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The Backcourt Should Be Better This Season For Rutgers Basketball

There are several reasons to be optimistic

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, just over half of the team’s scoring and three of the top four scorer’s on the roster resided in the backcourt. Corey Sanders led the way with 12.8 points per game, followed by Nigel Johnson with 11.3 points per game, while Mike Williams added 9.4 points per contest. Despite the loss of Johnson due to him transferring to Virginia, Rutgers should have a more balanced and stronger backcourt this season.

There are several reasons for this. The first being the additions of JUCO transfer point guard, Souf Mensah, as as well former 3-star recruit and freshman combo guard, Geo Baker. Both players add skill sets to the roster that Rutgers desperately needed.

Mensah is a true point guard who is physically ready to compete in the Big Ten, adds speed and a willingness to defend. He’ll bring maturity and a team first attitude to the floor. He can run the offense and finally be the guy to take that burden off of Sanders, who was an easy target for opposing defenses to hone in on at the end of games. Sanders will likely still start at the point, but Mensah will provide an opportunity for him to play some on the perimeter. Having your best scoring option at the point at all times makes your offense one dimensional and more predictable.

The value of having the depth to now play Sanders off the ball at times will be huge. He will no longer be the primary ball handler the entire game and will be much harder for the opposition to guard off the ball, free to roam. He will be able to use his speed and agility around the perimeter to attack more from the wing, where the defense is more vulnerable, as opposed to from the top of the key. I'm sure Sanders will still run the point the majority of the time but having him run free is another option they now have with Mensah in the fold.

Another benefit for Sanders will likely be on the free throw line. After seeing his shooting percentage at the line drop from 71.3% his freshman year to 61.3% in his sophomore year on just 16 added attempts, I suspect a factor was the added responsibility that Sanders had last season and he wore down physically. He was challenged by head coach Steve Pikiell and the staff much more so on the defensive end than the year prior. Sanders also had to work much harder offensively down the stretch in closer games last season than the year before, when there were few. Having Mensah to shoulder the responsibility of running the offense will allow Sanders to focus more so on his scoring and defense, while staying fresher both mentally and physically for the end of games. Hopefully, he can take a step forward this season and become a more complete player overall.

In terms of Mensah, his ability to protect the basketball, distribute the ball on the perimeter, and to guard at a high level will be what will determine his effectiveness. He isn’t known for his shooting and opposing defenses may start to sag into the paint because of it at times, but ultimately his ability to get his teammates the ball in a position to score effectively is his most important task. Too many times last season the ball was not rotated enough on the perimeter and the guards forced the action going one on one, trying to penetrate the teeth of the defense, which led to shooting woes. The more Mensah keeps the ball moving along the perimeter and gets multiple players involved, the harder opposing defenses will have to work. That doesn’t show up in the box score, but it does become a factor late in games.

Baker brings added height at 6’4”, as he is two inches taller than any of the trio in the backcourt last season. He essentially steps in for Nigel Johnson, who shot just 38% from the floor last season, like Sanders, but did lead Rutgers from behind the arc, making 35% of his three-point attempts (43-123). Baker has the potential to equal that mark and could end up being the best shooter on the team this season. He is also a good passer and should be a better distributor on the perimeter than Johnson was. His ability to shoot off the dribble will be key, as will his versatility in being able to handle the point at times as well. Pikiell called him a “cerebral player” on his radio show appearance a couple of weeks ago. He could really surprise people outside of Piscataway this season and become a major contributor from day one.

Mike Williams should benefit from having Mensah and Baker on the court also, as there were many times last season he was stuck on one side of the perimeter and never touched the ball during multiple possessions in a row. That needs to change, as he has the ability to score in bunches and is too valuable of a player for this team to not to be involved on offense for long stretches. He remains one of the best rebounding guards in the Big Ten and the speed and unselfishness of Mensah and Baker will back him up better in transition when he does crash the boards.

While Peter Kiss will have to sit out this season due to transfer rules, do not underestimate his value in practice. He is one of the best shooters on the team, is highly competitive, and will push players in practice in a positive way.

Matt Bullock redshirted last season and still has a ways to go in terms of being a contributor for this team. It will be interesting to see how much time he gets in non-conference play, which will help determine if he can be a factor at all in Big Ten play. I’m not counting on him adding much this season and anything he does produce on the court should be considered a bonus.

Not only should Rutgers have one more guard seeing substantial minutes this season, Baker and Mensah make make the backcourt more versatile. There were points when Pikiell played the trio of Sanders, Williams, and Johnson, at the same time last season, all of whom were no taller than 6’2” and all were shoot first guards. He did it out of necessity, but this season Pikiell essentially swapped the taller combo guard Baker to replace Johnson. Pikiell also has multiple ball handlers now, and could even go big with Mensah or Sanders at the 1, Baker at the 2, and Issa at the 3, where the sophomore wing will likely start. That would give them players standing at 6’2”, 6’4”, and 6’9” along the perimeter and would be a matchup problem for most teams they face this season.

Expect Rutgers to look to run more in transition and also pressure more in the full court, trying to trap opposing ball handlers with their guards. Whether Rutgers is a better shooting team this season remains to be seen, but with the addition of Baker and the option of playing Sanders off the ball, the odds of them improving to some degree is likely. In addition, giving a very good in-game coach like Pikiell more weapons to use and a greater ability to switch up looks on both ends of the floor is a major plus for this team.