College basketball is back this Friday and Rutgers opens their 31 game regular season at the RAC against Division II Molloy that evening. We will have lots to discuss this entire week leading up to the opener of the Steve Pikiell era. Today, Dave White and I review the various scenarios that could transpire this season. We could have dogged it in our full court sprints and just linked game recaps from last season for worst case scenario, because god help us if things could possibly be more dire than that. However, a new day where hope is alive and well is here for this season. Or at least until Thanksgiving, but hopefully longer. Let’s get serious and look at what could transpire this season, not necessarily our predictions, which will come out later this week.
Worst Case Scenario
The worst case scenario is a complete repeat of last year. The injuries weren’t due to conditioning, but because the players are fragile. After the first losing streak, the buy-in of Pikiell’s system goes haywire and team chemistry suffers. Rutgers lands at 8 or 9 wins with multiple blowouts and the hill to respectability is steeper than expected, despite Pikiel’s experience and his staff’s knowledge. Also, I spend the entire winter either weeping or in the fetal position.
Staying healthy and staying healthy are the keys to avoiding an all out worst case scenario. If Deshawn Freeman, Corey Sanders, or Nigel Johnson were to miss any significant time due to an injury, it will set this team back quite a bit. They are irreplaceable based on the roster this season. The three-point shooting could be worse than last season and instead of playing the type of disciplined defense Pikiell is asking for, the players are a step slow and there are rampant foul issues on a nightly basis. The backcourt gets worn down early in conference play and the big men don’t pick up any scoring slack. The Scarlet Knight mascot gets hurt during a halftime routine trying to dunk the basketball and takes out a cheerleader in the process, making it the top story on ESPN.com. It’s a nightmare all the way around and 7-9 wins result. No matter what happens, Pikiell is effusive in his praise of the fans, no matter how few show up in late February.
Best Case Scenario
If everyone stays healthy and all of a sudden some of the mediocre shooters get hot for an entire season, Rutgers could start making the RAC the RAC again. By mid-January after a few upsets, the student section is full and the building is loud. Rutgers knocks off a couple of teams at home and the court is formidable. Opposing teams start to fear playing at Rutgers again. The Scarlet Knights finish with 16 or 17 wins. Optimism reigns and Pikiell fills out his recruiting class with a talented player whom he beats out some solid teams for. I spend the spring raising funds to build a statue for the coach, which I dub Statue Pikiell.
Corey becomes the complete player we all hope he can be, Deshawn Freeman emerges as one of the best forwards in the conference, and Nigel Johnson completes a dynamic trio that averages 50-55 points combined per game. Issa Thiam and Candido Sa become reliable pieces, C.J. Gettys is solid and overcomes foul issues that have plagued him his entire career, and Eugene Omoruyi becomes the second coming of Draymond Green. Mike Williams shoots 40% from three-point range, Shaq Doorson finds a mean streak and becomes a rebounding machine, and Jonathan Laurent becomes a matchup problem on a nightly basis, giving opposing coaches nightmares.
Rutgers becomes one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the country and the story of the Big Ten this season. They grab 11-12 non-conference wins and 5-6 Big Ten wins. Pikiell wins the first conference tournament game in program history and they get an invite to the CBI, making expectations for year two sky high. The staff land a late, high ceiling point guard recruit to cement the future.
Most Realistic Scenario
Rutgers is better. They’re deeper, they’re bigger, they’re healthy and they’re probably better coached. Rutgers starts to figure out how they want to play during the easy part of their schedule, winning the games they should. The Big Ten is a beast however, and Rutgers struggles, though they are in nearly all their games. Fan interest is piqued. The Scarlet Knights finish with 3 or 4 Big Ten wins and 13 wins overall. I tweet about the season a lot.
The players have to earn everything from the coaching staff and if they want to be on the court, they have to conduct themselves the right way in everything they do. I also think they all want to win and are pretty supportive of one another. I see team chemistry being a strength this season and the players buying into becoming a good defensive team. That will keep them in most games and they become a nightly nuisance for every Big Ten opponent. Corey Sanders becomes a leader on the court and Deshawn Freeman blossoms, giving Rutgers a legitimate 1-2 punch. Freshman Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi flash their potential at times and make it obvious their future is bright. Nigel Johnson is steady and a good complement to Sanders, making them as fun a backcourt to watch as any in the Big Ten. Rutgers finishes with 12-14 wins and proves the program is on the rise under Pikiell. Rutgers avoids last place in the conference and fans appreciate the progress in year one.
One More Thing
Don’t be surprised if—best case, worst case, or realistically, Molloy hangs around for a while. Don’t be surprised if Rutgers loses a game they shouldn’t. That is not a sign that Pikiell is going to fail. It is a sign that this team is a work in progress. There are going to be bumps in the road and we won’t truly be able to analyze this team until at least 3 quarters of the way through the season—maybe even later than that. I grow a beard before the first Big Ten win.
Don’t underestimate the time it takes and the learning curve there will be for this team to learn how to win. I believe this team will be far more competitive this season, but their ability to finish off close games will be a process. There are a lot of players on this team that have never played at this level and winning in the Big Ten is not easy.
How the players perform in the last five minutes of games will determine the true identity of this team. We know Corey will want the ball in his hands late in games, but he will have players like Freeman and Johnson who can take the last shot too. Will this team box out at the end of games? Will they be better conditioned and not run out of gas, preventing turnovers and sloppy play that has plagued this program for years down the stretch? I believe they will show progress in this area, but it will take time for this team to learn. Be patient and have few expectations for this season. Any success will be that more enjoyable!