Veterans, veterans, veterans.
When you look at teams who make a jump in the standings, they are usually stacked with juniors and seniors. And that’s what Rutgers finally has next year. For the first time since Mike Rice’s first season, the team is full of veteran guys. They aren’t head coach Steve Pikiell’s guys, but they have been through the Big Ten wars for three or four years.
And, to me, experience is key. You have guys who know what it takes now, but haven’t seen the fruits of their labor produce many wins yet. For Deshawn Freeman, Mike Williams and Candido Sa, this is their last chance at a winning season. And the way Freeman and Williams grinded last year, you can bet they know how hard they have to work to get better.
Meanwhile, it’s clear Corey Sanders wants to be an NBA player—and after two years of testing the draft waters—he knows what it takes. The last time a player of his talent made a huge jump between sophomore and junior season at Rutgers Quincy Douby went on to be one of the best off guards in the Big East—maybe the nation. Sanders needs to make a similar jump, but more as a point guard. He has to empower the players around him and yet take his shot to score when the openings present themselves.
Shaquille Doorson has been in the program for three years now, as well (including one medical redshirt). Last season, Pikiell raved about his dedication to lose weight and get into game shape. While we never saw a dominant Doorson on the floor, one had to wonder if he was fully healthy last year. If he’s healthy now, perhaps he has the experience to put together a solid junior year at center.
Veteran teams can often exploit younger, but more talented teams. They use experiences they’ve had in the past to step by their youthful opponents and also nurture their younger teammates. Knowing it’s their last shot, seniors dive on the floor more, they go all out every game. Remember Mike Williams amongst the trees grabbing rebounds? I’d expect to see that tenfold next year.
Williams, in fact, is the key to what I expect to see next year. A good player who makes the smart play each possession. Look for his three point shooting to make a jump as he takes better shots. If Issa Thiam and Geo Baker can do the same (yes, I know their not vets), It can really open up the court for Freeman and Sanders. All the while, they can play grind it out defense.
Now, being a good team does not mean making the NCAAs—I’m not sure Rutgers is there yet. But it does mean doing something a Rutgers team hasn’t done in 11 season. With the OOC the way it’s starting to play out, Rutgers can make hay there. Pair that with a 6 or 7 win Big Ten season and you’re looking at crossing that .500 barrier—and playing in a postseason tournament (probably the CBI). I fully expect Pikiell to notch at least one upset of a top 25 team in his belt.
Now I can be way off here. It happens. Someone could get injured or the top teams in the Big Ten could be head and shoulders above everyone else.
But veterans have a way about them. They step up.
And Mike Williams, Corey Sanders, and Deshawn Freeman are three guys I think will make that leap.