The Rutgers men's basketball staff has been hard at work rebuilding the roster, both for next season and for in the future. Finding a balance between landing graduate transfers who can help the program immediately, while also trying to keep scholarships open for 2017 and beyond is a challenge. Head coach Steve Pikiell spoke with Keith Sargeant this week and had this to say about filling out the roster for next season:
"We're going to be really smart about our scholarships, and if we have to save them, we'll save them,'' said Pikiell, who has four scholarships available after the Bullock and Sa commitments. "Saving is better than using them for guys that aren't Big Ten-caliber. The way I look at our roster, I think if we can get guys healthy, we have a chance to be pretty good.''
Aside from his optimism on the current roster, it's clear Pikiell and his staff are evaluating their options and are proceeding with caution in adding scholarship players. This is wise, as next season is truly table setting for the future of the program and laying groundwork for landing impact players in the 2017 class and beyond. With that being said, an interesting transfer candidate became available this week, one in which may be of interest to Rutgers for several reasons.
It was announced on Monday that Iowa State guard Hallice Cooke is transferring out of one of the best programs in the Big 12. Cooke is from Union City, New Jersey and starred at national powerhouse St. Anthony's under legendary coach Bob Hurley Sr in high school. He was rated a 3-star recruit by recruiting services and seemingly had a bright future ahead at Oregon State. During Cooke's freshman campaign during the 2013-2014 season at Oregon State, he averaged 8.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while playing 26.3 minutes per game. However, Cooke transferred after that season when head coach Craig Robinson was fired, changing the trajectory of his college career.
This past season at Iowa State as a redshirt sophomore, Cooke played just 10.9 minutes and averaged only 2.6 points, 1.0 rebound, and 0.9 assists per game. He had to deal with another coaching change at Iowa State, as Fred Hoiberg left after the 2014-2015 season, when Cooke was sitting out a transfer year, to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. New head coach Steve Prohm, who did not recruit Cooke to play for the Cyclones as he was previously at Murray State at the time, didn't give him a lot of meaningful minutes last season.
Is Cooke the type of player that Pikiell and his staff should consider adding to the program? It is actually a bit complicated. There are several reasons that Rutgers should pursue him, both for his potential impact on the court and off it. There are also two major potential drawbacks that make Cooke a risk.
Let's start with the positives. He was a 3-star recruit and in addition to Oregon State, Cooke had offers from Dayton, Penn State, Richmond, Rhode Island, St. Joseph's, and Xavier coming out of high school, according to 247 sports. He won two tournament of champion titles at St. Anthony's, including on the famed 2010-2011 team that went undefeated and were considered the best team in the country that season. Former Rutgers star Myles Mack was a starter and Cooke came off the bench in a reserve role. He also played AAU basketball with Sports U (Team Izod), a loaded program on the EYBL circuit, who happen to have some current players of interest for Rutgers.
Rutgers just offered the Sports U '18 starting five, per a source. Nazreon Reid, Jahvon Quinerly, Luther Muhammad, Atiba Taylor & Louis King— Pat Lawless (@PatLawless_) April 26, 2016
Pikiell made a power move offering the "Fab 5" of the AAU powerhouse, which Seton Hall did previously as well. The fact that Cooke played in that program adds a potential incentive on taking a chance on him. The coaching staff has made recruiting the top programs in New Jersey, both at the high school and AAU levels, a priority. The Cooke-Sports U connection is a plus.
Of course, Cooke is also connected to hall of famer Hurley and his perennial championship program at St. Anthony's. Landing Cooke would help establish two connections with arguably the most prominent high school and AAU programs in New Jersey. Plus, Cooke choosing Rutgers sends a message to local recruits that playing for a big time program near home is now possible. He would become a great example for the men's basketball program, similar to what Kiy Hester has become for the football program after he came home after transferring from Miami.
Another positive is Cooke has proven to be a great shooter on the collegiate level, albeit just one season. He has quick and smooth stroke with deep range. His freshman season at Oregon State, he averaged 1.3 made three-point baskets per game, while shooting 46% from behind the arc. That was good for second in the PAC-12 and his 41 three-point field goals was the fourth most for a freshman in Oregon State program history. As you probably know, Rutgers was dreadful from three-point range and are desperate to land a couple sharp shooters.
Cooke has three years of college under his belt and would bring a veteran presence to the program. He has certainly endured some adversity at this level and that experience could be invaluable to a young team. However, here are where the drawbacks come into play. Because this is the second time Cooke is transferring, he would have to sit out next season, but also lose a year of eligibility while doing so. The only way he can avoid that scenario is dropping down below Division I. It's not likely a player with his credentials and experience in two power five conferences would be willing to do that.
While Rutgers is unlikely to fill every scholarship for next season, especially considering Pikiell's comments about being smart with their available spots, Cooke would fill one on the bench all season. The negative is he would only have one season left in his college career. That is a big investment in a player, but negates the risk a bit because if Cooke does not work out, his scholarship opens up for the 2018 recruiting cycle. Ideally, Rutgers is clicking on all cylinders under Pikiell after year 2 and they have an opportunity to make waves by landing a couple of national recruits from New Jersey. While landing a couple of top recruits in 2017 is very important, the rebuilding is going to take time and an added year may be needed before landing a top player.
The other concern with Cooke is he is a year removed from having cartilage tears in both hips repaired. It is likely Cooke wasn't 100% healthy this past season, which could be a major reason why he never became a regular in the Iowa State rotation. Coaching changes can hurt players that were recruited by the previous regime, so it is difficult to really know the full story as to why Cooke could not replicate or improve on his freshman performance at Oregon State. But his ability to return to form after injury is a concern.
So what should Rutgers do? Honestly, I think it depends on all the options Pikiell and the staff have. It also depends on the early read they are getting on 2017 prospects. I reviewed the many offers the staff have made to that class here. If the staff feel like they have a good chance to land at least a couple players, especially local recruits, they may be more hesitant to fill out a scholarship on Cooke. However, they very well could reason that taking a risk on Cooke would have upside regardless of whether he works out on the court. His background with St. Anthony's and Sports U could make taking a chance on him worth it in the long run.
It could be said Pikiell is doing the same thing with under recruited Matt Bullock from Roselle Catholic. If you are going to roll the dice with a player, having a potential long term relationship with a top program stem from taking a chance on them could be a risk worth taking. There has been nothing reported about the possibility of Cooke considering Rutgers, but it would seem logical he would at least consider coming home to play in yet another power five conference. Whether Rutgers pursues Cooke is a question we don't know the answer to as of yet. Tracking Pikiell and his staff on the recruiting trail and working to rebuild the roster has been fun. Add Cooke to the list of questions as to how they fill out the team for next season.