless rebounding team thatwore them down in the round of 32 matchup last March. Expect a renewed focus in this area and continued all hands on deck approach when it comes to rebounding. The same three players in Omoruyi, Hyatt and Mag, as well as Agee are key in improving in this area. McConnell and Harper Jr. have always made Rutgers harder to beat when both are crashing the boards on the regular.
At the end of the day, the ultimate driver towards success for this team will be its motivation. After having the most successful season in 38 years end with a stomach punch loss, the veterans returning will push the will of this year’s team. Steve Pikiell’s teams have always seemed more comfortable as the underdog and having a calling card to hold up as a sign of disrespect. There has been little talk this offseason about Rutgers and despite changes, the roster is still mostly comprised of players passed over or not given much attention in their careers. Its own fan base has already doubted the 2020 recruiting class after they didn’t make an impact last season. This team will be hungry to build on last season’s success and exceed it this season. Whether they actually do will come down to all the factors discussed above.
How the rest of the Big Ten shakes out will be a factor as well. The only three teams to post winning records in Big Ten play the previous two regular seasons were Illinois (29-11), Iowa (25-15) & Ohio State (23-17). Only three other teams avoided a losing season over that same two year span in Michigan (24-13), Wisconsin (24-16) & Rutgers (21-19). Michigan and Ohio State are loaded once again, but on paper Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin look likely to take at least a step back this coming season, possibly more. Purdue might just be the favorite to win the league after another top half finish last season. Maryland has added some top talent but have lost key contributors from last season in Darryl Morsell and Aaron Wiggins. Michigan State was down last season and could be improved this year, although they still don’t appear to be near their usual elite level.
The point is there is reason for optimism in weighing the outlook for Rutgers next season. They’re returning two all-conference players in Harper Jr. and Baker, including its leading scorer and most proven playmaker, as well as the top three-point shooter and best passer in Mulcahy. They return the ultimate glue guy in McConnell, its best athlete and former top 50 recruit at center in Omoruyi while adding a starter from another high major team that made the second round of the NCAA’s in Hyatt. They added one of the most efficient low post scorers in the country in Agee, as well have two young and versatile players in Mag and Jones.
This team will be hard to put in a box based on the athleticism, size and versatility of the roster. They need to improve in certain areas to maintain and build on success, but underestimating certain players to have the potential to make another jump this season would be a mistake. Harper Jr. and Mulcahy has improved every season. Baker and McConnell could have their best seasons if they can stay healthy. Omoruyi is just scratching the surface, as is Jones. There are a certain amount of unknowns with this team, but also far more that we do know.
Expectations should remain high and anything less than another top half of the conference finish and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment. As much as people are concerned with who Rutgers lost after last season, remember that different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. They will be different, but the potential to be better certainly exists. Pikiell’s long term vision for what he ultimately wants this team to be is closer to becoming a reality than ever before. That should give fans a reason for optimism above all else.