clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Rutgers Basketball: Lineup Versatility Will Be An Asset This Season

New, 7 comments
NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Nebraska vs Rutgers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There were a lot of reasons the Rutgers men’s basketball team went 7-25 last season. Inefficient offense spurred by low percentage shots, terrible defense resulting from a lack of discipline and effort, as well as a lack of in-game adjustments helped sink this team to a level far worse than just bad. Statistically, they were one of the worst power five conference teams in college basketball history. However, one major factor that affected the overall results was the fact that so many players were forced to play out of position due to roster attrition.

Rutgers saw 7’0” center Shaq Doorson, 6’11 center Ibrahima Diallo, and 6’7” Deshawn Freeman miss the majority of last season due to injuries. The fact that the team only started the season with 11 scholarship players was a major issue and it was exacerbated when those players were not able to suit up most of the year. It was a recipe for disaster and that’s exactly what we witnessed last season.

There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful that Rutgers will be much improved this season. New head coach Steve Pikiell is a proven program builder and simply put, a winning coach. He has surrounded himself with a tremendous coaching staff that includes Karl Hobbs, Jay Young, and Brandin Knight, all of whom have experienced great success with other programs. They’ve upgraded the roster significantly from last season, in addition to all the in-house improvements made with strength and conditioning, player expectations, and their collective philosophy on how they want this team to play.

I believe that the versatility of this season’s roster will be a strength for this team. Rutgers has the biggest frontcourt in the Big Ten, with five players standing at 6’9” or above. Adding Nigel Johnson to the backcourt elevates the athleticism of the team and should help Corey Sanders be more effective on offense, taking pressure off him from carrying the load by himself. The return of Freeman is almost like a new addition as well, as he only played in seven games last season. He looks much improved and can be a legitimate double-double guy, can lead the team in scoring on any night and could give Rutgers a low post presence they haven’t had in years. However, the real key is the complementary players now on the roster that can make this team much more difficult to play against and prepare for.

When Pikiell spoke at Rutgers media day last week, he commented on the potential to the different looks he can throw at opponents on a nightly basis. Here is what he said specifically:

And I'm figuring the guys out, too. It's not you just get here, and what are guys' strengths, what guys' weaknesses, and then when the lights come on, are they the same player and stuff. So I'm figuring it out, and part of my job this year is figure out a way to win, and the different lineups that we can use. We can go big this year, we can go small, we can go quick, we can go experience for the most part or inexperience. So we've got a lot of different ways and we have to figure out what fits best.

I loved this answer. It’s a breath of fresh air after watching this team under Eddie Jordan. To say the team was one dimensional would be an understatement. Of course, Eddie was handcuffed by the roster limitations that existed, but that’s also on him and highlights the deficiencies in recruiting the program experienced under his watch. The point is not only is this team starting the new season healthy, but the roster is far more versatile than it has been in recent years. And we now have a coaching staff that has a flexible mindset on how to utilize the roster.

The fascinating aspect for me is how this versatility will be used at the end of games throughout the season. I think the starting five will consist of Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson in the backcourt, Deshawn Freeman and C.J. Gettys in the frontcourt, and most likely Jonathan Laurent at the wing. Certainly the most compelling position battle to watch all season will be between Laurent and freshman Issa Thiam. They are players with different skill sets that will allow for Pikiell to mix and match per opponent and situation. Laurent proved to be a talented scorer in the paint last season. Issa is probably the best three-point shooter on the team.

The thing is though, it will be far more critical and interesting to see what lineup Pikiell goes with down the stretch of games. The ability to present a contrast in style exists throughout the roster and he has options to mix and match, something that was a huge void last season. Let’s look at some examples of different lineups that Pikiell was talking about in the presser, plus a few more.

Big Lineup

C.J. Gettys/Shaq Doorson

Candido Sa

Deshawn Freeman

Issa Thiam

Corey Sanders/Nigel Johnson

Small Lineup

Candido Sa

Deshawn Freeman

Mike Williams/Matt Bullock

Nigel Johnson

Corey Sanders

Quick Lineup

Candido Sa

Deshawn Freeman

Issa Thiam

Nigel Johnson

Corey Sanders

Experienced Lineup

CJ Gettys

Deshawn Freeman

Mike Williams

Nigel Johnson

Corey Sanders

Inexperienced Lineup

Shaq Doorson

Candido Sa

Eugene Omoruyi/Issa Thiam

Matt Bullock

Corey Sanders

Defensive Lineup

Candido Sa

Deshawn Freeman

Eugene Omoruyi/Issa Thiam

Nigel Johnson

Corey Sanders

Offensive Lineup

CJ Gettys

Deshawn Freeman

Jonathan Laurent/Issa Thiam

Nigel Johnson

Corey Sanders

The various potential lineup combinations in my opinion will center around Freeman, Johnson and Sanders as the key core of this team. Pikiell then has a lot of flexibility to surround them with pieces that offer different looks to opponents. Overall, I foresee a solid ten man rotation, with Diallo and Bullock most likely fighting to see regular time. Pikiell prefers a deep rotation and had nine players average ten minutes or more last season at Stony Brook, with a tenth player averaging over eight minutes per game.

I think Issa and Candido could start at times and will see big minutes off the bench. Omoruyi will be a valuable piece off the bench as well and should bring a toughness and defensive presence badly needed. Shaq is still working on his conditioning after losing 50+ pounds, but he will see action off the bench and should form a solid trio at the 5 spot with Gettys and Sa.

One name I have barely mentioned is Mike Williams, the junior guard who has started the majority of his career so far. I think he has potential to be a key piece this season, but he will need to show improvement in shooting the ball and flash a renewed focus on defense. If Mike can simplify his approach and concentrate on making a positive contribution with the opportunities he does get, he can build from there. He shouldered a big load the past two seasons, but was often inefficient on offense and he stated at media day he was working on building up his confidence. Hopefully, he can start strong this season, as his ability to be a key part of the rotation will only make this team better.

I’ll close on focusing on how Pikiell plans to play on defense this season, which will obviously have a major impact on the rotation. Pikiell has made it clear that defense and rebounding are the priority and will help determine playing time. Hopefully, it will also become the identity of this team, which is Pikiell’s goal. Scoring will be a struggle against better teams, but if they can play defense and rebound, this team will have a chance against almost anyone.

An encouraging sign is Pikiell’s willingness to adapt to situations and matchups that will occur throughout the season. It seems basic, but with a program starting near scratch and coming off a three year period where adjustments on the court were rare, Pikiell’s statement to me at Big Ten Media Day provides hope.

It’s been interesting with this transition. I’m a man to man guy and that’s something I believe in and know. We are really trying to get the guys to be a good man to man team.

I’m going to have to do a really good job coaching. I have to do a great job of changing some of my philosophies in order to put this team in a better position to win a game here and there. Maybe that means pressing one game, that might mean playing some zone, that might be playing man to man, but all along teaching them how to do it the right way. You will have lumps when you do that.

I have hope entering the season for two reasons: 1) the emphasis on defense and rebounding; 2) the versatility of the roster and having a coaching staff that will tinker and figure out the best way to put this team in a position to win. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be pretty at times, and it will be a constant work in progress. While the roster needs a long term talent upgrade to ever compete near the top half of the conference, coaching can cure certain ills. The non-conference schedule is critical in preparing this team for the Big Ten. Players will have to earn their time on the court. As much as it’s testing ground for the players though, it will be for Pikiell and the coaching staff as well. However, this team will have much more flexibility in their lineup and also with game strategy this season. Tip-off is 2 days away!!!

Update: Versatility on display with first starting lineup of the season.