It was expected but welcomed news this week, when Corey Sanders officially withdrew from the NBA Draft and announced his return to Rutgers for his sophomore season. The best player on the team from last season will be in a much different situation moving forward.
The new coaching staff, led by head coach Steve Pikiell, has already brought a more detailed approach to the program. It will certainly be an adjustment for Sanders, who for much of last season was given the keys to the car without much of a GPS or road map. He thrived on his special talent, athleticism, and will to win, performing at a high level despite the constant losing and adversity surrounding him.
Assistant coach Brandin Knight should be a major asset, not only to the program overall, but in furthering Corey's development. It doesn't always work out that great players become great coaches, but Knight has become both. Knight is credited from his time at Pitt in helping in the development of former players such as All-American Sam Young and All-Big East guards Levance Fields, Ashton Gibbs, and Travon Woodall. All four players were rated between 3-stars and 4-stars coming out of high school, like Sanders, who is a former 4-star recruit. While only Young made it to the NBA, all four players have enjoyed lengthy careers playing professionally overseas.
If Sanders follows the guidance of Knight and fine tunes his skills and approach to the game, the results could be glorious. The talent is obvious with Sanders, who was one of only two freshman nationally last season to average at least 15.9 points, 4.3 assists, and 1.8 steals. The other was LSU's Ben Simmons,the #1 recruit in the class of 2015 and the potential #1 pick in next month's NBA Draft.
If Sanders can become more disciplined and even more of a complete player, not only will he help his own future, but he will benefit the team's future as well. If Corey wants to lead Rutgers back to the postseason, there is no better guard coach to learn from. Knight and Pikiell played for college programs that had little success prior to their arrivals. Both coaches led their respective schools, Pitt and UConn, to the Sweet 16 as players. Pikiell became an assistant under legendary coach Jim Calhoun and has stayed close to his mentor over the years. Knight helped Pitt become an NCAA mainstay, working as an assistant under head coach Jamie Dixon for almost a decade.
While Sanders has long had the dream to star in the NBA, he has also spoken fondly of the Rutgers program and the school since his time on the banks. It's likely he is aware of what it would mean to Rutgers fans if he could help lead the program back the NCAA Tournament. Becoming a Rutgers legend is something that hopefully entices the dynamic guard and was reflected by the presence of former head coach Eddie Jordan. Now he is being coached by former player who achieved that same status at a different school, but similarities remain.
The good news is Sanders will have a key addition along with himself and Mike Williams this coming season. Nigel Johnson should add another high wire, athletic piece to the puzzle. While Williams is a gritty, hard nosed player with the ability to catch fire behind the three-point arc, his style is more stationary. Johnson though is more similar to Sanders, having the ability to shoot from long range, while also being able to penetrate off the dribble. He will play off the ball with Sanders on the court, but is skilled enough to bring it up and run the offense as well. That isn't something Williams is well suited for, so Johnson adds versatility to the lineup. The ability to drive the lane by both Sanders and Johnson should create more space on the perimeter for Williams. Johnson is also a good defensive player that could be effective in full court pressure. As a trio, they look to be a stronger group on paper than last year's backcourt.
Johnson told Sam Hellman from Scout.com that he and Sanders could be the best backcourt in the Big Ten next season. One thing is for sure, there will be no shortage of confidence from these two on the court. It's up to Knight and Pikiell to maximize their talent, while getting it to work within the team's gameplan and structure. Good coaches usually do and it should be expected they will be able to, based on their backgrounds. While backcourt depth is an issue with the current construction of the roster, the frontcourt has added both size and versatility.
As I've said before, this team has talent. Corey Sanders is certainly the main cog in the wheel, but he will need to sacrifice some of his own offense to benefit the team. He needs to be more of a distributor on offense and improve on his assist to turnover ratio. Don't misinterpret, his scoring will still be a priority, but Sanders will have more offensive weapons to work with. In addition to Johnson, forward Deshawn Freeman returns after a season ending injury. He was the leading scorer on the team before his departure midway through the non-conference portion of the season. For Rutgers to be more successful next season, they need improved scoring balance and can't be reliant on just Sanders, which was the case too often last season.
While Rutgers still has three open scholarships for next season and are working the transfer market hard, the current roster has potential. Corey Sanders is the key and his commitment to improving both his own game and that of the team's is paramount. Under the guidance of the new coaching staff, the sky truly is the limit for the talented guard. Expectations, while measured, should be raised for next season. What those expectations should be yet is too early to tell, but progress at any rate is a good start. How Corey Sanders leads this team next season is a major piece to the puzzle.