Editor’s note: The start of practice for the 2017-2018 college basketball season begins this weekend and Rutgers basketball will celebrate with their second annual MidKnight Madness Event at the RAC this Friday at 7:30 p.m. For more information, click here.
The start of every season brings excitement and hope that better results will occur, but for the first time in a long time for Rutgers basketball, there is reason to really believe that the program is headed in the right direction. Head coach Steve Pikiell enters his second season at the helm and as I covered in detail in this state of the program overview, he has made many positive changes in a short period of time. There is legitimate buzz among Rutgers fans that better days really are ahead.
With practice beginning this weekend, it’s time for the first installment of our season preview. Let’s start with three areas that Rutgers should be improved in and are directly tied to the change in culture that Pikiell has created within the program.
Strength & Conditioning
While Pikiell has made many changes since his arrival and that was apparent on the court last season, one less obvious area that experienced major improvement was the strength and conditioning program. Bringing David Van Dyke with him from Stony Brook has proven to be a great move and the results were significant last season. Rutgers was far healthier and in much better shape than they ever were during the Eddie Jordan era. Games missed by key players were few and far between and Pikiell ran with a deep bench. Ten players averaged nine or more minutes per game and all of them played in at least 30 out of 33 possible games. The most exciting part of those results is that it was only year one for the players in the revamped strength and conditioning program and the priority was setting a baseline standard for expectations moving forward. In interviewing Pikiell last spring, he made a key point that should have fans excited about this season:
“David has done a tremendous job. Especially in light of the fact that a lot of our players had injuries. He got them through it all, all season long. We pretty much had a full roster for the whole season. It’s a long season and it’s a credit to the work he did. I think we were in really good shape. I think it will even pay bigger dividends moving forward here. I think you will see a big jump from the freshman to sophomore year, their bodies, strength, explosiveness.”
With all the positives that were achieved in this area last season, we could see even bigger gains from players this year. Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi are two guys that jump out as players who could be much improved this season on the court and benefited most from the strength and conditioning program. Pikiell singled them out in this must read Q&A from Jerry Carino of the Asbury Park Press, published on Monday. Another is Candido Sa, who needed to get stronger to compete in the paint against the Big Ten trees this season. Overall, it’s fair to expect this team as a whole to be better conditioned and better suited to play more of an up tempo style, something Pikiell prefers to to do. Shooting is still going to be an issue this season, so the more Rutgers can look to push the pace and score in transition, the better. That lead’s into another area that the Scarlet Knights should be improved in this season.
For the first time in several years, Rutgers begins a season without any open scholarships. Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss does have to sit out this season due to transfer rules, but his ability to push the backcourt in practice will be valuable and his future is bright. The losses of CJ Gettys to graduation and Nigel Johnson transferring to Virginia are big ones, but Rutgers could end up being a deeper and more balanced team without them.
They’ve added a true point guard in JUCO transfer Souf Mensah, a pure shooter in freshman Geo Baker, a terrific passing big man with touch in Myles Johnson, and a bruiser and defensive enforcer in Mamadou Doucoure, something that Rutgers desperately needs. Doucoure, who recently reclassified so he could enroll a year early, hasn’t been fully cleared yet. However, Pikiell did tell Carino in his recent Q&A that he is now able to practice with the team. It should only be a matter of time before he receives full clearance to play this season.
In terms of the backcourt, having Baker and Mensah will give Corey Sanders the opportunity to play off the ball at times, something I harped on last season as being key for him to best feature his game. As I said back then, Sanders has done an admirable job at the point, but he was also a sitting duck for opponents to key on defensively. It’s actually amazing that he was as effective as he was at times with dribble penetration and attacking the rim, because everyone in the gym knew when he had the ball at the top of the key, he was driving to the rim with his right hand. While he’ll likely still handle the ball and run the offense at times, he will have more chances to move without the ball along the perimeter and baseline, making him much more difficult to defend. He isn’t going to become a deep threat overnight, but his ability to attack the rim from the wing off the pass will give him more options to score. After buying into the new system under Pikiell last season, Sanders could make even bigger gains with his overall game this year.
If Omoruyi is a more complete player, he could even play some at the wing, as well as on the blocks. Issa could become a consistent threat from behind the arc this season and showed flashes of developing a mid-range jumper at times. Baker can play both guard spots and adds 3 inches height wise to the potential trio of himself, Sanders, and Williams, in replacing Nigel Johnson when Pikiell wants three guards on the court. Baker will likely be a more willing passer and can feed both Sanders and Williams along the perimeter, creating more scoring chances for both of them.
Adding Johnson and Doucoure up front could make a big difference defensively, along with what Sa can bring after his offseason development. Shaq Doorson is coming off of foot surgery, but can help too once he is ready.
Deshawn Freeman will continue to be a reliable rebounder and crafty scorer in the paint, but he has been working hard at developing his mid-range jump shot as well, something that could really make him a more effective scorer this season.
Pikiell can use more lineup combinations this season with a deeper, more versatile backcourt and more bodies to play in the paint. Don’t have any illusions that the roster is where he ultimately wants it to be, but there is reason to hope this will be a better and deeper team this season versus last.
Unlike last season, the majority of the roster this year has been brought in by Pikiell, as three Jordan era players transferred out in the offseason. I think the staff have done a great job of organizing offseason workouts and team building activities. They’ve also done a great job marketing those types of things as well. Check out this video of the entire program taking part in the Tunnel to the Towers 5K run over the weekend, which is a great example of the type of important life experiences the players are getting by playing for Pikiell.
While this team is still fairly young, there was only one scholarship senior on the roster last season in graduate transfer CJ Gettys. This year, both captains from last season return with Mike Williams and Deshawn Freeman, giving this team strong senior leadership. Last season, they only had six returning scholarship players and this year they have eight, as well as adding newcomers who have a better idea of what to expect after having the benefit of seeing this team play under Pikiell. The players that have returned are hungry to achieve even more success than they did last season and the newcomers were sold on an opportunity to contribute right away. Every team benefits from competition and the players should be locked in with zero distractions this season, having just completed an offseason without major transition and having an opportunity to take a step forward as a team in the rebuilding process.
There is still a lot of progress that this program needs to make before they are competing for the postseason. As I said in reviewing the schedule for this season, my hope is that this team can produce it’s first winning campaign in 12 years. That should be the expectation for this season, with anything below that viewed as a minor disappointment and anything better than that being a major surprise. The Big Ten is never easy and I think the league will be more balanced this season.
Pikiell and the staff will need to mix and match lineups in non-conference play to find the best combinations, but they have some interesting options to tinker with. Overall, this team enters year two of the Pikiell era better prepared and potentially deeper than last season, as well as having a better understanding of the expectations their coach has of them. All of those factors and the area’s discussed in this article give hope this team will be an improved version of last season. How much remains to be seen, but I can’t wait to see them in action soon enough.