After Sunday’s thrilling, last second victory over St. John’s in a charity exhibition, the excitement for the start of the season is at a high point this fall. With the 2017-2018 campaign officially tipping off on Friday, here are ten things that I hope happen this season with Rutgers basketball.
Corey Sanders Takes A Leap Forward
Entering his junior season, Corey Sanders has the most talent and support around him that he has had since his arrival on the banks. His willingness to adapt his game under the new coaching staff last season led him to becoming a more complete player. This season, the hope is that newcomers Geo Baker and Souf Mensah can allow Corey to play more off the ball at times, which will help his game overall. We saw some of that in the exhibition against St. John’s. Can he become a more efficient scorer, better end of game closer, and a true lockdown defender in his junior year? That's the goal this season, possibly his last, and if he can develop in those areas, Rutgers will be better for it.
Newcomers Age Well
As he showed in Sunday's exhibition versus St. John's, Geo Baker plays with a poise and vision that is not common for a freshman. He is a true combo guard and his versatility will be extremely valuable. Once he gains real game experience, it's hard not be excited about how he will develop as a player this season. Mamadou Doucoure is more raw, but is an equally important player in the rebuilding of this program. Hopefully, he can learn to stay out of foul trouble and give Rutgers improved athleticism near the rim. Souf Mensah should provide stability within the backcourt with his ball handling, passing and defense. Myles Johnson will need time before he contributes, if at all, this season. However, he is a key piece to the puzzle long term and his development over time is very important to the rebuild. Hopefully, all four are significantly better players in March than they are in November.
Captains Cement Foundation
As we saw Sunday against St. John's, Deshawn Freeman and Mike Williams appear to be on a mission entering their senior seasons. Both players worked really hard in the offseason and look to be primed for big years. Hopefully, the knee injury that Williams suffered on Sunday is minor, which it now appears to have been.
Good news, Rutgers fans: Mike Williams is OK. Apparently his injury yesterday was just a tweak -- looked much worse than it was.— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) November 7, 2017
The two returning captains are very likable young men and have been instrumental in helping head coach Steve Pikiell cement a strong culture within the program. Every new coach needs a couple existing players to lead in the early years and both of them have been very good, on and off the court. They will be sorely missed, but have an opportunity to leave their mark on this season in a big way.
Steve Pikiell accomplished a lot in his debut campaign, but this season it's important that Rutgers pick up a signature win or dare I say, two. Beating Ohio State in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament was obviously significant, but didn't classify as a signature win because it didn't come against a top opponent. The Buckeyes have been one of the best programs over the last decade, but the reality is they were an 11 seed when Rutgers beat them. True signature victories against ranked teams are important to show progress and help with recruiting to prove winning against top teams can happen here. Rutgers will have plenty of opportunities to get one or two and if they can, it would be a significant milestone in year two of the Pikiell rebuild.
Land A Big Recruit
Pikiell and the staff have been diligent on the recruiting trail since their arrival. The 2018 class is a strong one with 4-star guard Montez Mathis, 3-star wing Ron Harper Jr., and one of the best JUCO forwards in the country in Shaq Carter. The staff has continued to pursue an impressive group of prospects in the class of 2019. It would be huge if Rutgers could pick up a commitment from one of them during the season, much like they did with 4-star center Mamadou Doucoure last December. The staff has been all over local 4-star guard Paul Mulcahy, who visited again on Sunday for the St. John’s exhibition. If Mulcahy ends up at Rutgers, he would be the highest rated local recruit the program would have landed under Pikiell so far. Other 4-star targets the staff has strongly pursued are wing Aundre Hyatt and big man Eric Dixon. Landing one during the season would be huge for the staff and maintain momentum on the recruiting trail.
As this building entered its forties, it underwent a bit of a resurrection last season, as Pikiell breathed life into the program for the first time in several years. With a strong senior core and some talented newcomers, this could be the best Rutgers team in some time. It will be paramount for the fans to pack the RAC and make it a true homecourt advantage, game in and game out this season. It would be a beautiful thing for this team to click during Big Ten play and if they do, a resurgent RAC will certainly be a contributing factor. We have more coming on this later in the week.
Top 50 Defense & Finish Top Half Of Big Ten
While the talent level is greatly improved this season, Rutgers needs to be a very good defensive team if they want to really make noise. They improved a ton in Pikiell's first season and finished 70th in adjust defensive efficiency per KenPom, after being 236th the year before. Still, they struggled in the interior and on the defensive boards in conference play. Rutgers needs to be a top half of the league defensive team and if they are, they'll land in the top 50 in the country. Certain sayings become old because they're true and the adage “offense wins games, but defense wins championships” is so true. No one expects Rutgers to be competing at that level anytime soon, but the defensive first mindset that Pikiell is instilling is one of the biggest keys to this rebuild and turning things around. Hopefully, the program can take another step forward in this area this season.
Go 4-2 Against OSU/Illinois/Nebraska
To make real progress in the Big Ten standings this season, Rutgers must win at least three of their six games against the trio of Ohio State, Illinois, and Nebraska. All three programs are also undergoing rebuilds and Rutgers beat each of them last season. While Rutgers was dealt a difficult hand having to play conference favorite Michigan State and defending champ Purdue twice each, getting to play the previous three teams mentioned twice as well is a major opportunity for the program this season. Going 4-2 against the the trio would ensure the most regular season wins since Rutgers joined the Big Ten and likely mean they’d reside above the basement in the standings, which leads me to my next point.
Finish Better Than Last Place
If Rutgers can be successful against that group, they have a very good chance of not finishing at the bottom of the Big Ten standings for the first time in four seasons. This is hugely important in order to show real progress in year two of Pikiell. Understand that the first five games in conference play is, cue Dickie V’s voice, brutal with a capital B with games at Minnesota, at Purdue, at Michigan State and home contests against Wisconsin and Michigan State. However, it could end up helping this team improve and there are plenty of winnable games during the rest of the Big Ten slate. If Rutgers can finish 13th or better, according to the pundits, who all picked them to finish last again, expectations would be exceeded.
I know some fans are hoping for a postseason appearance this year and while it’s possible, I’m more focused on the program having its first winning campaign in 12 years. I’m thrilled Rutgers beat St. John’s in Sunday’s exhibition game, but for those that think that win means the postseason is likely now, here are two things about the Johnnies to consider: a) they play terrible defense b) they’re talented, but poorly coached. It was an encouraging performance for sure, but keep expectations in check.
The overall record needed to even make the NIT with the non-conference schedule that Rutgers is playing is likely a minimum of 19-20 wins. To hit that win total, Rutgers would need to get 11-12 wins in non-conference play and 8-9 wins in Big Ten play. If the stars aligned the right way and Pikiell gets this team to play above their heads often enough, its possible. However, winning 5-6 conference games is more realistic and would still be a resounding success for a program that’s never won more than 3 regular season games in its first three seasons of Big Ten play. I’m also hopeful this team can put together some type of run in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in March. Regardless, if Rutgers can produce their first winning record in over a decade, I’ll be thrilled and so should you.
Other Things I Hope For This Season
- Mike Williams having the best year of his career and getting the hero’s salute he deserves on senior night
- Issa Thiam taking a big step forward. The putback to beat St. John’s is a great start
- Shaq Doorson staying healthy and giving this team 10-15 important minutes each game
- Corey Sanders becoming the first Rutgers player to be named to an all All-Big Ten team
- Deshawn Freeman averaging a double-double in Big Ten play
- A national basketball writer or analyst to praise Steve Pikiell for the job he’s doing
- The RAC to sellout multiple times