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OTB Staff Round Table: Hopes & Predictions For Rutgers Men’s Basketball

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

What are you most excited about with this team heading into the season?

Bob Cancro: The coaching. While I will readily admit that I am not following hoops as closely as I should or as I do football, there has just been so much written about Pikiell and his staff that is positive and uplifting. Previous coaches, going back to Bannon and Rice and even Craig Littlepage, each seemed to have a fatal flaw of one sort or another. And while we haven’t seen Pikiell coach a game yet, we have heard him speak about his coaching and his team. I haven’t seen too many - if any - flaws. Coaching is the new X factor.

David Anderson: Interior defense. What made this team unwatchable last year was the fact that opponents would simply drive the ball at the basket with virtually no resistance. Having healthy, simply large human beings should help at minimum. Candido Sa will block shots right away and if either Shaq Doorson or Ibrahima Diallo can also learn to do the same, it will be a paint patrol for sure. There is also confidence in Deshawn Freeman and C.J. Gettys pulling down rebounds better than anyone available down the stretch last season. Coach Pikiell said he would start his best rebounder on media day which indicates to me a commitment Eddie Jordan admitted to not having. When Rutgers basketball is Rutgers basketball, it’s "Swede" Sundstrom, James Bailey, Roy Hinson, Keith Hughes, Rashod Kent, Herve Lamizana, Hamady N'Diaye, etc. providing rebounds, blocks, and intimidation down low.

Griffin Whitmer: I am most excited for the duo of Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson. We all know how good Corey Sanders, but Nigel Johnson is really good and spent all of last season sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules. The two have great chemistry and are probably the most athletic backcourt in the conference. Of course the intangibles need work, but if a team is rebuilding, you’d want them to be exciting, and these two are definitely exciting.

Dave White: Seeing real basketball again. I know it’s just me, but I love defense—especially in college hoops. I love when a team pounds the floor and gets in their head that NO, they will not score on us. That was missing for the past three years, and while there were moments of pretty offense play—both the talent and the IQ weren’t developed. That should change under Pikiell, and though the team may not be great yet, seeing real basketball will be hope and promise going forward.

Matthew Pisani: I cannot wait to see what Corey Sanders can bring to the table this year. I was substituting all the way up in Bristol, CT this past week and a student noticed my Rutgers lanyard. He asked if I went there, I said yes. He and his friend’s face light up and they exclaim that Corey Sanders is incredible and he will be putting on a show this year and possibly into the NBA. I want to see Sanders lead this team to a Big Ten win and I want Sanders to get noticed enough to get drafted eventually. Corey Sanders all day long, and, I know, it is cliche. Have you seen this kid ball?

Jim Hoffman: I think they have a coaching staff that know how to coach college kids. Eddie Jordan, while he loved RU, treated them as pros, and they showed all of the worst of the NBA last season. Pikiell is a teacher first, coach second. I have watched him when he coached at Stony Brook when they played UAlbany in my neighborhood, and he is a great bench coach, and never stops working. I am excited to see how much in terms of defensive skills they have gained from the staff. Finally, seeing Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson working together has the potential to be really special.

Aaron Breitman: I’m most excited to watch team basketball. I think the chemistry is much better and the coaches are preaching team first in every action on the court. Each player has a much better understanding of their individual responsibilities on the court and how that affects the entire unit on the floor. Defensive shifts, ball movement, where to be in transition are all things that have been lacking in the past. We will see a lot of players in the rotation with multiple lineup combinations and different defensive looks. The best part of team basketball is we will see Steve Pikiell and the assistants really coach this team. The more experience this team gets playing together, the better I think they will be.

Which newcomer are you looking forward to watching the most & which will have the biggest impact?

David Anderson: Issa Thiam is for sure who I am most looking forward to watching. The way college basketball have evolved, it is about skill more than athleticism hence why mid-majors and smaller schools can consistently beat Power 5 schools. The last time Rutgers really had a tall guy who could shoot was ... Rob Hodgson? Rutgers has had a lot of solid post players but most of them have been shot blockers or bangers inside, but not a tall guy who could stretch the defense. I agree with Aaron, Nigel Johnson will have the biggest impact because the team lacks guard depth, but he’s less of an unknown than Thiam.

