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July Live Period Preview: Evaluating Where Rutgers Basketball Stands With The 2018 Class

The staff continue to be relentless on the recruiting trail. Will big results follow?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Northwestern vs Rutgers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With the July live period beginning on Wednesday, Rutgers now enters a critical stage with its 2018 recruiting class. With 4-star forward Mamadou Doucoure as the lone commit, there are at least two more spots available to fill. Valuable players like Deshawn Freeman and Mike Williams are set to graduate, along with potential starter Candido Sa, after next season. However, there could end up being a total of four, and possibly five, scholarships to ultimately fill in the 2018 class. The program’s most notable player, Corey Sanders, could end up leaving after his junior season. There is still an open scholarship for next season, which could be filled with a grad transfer, opening it up again in 2018 or it could remain open altogether.

We knew as soon as head coach Steve Pikiell was hired over 15 months ago that the 2018 class was so important in reshaping the future of the program. It will be Pikiell’s third class and with two seasons under his belt, he will finally be able to form the roster in his vision. He has done a great job of getting the players he inherited from former head coach Eddie Jordan to buy into his system. While Pikiell has done well to adapt to a style of play best fit for the current personnel, he ultimately wants to play a more up tempo pace on both ends of the floor. He needs to upgrade the athleticism and talent on the roster to do so. Hence, the importance of the 2018 class in getting the roster to where he needs it to be to truly make long term progress on the court.

It was unfair to ever think that Pikiell and the staff could gain serious traction with the elite prospects within New Jersey for this class. The reality is that there is a perception problem attached to Rutgers after a decade plus of losing seasons, as well as embarrassing scandals and inept coaching. Pikiell has been a breath of fresh air and quickly signaled positive change for the program after a 15-18 debut, but it’s going to take time for top local recruits to truly believe that this Rutgers regime is different. That’s okay and if anything, it’s shown the true value of Pikiell as a recruiter and strategist, in terms of how he has adapted his approach.

The coaching staff has been recruiting at a breakneck pace and are in the mix for many quality players in the class of 2018. They have had a balanced plan in recruiting the top players of New Jersey, while also doing an excellent job of recruiting talent all over the eastern seaboard. Rivals just released their updated Top 150 rankings for the 2018 class and look at how many legitimate targets of Rutgers made the list:

#50 Jalen Carey

#66 Isaiah Mucius

#84 Montez Mathis

#100 Saddiq Bey

#114 Mamadou Doucoure - committed

#126 Samba Diallo

#133 Valdir Manuel

#134 Winston Tabbs

#140 Marcus Zegarowski

#147 Frankie Policelli

There are nine prospects listed in the Rivals Top 150 that Rutgers is seriously recruiting, in addition to 4-star big man Mamadou Doucoure, who committed to the program last fall. The only recruits they are targeting on the list that currently play in New Jersey for high school is Carey, Diallo and Manuel. Making in-roads in New York City is obviously important and landing Doucoure was a positive step in that regard. They are hitting the Maryland/D.C. area hard. Their willingness to recruit New England, where the staff is well connected, is something that could really pay dividends in the future. 3-star freshman guard Geo Baker may even prove that as early as this season.

Rutgers also pursued several top 50 prospects like Naz Reid, Jahvon Quinerly, Louis King, and David Duke, but the reality is more progress on the court is needed to have a realistic shot at landing elite recruits. Still, the boldness and confidence of Pikiell to be willing to take a shot against traditional powers for any player is a positive sign.

They are also making headway with the second and third tier of local talent, something that I believe is more crucial at this point of the rebuild. People complain Rutgers doesn’t ever get any top 5 players in the state, year over year. However, if they were just able to land a couple of players ranked between 6th to 10th each year, that would be major progress and infuse the program with improved talent and depth.

The only top 5 player in New Jersey that Rutgers seems to have a chance with is guard Jalen Carey, who has visited twice now in the past couple of months. His interest in Rutgers is a bit surprising, based on his offer list, but it shows how well of a job the staff are doing in selling their vision of the program. In addition, Rutgers is pursuing players like Valdir Manuel of St. Patrick’s, Matt Cotton from St. Benedict’s Prep, and Samba Diallo of Pope John. They also have been keeping tabs on guard Tavon Jones out of Linden and previously offered center Majur Majak of Roselle Catholic.

