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Rutgers Basketball Continues To Change Narrative On Recruiting Trail After Making Final Six For 4-Star Jalen Carey

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It’s a been a big few days for head coach Steve Pikiell and staff.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers men’s basketball program, coming off a huge week right after the conclusion of the July live period, continues to build major momentum on the recruiting trail. Sunday night, consensus 4-star point guard and Top 100 recruit, Jalen Carey, announced the final six schools that he is considering and Rutgers made the cut.

Carey, the holder of over two dozen offers, included Rutgers among a group that includes traditional northeast powers Villanova, Syracuse, and UConn, as well as Miami and blue blood program, Kansas. This is significant for many reasons and signals a true change in perception within recruiting circles.

Carey had a great month on the Nike EYBL circuit and only improved his stock during the live period. Typically, when a recruit this highly ranked picks up offers from current powers like Arizona and Villanova, which Carey did in late July, Rutgers would get knocked out of the running. In fact, Steve Pikiell gambled by continuing to make Carey a priority during this past live period and it paid off.

You have to applaud the Rutgers staff for making the most of their time during the live period. Although they watched a bunch of prospects and made a dozen or so offers during July, they focused on Carey, 4-star guard Montez Mathis, and 3-star point guard Mac McClung the most of any other recruits. They were successful in landing Mathis and McClung less than a week after the conclusion of the live period. Just a couple of days later, Carey includes Rutgers on his final list. The tired narrative and negative perception of Rutgers on the recruiting trail, due to past failures with top local recruits and a history of losing, is quickly fading away. Steve Pikiell and his staff had to make waves with their 2018 recruiting class and certainly have in a major way. The best part is it’s only August and Rutgers can enter the fall having security with their current class and serious momentum with future classes.

Seton Hall made Carey their top priority in the 2018 class and they didn’t even make the cut for his final list of schools. Carey said in this article that Seton Hall was one of the schools recruiting him the hardest, but it didn’t end up making a difference. The Carey news came just a few days after Rutgers beat out UConn for Mathis and Georgetown for McClung. Although there was no question that Pikiell was relentless on the recruiting trail since his arrival, he had yet to prove he could beat out schools considered ahead of Rutgers in stature. He is quickly proving that he can close out top recruits at this level in a big way, which is a development that should delight Rutgers fans.

Carey just received an offer from Arizona at the end of the July live period, but they didn’t make the cut either. After hosting Carey on campus twice since May, Pikiell and the staff are building strong enough relationships with top recruits that they are now starting to fend off late coming powers that would traditionally swoop in and knocked Rutgers to the sidelines. While Kansas, Syracuse, and Villanova will be hard to overcome in pursuit of Carey, the fact that Rutgers is still standing is significant.

Pikiell’s strategy and approach has also been key in the success the program is having in recruiting. His focus on building strong relationships with families and prioritizing those over AAU relationships is making him stand out in a positive way. While Montez Mathis played AAU ball for Team BBC, an Adidas school, there were indications that some involved preferred he choose UConn, based on relationships with assistant Raphael Chillious and the stature of their program. A big reason Rutgers landed Mathis were the strong relationships Pikiell built with Montez and his family, which obviously won out in the end. McClung also cited his father as being impressed by Pikiell and a major factor in his decision to choose Rutgers. In this day and age of recruiting, it’s inevitable that AAU programs are heavily involved, but Pikiell is taking the route less traveled and winning at it. It won’t always work, but it’s another qualifier in helping the staff determine the right fits for the program.

In terms of the 2018 class, Rutgers has two guards in McClung and Mathis, as well as big man and 4-star commit Mamadou Doucoure. What is key to watch now is what Rutgers does with their one remaining scholarship for next season. It’s possible they make a move that keeps a scholarship open for the 2018 class. In fact, that’s likely their plan, otherwise, Carey would not have included Rutgers in his final six schools. Of course, other spots on the roster could open in the future, so don’t expect the staff to stop recruiting the 2018 class. In fact, it was reported recently by Richie Schnyderite of Rivals that big man Warren Washington, who Rutgers just offered, will be visiting campus in a few weeks. The staff will be busy hosting as many targets as possible in August, including two 2019 prospects that I covered here.

For those that wonder if McClung and Mathis being committed would negatively affect Rutgers’ chances with Carey, the answer is an obvious no. The reality is Carey can play either guard spot and Pikiell is looking to upgrade the talent on the roster, regardless of position. While Rutgers certainly needs more help in the frontcourt, remember that Pikiell wants to play an up tempo, breakneck pace in the future and even played three guard sets at times last season.

Pikiell has proven to like big guards and adding the 6’4” Mathis the following season to a backcourt that will include a pair of 6’5” guards in Geo Baker and Peter Kiss, along with 6’9” wing Issa Thiam, gives Rutgers lots of combination possibilities on the court. Any of those players can play on the wing. Adding Carey with McClung would give Rutgers two athletic point guards to lead a potentially dynamic offense. Having a backcourt that loaded would allow for Rutgers to play a fast pace throughout the game by rotating players with little drop off talent wise on the court. This is an exciting possibility, for sure!

Perception is changing very quickly since last week’s big recruiting haul. National writers are starting to take notice of the work Pikiell is doing at Rutgers.

Having Carey include Rutgers in his final six schools that he is considering just further changes the narrative about this program on the recruiting trail. This will only help the staff with making in-roads with the 2019 class, as they are targeting many top targets, including every elite local prospect available.

There is much work still to be done and it will take a couple more years before the entire roster is completely remade by Pikiell. However, there are now real signs that the positive culture changes made and work being put in on the recruiting trail are starting to turn things around for the program. Pikiell took on a massive rebuild and it’s hard to argue with his progress so far.

After more than doubling their win total last season and a strong veteran core returning, more progress is expected this season. The most important question answered so far is that Steve Pikiell is proving he knows exactly what he is doing in leading Rutgers basketball back to respectability. Rutgers fans should try and let go of past fears and make sure they are enjoying the ride. It’s clear the program is headed in an exciting, positive direction. This summer on the recruiting trail, the old narrative about Rutgers basketball is now a thing of the past.