After a long eight months of waiting, the start of the new basketball season is here. Rutgers has a busy first week, hosting Rutgers-Newark and Howard before taking on St. John's in a key early season game. Eddie Jordan and his program have already faced adversity before the season has begun. Yesterday, it was announced that Corey Sanders was suspended by Rutgers for Friday's opener after self-reporting his participation in an unsanctioned summer league game. It's a technicality that the NCAA should re-examine long term, but ultimately it just means Sanders will have to wait until Sunday to make his collegiate debut.
Also yesterday, backup center Shaq Doorson was declared out indefinitely with a foot injury. It's a big blow to the frontcourt depth of this team. Add in Kwe Parker decommitting last week and Eddie Jordan has already had a difficult month of November. Sports Illustrated picked this team the worst power 5 school in the country and the program lost their final 15 games of last season. However, there are players to be excited about, like Sanders and Deshawn Freeman, and Eddie's vision is now on full display. A new offense has been implemented and this team has more talent than any team during Eddie's tenure. Progress is the theme of this season. Here are eight questions previewing the team ahead of Friday's opener against Rutgers-Newark.
What type of player rotation/distribution of minutes should be expected the first half of the season?
Aaron: I expect the starting five to be Corey Sanders at the point, Bishop Daniels at the 2, with Deshawn Freeman and Greg Lewis upfront. The 3rd guard/wing spot could be any of the following players: Mike Williams, Omari Grier, D.J. Foreman and Jonathan Laurent. It will be interesting to see what Eddie Jordan decides as it could be a game by game match-up decision by opponent. Foreman will play big minutes regardless due to his ability to play on the wing or down low. Add in Ibrahima Diallo up front and I think those nine players will make up the rotation. Shaq Doorson is out indefinitely so Diallo needs to contribute right away. Justin Goode has potential shooting from long range, but I expect him to be the last man off the bench this season.
Dave: I think the opening game is going to be very interesting to watch, in the wake of Corey Sanders' "suspension" and Shaquille Doorson's injury. You will likely get a sense of who will back up Sanders when he gets a breather. Both Bishop Daniels and Mike Williams will get time at the point, which means Omari Grier and Justin Goode will play a lot. It shouldn't matter against Rutgers-Newark, but it will be interesting to watch Eddie Jordan's strategy and one that might portend depth answers down the road. I expect the starting line up to be Sanders, Daniels, DJ Foreman, Deshawn Freeman and Greg Lewis most nights. But don't be surprised if Grier forces his way into the starting line-up as a wing going forward. He'll probably start at 2 guard Friday (Dave guesses).
What type of scoring distribution can be expected from the roster?
Aaron: Eddie Jordan indicated during media day that he thought up to nine players could each average between 8-10 points a game. That's not likely to happen, but I do think the scoring will be much more balanced then last year. I think Daniels will lead the backcourt in scoring with 12-14 points a game, with Grier and Williams in the 8-10 points a game range. Freeman should lead the frontcourt, as he was an established scorer at the JUCO level last season. How much he scores will be a key to this team, my conservative guess is 10-12 points a game with potential for more. Foreman could average in the same range, as Eddie has preached him to be aggressive and attack the rim. A big factor in the overall success of the team will be who establishes themselves as the go-to scorers down the stretch of games. My guess is they come from this group.
Dave: I think scoring is going to be balanced. Look for no one to really dominate the scoring statistically, but on any given night a guy can put up 15. Sanders and Daniels will probably average double digits, as will Freeman. If Goode, Williams or Grier are hot from the three point land, they could have big nights, but I don't expect it consistently. If this team can shoot, scoring will be wonderful to watch, but it will be balanced.
What area do you expect Rutgers to improve on the most from last season?
Aaron: Scoring. The team averaged 59.3 points a game last season, which put them tied for 335th out of 351 Division I basketball teams. It was the Mack and Jack show and that was it. With Daniels, Grier, Williams, Freeman and Foreman leading the way, any of them have the potential to get hot on any given night.
Dave: Scoring and mayhem. Last year's team worked best when Myles Mack was on and when he was on the bench, the team pressed. Now that Mack is gone, I expect a lot more pressing and forced turnovers. That happens, and Rutgers will put up points and the games will be wonderfully full of mayhem on the court. The kind of mayhem that gets the RAC to rock.
Who is the most indispensable player on this team?
Aaron: Corey Sanders for the simple reason he is the only true point guard on this team. Heck, he is the first true point guard the program has had in over a decade. We know he is a bit raw and will make mistakes, but his talent is undeniable. In addition, his energy and fearlessness has the potential to inspire this team to greater heights. There is no replacement or true backup for him, and his development is the biggest key to the season. Sanders ability to stay healthy through the entire season is of utmost importance.
Dave: Sanders and Freeman. The more these two build chemistry, the better the team will be.
What is the biggest weakness of this team at the start of the season?
Aaron: Depth. Rutgers will only have eleven scholarship players available this season, as Nigel Johnson is sitting out his transfer year Corey Sanders is the only true point guard on the roster. Jonathan Laurent is the only true wing on the roster. Now Doorson is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Having only ten scholarship players for a significant portion of the season is not ideal. This team must stay healthy or it could get ugly quick.
Dave: Youth. And I don't just mean freshmen, I mean new faces. This team is going to take time to gel, and I bet it leads to a frustrating loss or two early. Especially since Corey will miss game one and won't have time to get his feet wet. But as they gel, look for the team to get better.
How concerned should we be about the 2016 recruiting class?
Aaron: It's a concern there isn't a player committed yet and obviously losing Kwe Parker was a big loss. However, it's not panic time yet. Remember, Eddie and the staff only had Corey Sanders signed at this point last season. If wasn't until after last season in the spring that Rutgers signed Deshawn Freeman and Jonathan Laurent. And that was AFTER the 15 game losing streak to end last season. Imagine what the staff could do with significant progress made this season!
Dave: Kwe Parker's de-commitment was stunning and worrisome. Rutgers needs some good news on the recruiting front soon, at least to start building momentum. You don't want to go into the spring without anyone coming and signed. There are targets out there, but Rutgers needs to close on one or two. It's time for the SHOEEEEEESS factor to come into play.
Define the results needed this season that would mark progress has been made?
Aaron: I think 10 wins without any bad losses in the non-conference schedule would be a tangible mark that progress is being made. The last time Rutgers won 10 games before conference play began was during their last winning season a decade ago. Even that team lost to Buffalo, so avoiding a bad loss is key. The slate of thirteen games is challenging but there isn't likely to be a ranked team among them. Once Rutgers gets into Big Ten action, all bets are off but being in more games and topping the 2 wins from a season ago would be a mark of more progress.
Dave: No WTF losses (even though I expect one) and few blowouts. If this team can get to 14 wins and win more than 3 games in the Big Ten, the future will look bright.
Do you think Rutgers will prove the doubters wrong and if so, to what degree?
Aaron: Expectations are as low as possible and I think this team is capable of better. How much better will come down to the development of Sanders, how quickly the team comes together and the overall health of the team. With six new players highlighted by Sanders and Freeman, expected improvement from Foreman and Williams, along with the senior leadership of Lewis, Daniels and Grier, this team should be a more complete team. I think playing a faster paced offense and Eddie encouraging the shooters to be aggressive will make them more efficient on offense. If they can combine that with solid defense, they will be a tough out even during conference play.
Dave: I don't think they're the worst P5 team in the nation and I think they'll be better than last year. The question is, I don't know how much better. We'll see.