The Rutgers men's basketball team hasn't given fans much to be excited or happy about this season. They are winless in their first 8 Big Ten games this season. They are currently mired in a 23 game conference losing streak, dating back to last season. It's likely this team will have the fewest wins for the program since the mid-eighties during the Craig Littlepage days. Loyal Son Eddie Jordan, one of the heroes of the greatest Rutgers team ever with the 1976 Final Four squad, has led his team to the worst home loss in program history. Rutgers is currently #270th out of 351 Division I teams in the KenPom rankings, 74 spots worse than fellow Big Ten bottom feeder Minnesota.
However, there is one reason for Rutgers fans to have hope, and his name is Corey Sanders. The dynamic freshman point guard has been a shining light in an otherwise dark and dreary season. Two 5-star freshmen came to the Big Ten with the most hype, Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and Maryland's Diamond Stone. Sanders came to the conference with his YouTube fame but wasn't thought of in the same class as the more highly rated freshmen. Sanders has proven he belongs among the top of the freshman class in the Big Ten. His 14.1 points per game average is tops for all Big Ten freshman and 12th in the conference overall. He also ranks 12th in assists with 3.7 per game, and ranks behind only Ohio State's JaQuan Lyle for conference freshmen. Sanders leads the entire Big Ten in steals with 1.7 per game. This scouting report comparison highlights that Sanders is posting similar numbers during his freshman season as top Big Ten point guards Yogi Ferrell and Melo Trimble. He has won Big Ten Freshman Player of the Week once so far this season.
Sanders plays with a swagger and flair that is desperately needed on this team. He has unlimited confidence and has never quit at the end of games. Sanders has a quick first step, drives strong to the basket and displays good body control in traffic. He has shown the ability to catch fire from long range, having several games with three or more makes from behind the arc. He plays with a high motor and can drive and dish to open teammates at will. He has a killer cross over move, has great ball handling skills, can create his own shot from anywhere on the court, and has tremendous leaping ability. It's far too early in his career to say for sure, but Sanders is well on his way to being the best point guard at Rutgers since "fast" Eddie Jordan.
There are areas of his game that Sanders needs to improve upon before truly being an elite player. He needs to work on his shot selection, especially contested shots from three-point range. Sanders rushes shots at times, most likely a product of trying to do too much on his own. He averages three turnovers a game, resulting in a solid but unspectacular 1.23 assist to turnover ratio. While he leads the conference in steals, he gambles too much at times and sometimes takes possessions off on defense. Obviously, Sanders has had to carry a heavy burden this season and these issues are part of his development process.
The concern is Sanders could develop bad habits, playing on an undermanned squad enduring a long losing streak. However, all signs point to the opposite with Sanders, who has said all the right things and had taken criticism and tough love from Jordan positively. After being benched for two straight games earlier this month, Sanders didn't mope or complain in public. He kept grinding, and with his recent play, seems to have learned and improved from the experience.
Corey Sanders said he thinks he earned his starting spot back tonight and received the message sent by Eddie Jordan.— Sam Hellman (@SamHellmanScout) January 7, 2016
He is demonstrating his ability to lead this program long term, both on the court....
And in what Sanders says after losses, including this after the 50 point loss to Purdue....
Rutgers G Corey Sanders says "I came in here to build a program and turn it around and it’s not going to happen in one year."— Sam Hellman (@SamHellmanScout) January 19, 2016
A player with lesser character would not have been able to convey the big picture after an emotionally draining loss.
In today's article from Jerry Carino:
After the Rutgers men’s basketball team lost by 11 at Michigan Wednesday, the first postgame words came not from a coach or a captain, but from a freshman.
Not just any freshman. The franchise freshman: Corey Sanders.
"He came into the locker room and said, ‘Guys, we’re getting better,’" head coach Eddie Jordan said. "It was the first voice we heard. He said, ‘Keep getting better. I love playing with you guys.’ That was good to hear.’"
"I asked him, ‘Is this too many minutes for you?’" Jordan said. "He said, ‘No, this is what I live for, coach.’ He’s embracing it."
Sanders is a highlight machine and relentless player on the court, but appears to be emerging as a true leader for the program as well. Rutgers has had a rough history with their star players leaving the program when things got tough. Myles Mack proved different, electing to stay through the Mike Rice scandal and leading the program with dignity. Sanders appears to be following in Mack's footsteps, which is a big reason for Rutgers fans to have hope in the future. His ability and will to win are reasons to believe the sky is the limit for Sanders in his career. In a season to forget for Rutgers fans, Sanders is the biggest reason to be hopeful for the future.
Here are the many highlights that Sanders has provided so far this season. If Sanders continues on his current trajectory, there are many, many more to come.