They’ve also shown a willingness to go South as well. Pikiell and associate head coach Karl Hobbs visited 3-star wing Isaiah Kelly in Georgia back in April and offered him last summer. 3-star guard Jimmy Nichols has offers from Georgetown, Miami, both Hurley brothers who coach at Arizona State and Rhode Island, but he also included Rutgers on his recent list of contenders. Since, Pitt offered and Butler, Ohio State and Minnesota have shown interest. That highlights another characteristic of recruiting under Pikiell, which is the staff’s penchant for offering prospects early on before bigger name programs get involved. There is no doubt they can identify talent, but they also seem to know who would potentially best fit within their program, another major factor in successfully rebuilding the roster.

That leads me to the most important recruit in the class of 2018 for Rutgers. 4-star guard Montez Mathis has been their top target for some time and landing him would be a major addition for the program. I’ve written about their pursuit of him and his game at length here. Jason Jordan of USA Today labeled Mathis a “blue collar star”, which pretty much sums up the exact type of frontline starter this program desperately needs. His versatility on offense and intensity on defense would set the bar for the prototypical player that Pikiell wants on his roster moving forward.

Rutgers offered Mathis at the start of his junior season and has recruited him non-stop ever since. The consensus 4-star and top 100 recruit cut his list of schools down to eight back in June, which I covered here. One school that scared me in his recruitment was Western Kentucky, who Mathis just eliminated from consideration after assistant Shammond Williams left the program. The biggest competition is probably Pikiell’s alma mater, UConn, as well as Virginia Tech and Xavier. Of course, Kansas is lurking in the shadows, but has yet to offer, which makes Mathis a clear backup plan for them. Even so, I really believe Rutgers has an excellent shot at ultimately landing Mathis, which would immediately increase the ceiling for the 2018 class.

If Mathis did commit by late summer or early fall, a true domino effect could occur. Do things then start to get serious with Jalen Carey, who you would think would have to be intrigued at the prospect of playing in the same backcourt of Mathis. Would Doucoure’s teammate, Isaiah Mucius, start to consider Rutgers even more so with Mathis in the fold? Even without those other two top targets on the board, the 2018 class would be exciting with two 4-star commits in Mathis and Doucoure. Rutgers is involved with so many talented players, including less heralded recruits like 3-star point guard Mac McClung, that the addition of Mathis could be a pivotal moment that opens the door to a true program changing class. McClung is the perfect example of a tough and talented floor general that’s flown a bit under the radar, but who fits Pikiell’s personality well and could flourish under his tutelage. (check out his athleticism on full display here.)

Even if Mathis doesn’t choose Rutgers, which undoubtedly would be a blow, the coaching staff has done an excellent job of recruiting the 2018 class so far and have created options for themselves. It’s feels like only a matter of time before a serious upgrade in talent starts flocking to the banks. According to 247 Sports, Rutgers has offered 46 players in the 2018 class. Now how many remain as committable offers is another story, but the reality is Pikiell and the staff have done their homework on this class.

They’ve hosted many targets leading up to this month. They aren’t entering the July live period looking to identify new targets, they are looking to hone in on their top priorities, in order to set up a big fall with this class. This is as well organized a staff that we’ve seen at Rutgers and fully expect that all four coaches will be at multiple events in the next three weeks. Who they observe and make contact with will tell us even more about how the 2018 class could potentially develop. At a minimum, Rutgers basketball is far more interesting and exciting to think about than in quite some time.

Additional Recruiting Links From The Spring:

Class of 2019 Targets

4-Star Paul Mulcahy Visits

Two Top 2019 Recruits Visit

Jalen Carey & Multiple Recruits Visit

2018 Recruiting Updates

Point guard Mac McClung Visits

Montez Mathis Visits Rutgers

Multiple May Recruiting Visits

A Dozen New Offers Made