The Rutgers men's basketball team won all three games in the opening week of the season, which should have been the case against inferior competition. It wasn't pretty at times, but that is to be expected for a new team looking to establish an identity in head coach Steve Pikiell's second season. Here are five takeaways that stuck out in my mind from the first week of the season.
It was obvious since his arrival on campus last season that the 6'10" Thiam had a world of potential. However, he was also extremely raw and Issa struggled with the best part of his game during his freshman campaign, long range shooting. This season, the improvement in his game and development as a more complete player has been significant through the first week of the season.
The biggest difference so far has been his confidence, which is truly "knight and day" from last season. Second, Issa's hard work in the offseason has made him a better player. He also added muscle mass and is better prepared for the rigors of the season. After grabbing 54 rebounds in 30 games last season (1.7 per), he has already grabbed 22 boards in just three games, averaging 7.3 rebounds per contest so far. For a player that rarely stood 10 feet near the rim his freshman year, this is significant.
Issa is also no longer a one dimensional offensive player, as he has attacked the basket more in three games than he did all of last year. Thiam only took 30 2-point field goal attempts the entire season as a freshman, making just 13. This season, he is 9 for 11 from inside the arc. In addition, his four made three-pointers, with three coming during that key second half start against Cleveland State, shows has improvement in his shot from behind the arc. Issa may just be scratching the surface of his potential, which is an exciting prospect for Rutgers fans.
Corey Sanders Playing Winning Basketball
The way Sanders played in the second half against Cleveland State was not his flashiest or most exciting performance in a Rutgers uniform, but I'd argue it was his best. It was his most effective effort as a true point guard and the first time I recall him taking control of the game in every way except scoring. He did score the first basket after halftime, but more importantly, he got the two leading scorers on the night, Issa Thiam and Geo Baker, great looks soon after. It was a key in Rutgers playing a dominating half that they outscored Cleveland State 39-15.
Sanders consistently looked for Baker, as the chemistry between the two appears to be growing by the day, and he pushed the pace the entire half. While his shot wasn't falling, Corey was taking good shots, another important sign of progress.
In a true sign that Sanders has bought in to Pikiell's wishes, he aggressively attacked the boards and grabbed a career high 10 rebounds. It warranted a fist bump from Pikiell to Sanders in the postgame press conference, another sign the head coach and star are aligned early on this season.
It was only one half and it was against inferior competition, but if Corey can lead the offense unselfishly and do the little things on the court like he did Tuesday night, he'll make the biggest impact that he has in any season of his career at Rutgers so far. Last night could be a flash or it could be a moment in March that we recall when the light bulb went off in Corey's head. Let's hope it's the latter.
Geo Baker & Mamadou Doucoure = Talent Upgrade
Both freshman have had their ups and downs in the first three games, but their talent and potential is brimming at the surface. Baker broke through shooting wise after a cold start, but has proven capable of being able to take pressure off of Sanders at times in running the offense and had his best night Tuesday handling the rock. He dished out 7 assists and didn't commit any turnovers, after losing it 8 times in the first two games combined.
Mamadou Doucoure has had less of an impact early on this season, but he is starting to flash a shooting touch better than expected. The "Duke" is Big Ten ready physically and has improved early on in fouling less, something that was an issue during the preseason scrimmages and exhibition against St. John's. He gives Rutgers a legitimate big man to play against the trees of the Big Ten.
There is no question these two additions have upgraded the talent on the roster and the fact they have both started every game solidifies that fact. They'll need time to fully develop and learn at this level, but it's an exiting prospect in having these two players on the roster for the next four years.
Shooting Still Achilles Heel
While Eugene Omoruyi idolizes and attempts to emulate NBA star Draymond Green, the perimeter game of Rutgers will never be confused with the Golden State Warriors, that's for sure. Rutgers has started the season shooting 47% from the floor, which is an improvement so far from last year, but its comes against much smaller, inferior defensive teams. The number should be higher, as the team is still settling for too many jumpers and not attacking the rim as aggressively as they should.
The real cause for concern is that Rutgers is shooting 23% from three-point range, making just 13 of 56 attempts. The Scarlet Knights did make 7 from behind the arc in the win over Cleveland State, but only shot 29% in the game. That’s worrisome and while it's fair to expect some improvement, it's unrealistic to think this team will be much better than close to average shooting wise from deep this season, best case scenario. Being inefficient from three-point range in Big Ten play, if the struggles continue, will put Rutgers at a disadvantage.
There has been reason for more optimism from the free throw line, but other than the starters making all 10 attempts in the opener and a strong 21 of 27 performance against CCSU, Rutgers is still only shooting 60% as a team on 70 attempts.
There is no magical cure for the shooting woes and once Big Ten teams play zone against them, this team may really struggle with its halfcourt offense. That's why in my opinion, improving on defense, rebounding and scoring in transition is the key to success for Rutgers this season.
Team Is A Work In Progress
Every team in college basketball is a work in progress during the first month of the season. Rutgers is no exception and the CCSU performance is an example of this team needing time to develop. However, they ended a three game, five day stretch with its best half of the season in the win over Cleveland State on Tuesday, which is encouraging. With its next two games against low major teams (Coppin State & Bryant), the competition will start to ramp up soon after. With a matinee the day after Thanksgiving against AAC member East Carolina, Rutgers then hosts Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, followed by its first road game at #14 Minnesota to open conference play. Just two days later, Rutgers hosts #2 Michigan State, the heavy favorite to win the Big Ten. We learned a little about this team the past week, but we will learn a lot more after the difficult stretch that is coming. As long as this team continues to work hard and get better, the hope that this could be the first winning season for the program in 12 years remains alive and well.