Griffin Whitmer: Candido Sa will bring instant defense and attitude to the team. He led JUCO in blocks last year, and is also an incredibly scary looking dude. He brings a presence in the paint that we haven’t seen since Hamady N’Diaye. When I met Steve Pikiell a few months ago, he seemed genuinely surprised he choose Rutgers over Texas, which is a good thing. Sa has lots raw talent and if Jameel Warney is any indication, Pikiell knows how to coach big men.

Dave White: The other thing I love about college hoops are shooters. So reports on Issa Thiam being a light em up from the outside scorer should be fun to watch develop. I want to see if he can do it when the lights go on. That said, I’m most excited about Nigel Johnson. He will bring experience to this roster and add a compliment to Corey Sanders that we haven’t seen on the banks in a long time. When Sanders and Johnson get out on the break? Watch out, that’s going to be—I hope—highlight city.

Matthew Pisani: I am not going with a player here. I am going with Coach Pikiell. I am excited to watch him in close games and in blowouts. I am excited to see what kind of plays he can draw up and how he uses his scorers. I am excited to see the energy and leadership he can bring to this program. His impact on this program could be enormous. If Pikiell can be the great coach that Rutgers hired him to be, he could go down in history here at Rutgers for turning this program around.

Jim Hoffman: Just due to his size, I’m looking forward to see the impact of C.J. Gettys in the paint this season. He’s a one-year only player, and I want to see if his size will translate to power inside.

Aaron Breitman: Candido Sa, Issa Thiam, and Eugene Omoruyi all excite me and will make this team far more interesting than last season. That being said, Nigel Johnson excites me the most. His ability to shoulder some of the load in the backcourt will be so important. He will take some pressure off Corey Sanders and their ability to compliment each other will be a great addition to this team. Simply put, adding Johnson makes this team more dynamic and gives opponents another slashing, athletic guard to be concerned with. Also, down the stretch of games his veteran experience should benefit the team. Having led Kansas State to victories over highly ranked teams like Kansas and Iowa State means he won’t blink when Rutgers is trying to close out games. That type of presence is a major need for this team and why I expect him to be on the floor at the end, regardless of whether he starts or not.

What would constitute a successful season in your opinion?

Bob Cancro: While you aren’t playing the Little Sisters of the Poor in the non-con schedule, you also aren’t playing every top tier mid-major either. Looking at that schedule, I could see them going 9-4 and maybe a tad better. A win over Seton Hall cures a lot of ills, too. Less than that and I think I’m doing a lot of wincing and grimacing. In conference (deep sigh), if we get three wins I’m okay. That is very do-able (he said with great confidence). Four, five, or six wins and Pikiell gets Coach of the Year.

David Anderson: Five wins got Terry Shea a Big East Football Coach of the Year! That ended poorly, but I have much more confidence in this basketball staff long term. Win more than half the non-conference games and at least 4 Big Ten games. That would be more than the total from the first two years combined. In football, progress can be seen even in defeat, but in hoops, you have to win games. And you have to beat TTPN. With two games against them, you have to beat up on one of the league’s bottom feeders for many years at least one time. As Chris Mad Dog Russo would say, “Not twenty, just one lousy time!”

Griffin Whitmer: 39-0 and a National Championship or else Steve Pikiell needs to be fired. Just Kidding. I see 12-15 wins on their schedule, which is pretty easy in my eyes. Their non-conference slate has double digit wins itself. However, Rutgers is historically not good in non-conference games that they should win. I think if this team gets to 12 wins and wins multiple Big Ten games, the season will be a success. Realistically, though, I just want to see a team that plays hard in every game and plays defense and rebounds. The little things.

Dave White: This is an easy question and a tough question, because expectations change as a season goes on. But again, seeing real basketball and solid defense will help. It will lead to closer games and reasons to stay in your seat until the final horn. That’s all I really want this year, an upset, winning the games you should, and close battles. I want to cheer, scream, and see signs that Pikiell is the right guy going forward.

