In the first loss of the season against Florida State, there were plenty of signs marking progress for the Rutgers men's basketball team. They battled a deeper and more talented team all the way to the final buzzer and their defense was very good, including holding the Seminoles 13 points below their season average. Rutgers also held an +5 edge in rebounding against a taller opponent, something that rarely happened in Big Ten play last season. They also made 16 of 20 free throw attempts (80%), easily their best performance of the season in that area. However, there was one glaring issue that occurred often last season that reappeared in the loss to Florida State.
The heavy burden of running the offense and being the primary ball handler most of the game took a toll on star guard Corey Sanders down the stretch. He struggled on the defensive end during the final minutes and was outplayed by Florida State point guard C.J. Walker, who took over the game. It also made Rutgers more one dimensional in its offensive attack by Sanders being a sitting duck with the ball for the opposition, making it easier to contain him. Sanders did play very well most of the game (20 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) and even scored 6 points in the final three plus minutes, but it wasn’t enough to win the game. Rutgers is simply more predictable on offense when Sanders is the primary guard handling the basketball on the court. Of course, it wasn't just a step up in competition that caused the end of game struggles for Sanders to reappear. Something was missing.
That something was freshman guard Geo Baker, who picked up two fouls before the under-16 timeout of the first half and was limited the entire game, before exiting for good with four plus minutes left in the contest after being issued his fifth foul.
Baker has added so much to this team early on this season. His ball handling and ability to run the offense has taken a lot of pressure off of Sanders. It's also allowed Corey to roam the perimeter more so than at any point last season, making him hard to defend off the ball. It’s been fun to watch the chemistry between Sanders and Baker grow so quickly and it should only get stronger as the season progresses.
In addition, Baker is an above average passer and leads the team with 12 three-pointers made and shooting percentage behind the arc (37.5%). It's no coincidence that Rutgers tied a season high 14 turnovers against Florida State in a game that Baker played the fewest minutes (22) he has registered this season.
To be fair, the role that Baker has assumed so early in his career is a lot for any freshman. He led the team in minutes played and scoring entering the Florida State game, but didn't produce much in the biggest contest of the season so far, mostly due to foul trouble. It will take time for Baker to raise his game to the greater competition he’ll face on a regular basis in the Big Ten. However, there should be a lot of confidence that with more experience, Baker will flourish over time.
Before the rest of us got a glimpse of Baker on the court this season, his teammates knew how much potential the freshman has. Here is what senior guard Mike Williams told me during Big Ten Media day about Baker:
"I see it everyday in practice, he is advanced beyond his years. I think he has a great feel for the game. Everything comes easy to him. I really feel like he is going to be that guy and by the time his junior year comes, it's going to be his team. I support him the best I can. I am going to lead this team and take him under my wing. I feel like he was someone who was under recruited and has the potential to dominate in the Big Ten as he gets older.”
A positive takeaway from Baker’s struggles against Florida State is how it highlighted his importance for this team to be able improve this season. Baker has added a skill set and element that wasn't present last season. He is a true difference maker for this team and the FSU game is a great experience for him to learn from. His ability to make Sanders more versatile on offense is a major plus. Here is what Corey had to say about Baker and the rest of his backcourt mates at Big Ten media day:
"With Geo I can play off the ball more because he can handle it very well. Having him, Mike and Issa, they are shooters that you have to respect, because if you don't, they are going to knock it down. It opens up lanes for me to get to the basket and get my shot up."
In addition to gaining more experience, learning under both Williams and Sanders will prove to be invaluable for the freshman guard, now and in the long run. I asked Baker at Rutgers media day what it was like playing with the veteran duo and he made it clear how much their support has helped him:
“They believe in me and think I'm good. That means a lot to me, because they've been here. Mike especially has taken me under his wing. He just tells me little things, little details that will just help me in the long run. I think I've learned a lot from Corey's work ethic. He's been working hard in the gym every night. I've been with him getting up extra shots. I think I've learned a lot from both of them."
For Rutgers to take another step forward in head coach Steve Pikiell’s second season, there are several things that need to continue. The team needs to defend and rebound at a high level. Of course, shooting at a higher percentage across the board is also going to be crucial in Big Ten play. With Geo Baker already a fixture in the backcourt, the offense has a chance to get better and more dynamic throughout the season, as the freshman continues to gain experience and his comfort level improves. He is the biggest difference from last year’s team to this one. Geo Baker makes Rutgers a more interesting, less predictable and more importantly, better team this season. The fact that he is only scratching the surface of his potential so early in his career should be the biggest reason Rutgers fans are excited to watch Baker in scarlet the next four years.