Hall of Fame head coach C. Vivian Stringer took a major gamble before the season by adding three sit-out transfers, crippling the depth of the roster before the 2016-2017 campaign began. She did this before some bad luck hit, as star Tyler Scaife was declared out for the season due to a medical condition, which depleted an already thin roster. What resulted was the worst season in program history for the Rutgers women’s basketball team. A 6-24 record and ending the season on a 11 game losing streak was bad enough. Having their top three leading scorers from last season leave the program, in addition to a fourth player also transferring, which was announced on Monday, is even worse.
Per release, 4 members of the Rutgers women's basketball team will transfer. Includes leading scorer Shrita Parker. 3 starters from 2016-17 pic.twitter.com/lBNW1vSEVG— Griffin Whitmer (@griffinwhitmer) April 3, 2017
After a 3-10 record in non-conference play that included losses to Chattanooga, Elon, and at the time, a previously winless Princeton team by 30 points, it was obvious the lack of experience and depth was a major problem. After upset wins over Penn State and Michigan State, Rutgers stood surprisingly with a 3-3 conference record in mid-January. However, things fell apart from there, as they lost their last 10 regular season Big Ten games by an average margin of defeat of over 17 points per contest. Only one of those losses were by single digits. They finished in a four way tie for last place in the conference and fell to Wisconsin 61-55 in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Shrita Parker led the team with 12.1 points per game in her junior season, while JUCO transfer Kandiss Barber posted a solid 8.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. In addition, Aliyah Jeune tallied 8.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Rutgers only averaged 50.1 points as a team this past season, so the loss of these three players accounts for a loss of 58% of the scoring from the roster. At the very least, there is no denying losing all three players at once results in bad optics for the program.
In addition, Aliyah’s sister Ashli, who missed this season due to an ACL injury, is leaving as well. She was a role player off the bench during the 2015-2016 season.
The positive spin during this difficult season was that the roster would be far better the following year, once transfers Stasha Carey from Pittsburgh, Ciani Cryor from Georgia Tech, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick from St. Joseph's, were eligible to play. Carey & Cryor were top 100 recruits out of high school and bring high major experience to the program. Fitzpatrick is a good shooter, both from behind the arc and the free throw line, which are things Rutgers needs significant help in.
The problem now is the depth of the roster is decimated by the surprising departures of Parker, Barber and the Juene sisters. With Scaife expected to return for her senior season, after leading the team with 17.2 points per game and being named a Second Team All-Big Ten selection the previous season, there were legitimate hopes this team would be deep with talent and experience next year. Now, the lack of depth and experience that plagued the team this past season will continue.
While 4-star forward Jada Wright is committed in the 2017 class, she will likely now be counted on more heavily to contribute than previously expected. According to Blue Star Basketball, Canadian guard Mael Lakissa Gilles is committed to this class as well. With four players transferring out, Stringer and the staff will be challenged to find impact replacements quickly, if at all, for next season.
The reality is the program has taken several steps back under the legendary Stringer and it’s fair to wonder why. With five players drafted to the WNBA in the past five years, Rutgers has just one NCAA Tournament win to show for it in the past six seasons. They did win the WNIT Championship in 2014, but that has never been the ultimate goal for a program that appeared in the NCAA title game under Stringer 10 years ago this week. The program is tied for ninth in Division I for most NCAA tournament appearances (24) all-time. Rutgers has only had five losing seasons since the program began in 1974, with this season resulting in the fewest wins ever. The current state of things has reached a low point in program history.
Losing veteran assistants Tia Jackson, Chelsea Newton, and Tasha Pointer after the 2015 season, the latter two whom played for Stringer at Rutgers, was a massive blow to the program. They left for Miami, Georgia, and St. John’s, respectively, after the trio sat on the Rutgers bench for four consecutive seasons together next to Stringer. Pointer had been an assistant for eight seasons before crossing the Hudson River for Queens. The continuity under Stringer and the stability that these three assistants brought to the program was gone all at once.
With 971 active wins before this past season, it seemed a given that Stringer would notch the prestigious 1,000 win plateau in the next two years. Athletic Director Pat Hobbs told the media last May that he was working on a 4-year contract extension for the Hall of Fame coach. However, there has been no official announcement regarding the extension almost a year later, with her current contract set to expire after next season. Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media followed up on this in January and Hobbs was quoted as saying they are "still working through the final part of a contract'' and that it should be finalized "in a couple of weeks.'' Almost three months later and no announcement has been made.
With just a 6-24 record this past season and now several additional roster spots to fill, it’s fair to wonder how much better Rutgers will be next season, as well as how long it will take Stringer to eclipse the 1,000 win mark.
It was clear early on this season that this team was setup for failure and I questioned then, as I question now, the logic in taking in three sit-out transfers at once. It automatically put the roster in a compromised position and gave no room to account for injuries. Unfortunately, the one player Rutgers could not afford to lose was star Tyler Scaife, who ended up missing the entire season. She would have been irreplaceable regardless, but having four scholarship players unavailable after her loss made the situation unrecoverable.
Some decisions look good on paper, but fall apart due to execution. It’s hard to understand how putting the roster at risk with so many transfers in one season ever made sense on paper. It’s plausible the top three leading scorers are leaving because of the potential for lesser roles next season. It’s also possible the strain they endured this past season and the position they were put in by their coach was too much to bear moving forward. Either way, it’s clear the plan for the future was not embraced by them and it’s now jeopardized next season, too.
For a program as established as Rutgers, with a coach as accomplished as Stringer, it’s fair to wonder why recruiting is so poor that the idea of taking so many transfers at once, as three others were added before this season that were eligible immediately, making six transfers added in total, was deemed the best course of action. The roster turnover, a season after the entire assistant coaching staff changed, has left Stringer without a support system of players and coaches that know the Rutgers way. Her way. A true rebuild requires acquiring multiple recruits who can be developed over time. Adding transfer after transfer, without having a majority of four year players improving over time, dilutes the identity of the program.
Without a doubt, Stringer has faced many challenges over the years. A lack of facilities and a lack of unified support from previous administrations did her no favors. However, it was unthinkable to envision the program would ever fall as much as it has in recent years. No matter what has happened this past season and whatever the future holds, Stringer has earned her place among the greatest basketball coaches ever. She deserves that reputation.
The question now is how much longer will she be the head coach at Rutgers? If recruiting is to improve, Stringer needs that contract extension, now more than ever, to prove she will be leading the program for several more years. Whether Hobbs lets her enter the final season of her contract without an extension, in a season that is now hard to envision being much better than this past year, is the bigger one to ask.
Only time will tell, but anyway you shake it, the sad reality is a program that was one of the premier sports teams at Rutgers for decades, has now fallen near the bottom. After fans held out hope based on the “wait for next season” mantra, the news this week of the mass exodus of talent from the banks has taken the life out of that belief as well.