Matthew Pisani: A successful season for me would to not be embarrassed and nearly shut out by the Big Ten. That late-season victory against Minnesota did not cut it for me. If Rutgers can string together 3-5 wins in conference I would be very pleased. Coach Pikiell seems like a good coach, but so did Eddie Jordan. If Pikiell can actually coach and Sanders balls the way we all know he can, those 3-5 wins could easily be more. But, for a first year head coach, especially one that has not coached in a Power Five Conference before, getting five conference wins is a good start. If Rutgers can start to compete in a very difficult and competitive Big Ten, it will be a sign of better days to come.

Jim Hoffman: Maybe I have had my expectations lowered after watching the first two seasons in the conference, but I’m looking for close games. I’m tired of blowouts where there is nothing positive to see on the court, and you leave discouraged and feeling helpless. I would be thrilled with a .500 season this year, but don’t expect it. I’m thinking if they can go 10 wins in the non-con games, and pull off four wins in the B1G, I would be very happy. Anything in that area would be a great first year Steve Pikiel and company.

Aaron Breitman: Winning games against non-conference opponents that they should beat. Challenging better teams consistently because of their defensive play and toughness. Seeing the players embrace how the coaching staff wants them to play as a team. Watching Pikiell make savvy in-game adjustments and strategize per opponent. Seeing this team play with their heart on their sleeve and giving tremendous effort, night in and night out. These are key aspects of the foundation Pikiell is trying to set for the program and culture he wants to establish. If those all translate on the floor this season, the future looks bright, regardless of how many wins result.

What is your prediction for the season?

Bob Cancro: What I’d like to see and what I think we’ll see are a bit different. I think we could go (brace yourself, Dave) 13-18, 4-14 B1G. End of the day, reality check and all: 11-20, 3-15 B1G

David Anderson: Pain. ... Just kidding. Mr. T’s prediction from Rocky III is what Scarlet Knights fans have experienced since Quincy Douby left for the NBA, but this year energy begins to return to the RAC. 10-21, 3-15 B1G with a sneaky B1G tournament win to show how the program has improved over the course of the season.

Griffin Whitmer: My answer to the previous question should describe my feelings about the schedule. I think they have one big upset in them and play teams a lot tougher than last year. 13-18, 3-15 B1G.

Dave White: I fully expect to see 12 wins. 9-4 in the OOC (but 10-3 is possible) and 3-15 in the Big Ten. This isn’t a good team yet. It’s a better team, but not a good one. And somehow 12 wins is going to show us that the future is bright. If this team somehow gets to 15 wins…wow. 12-19, 3-15 B1G.

Matthew Pisani: Going through the schedule I count 12 wins and 19 losses and going 3-15 in the Big Ten. That Big Ten number could go up as seen in my comments above, but I do not see the win total overall going much higher than 12. If one of the Big Ten wins ends up being against one of the several ranked teams, that would be even better. This team will still not be that good, but I believe they will look like a better team and keep more games closer than last year’s team did.

Jim Hoffman: Honestly, I think they can go as much as 14-17 overall, and 4-14 in the conference. If they do better than that, I’ll be glad to have everyone call me a Debbie Downer for not believing in the team. I see them having three winnable conference games, and I’m going out on a limb and say they will pull a surprise upset at some point this season. I think they will be a big improvement over last year’s squad, but they are still not ready to compete against the cream of the conference.

Aaron Breitman: I’m an eternal optimist, but I also believe the foundation is in place for this team to double their win total from last season. Coaching is the biggest reason why I believe it can happen. This team is far better conditioned and prepared for this season. They will be managed strategically per the opponent they are playing and there is no doubt this team has talented pieces. I think the renewed focus on defense and rebounding will keep this team in games they were finished in by halftime a year ago. I think there will be a lot of grinding on the court and that will lead to them winning a couple of games no one expected them to. I believe! 14-17 overall; 4-14 Big Ten

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