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OTB Round Table: Thoughts On Rutgers Men’s Basketball Through Midway Point Of Season

Our staff talks about the ups and downs so far, as well as expectations the rest of the way

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 16 Seton Hall at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rutgers men’s basketball team enters the new year with a 10-5 record midway through the season and resumes Big Ten play on Wednesday at #14 Purdue. After a mostly up, but big downer to end non-conference play, the Scarlet Knights have an 0-2 record in Big Ten action with sixteen games remaining. Our staff got together to discuss the first half of this season and how we see things playing out the rest of the way. Let’s tip things off here.

What are your thoughts on this team midway through the season?

Patrick Mella: Overall, I've been pleased with the progress of the program, yes including the loss to Stony Brook and Hartford (ugh). People forget how low this program was just two years ago. Coach Pikiell in one season more than doubled the win total, including four Big Ten wins (including a Big Ten tournament game), has recruited surprisingly well and in year two has already beaten a top fifteen program. They've struggled at times, including a four point victory against Central Connecticut and a less than stellar performance against Fordham. But as I'll mention later in this article, college basketball is a very long season. It's important to not get too high after wins and too low after losses. Trust me, the Stony Brook and Hartford losses both stung. But after about fifteen minutes of quiet time for Pat, reality sunk in. They're two out of a thirty plus game season. Over the course of a season (and rebuild) you're going to have peaks and valleys. I thought Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck illustrated this perfectly in a press conference this past season when talking about success and how it's perceived. Rather than a straight line going up, success includes both ups and downs in the process. Remember this as Rutgers embarks on a very tough January schedule. There will likely be some tough losses but also a lot of positive takeaways.

Jim Hoffman: I am so impressed at the large steps forward that the program has taken since Steve Pikiell took charge. Last season’s jump in wins was fantastic, and so far this year, the team seems better than last year’s by a pretty good margin. I have always been of the same mind as Patrick above. The road to success is never a straight line. There are always dips, and I guarantee there will be losses in the conference that will be described by others as ones that “we should have won.” The last two games are mind-boggling, and make no sense. But, overall, they are continuing the trajectory started last season.

Dave White: This team is, record wise, one game behind with where I expected early on. But the way the RAC crowd has responded to this team, the battles with top teams and beating Seton Hall have me thinking this team has made a giant step forward. In fact, the losses to Stony Brook and Hartford should tell us a lot about how this team reacts. If they learn from those setbacks and bring effort the rest of the year, then the losses have value. So far, I’m pretty happy with how Rutgers is playing this year.

Bob Cancro: I’m writing this as the team is down 6 to Hartford with 10 minutes to go. What do I say? This was a team making huge strides, and then beating Seton Hall. If they lose to Hartford at home after losing to Stony Brook at home, it’s not all wasted, but it looks shaky. And they cheated Seton Hall. (Editor’s note: spoiler alert, they lost and Bob was too grumpy to update.)

David Anderson: I am writing after the Hartford game, which was a huge disappointment. What have you done for me lately thinking indicates the season has lost some of its luster, but overall this is exactly what we expected: One big win, two bad losses. For the play on the floor, defense has been pretty solid for the most part and passing has improved a bit. It’s still bothersome that offensively overall this team simply is a roll of the dice almost every time down.

Brian Fonseca: If I were answering this question a week and a half ago, I’d say Steve Pikiell has not misstepped once in his season and a half at the helm. As I mentioned after the Seton Hall win, Pikiell had yet to lose a game he should have won. After getting the signature win he was missing on his resume, Pikiell’s teams laid two massive eggs against America East programs.

Looking beyond those two upset losses and observing the non-conference schedule as a whole, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a positive one for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights crushed the teams they should’ve beat before the past week and they upset their biggest rivals, who have their best team in decades led by a group of experienced seniors. Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam showed plenty of growth in their sophomore years, Geo Baker was a pleasant surprise as a freshman, Mamadou Doucoure is improving by the game and the defense remains excellent. The short-term frustration of two massive upset losses shouldn’t take away from the long-term optimism that this program and its rebuild are in good shape.

Pete Winter: Looking at the schedule before the season started, I was expecting an 11-4 record entering the new year. We’re currently at 10-5, with one great win and two really disappointing losses. So it’s not all bad, but it’s not as good as it should be either. On an individual level, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the progress of Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker. I still think we’re in a good position long-term, but our performance in Big Ten play will give us a true assessment of where we stand.

Aaron Breitman: I went into detail over the weekend about how I see things with the program right now. This is a bad offensive team that Pikiell has willed to greater success through hard work, rebounding, and defense. When any of those three factors aren’t being fulfilled at a high level, this team is susceptible to losing any game they play, regardless of the opponent. Looking at the big picture, nothing about the past two ugly defeats have changed my opinion regarding Steve Pikiell being the right coach for Rutgers and that he will be the one to return the program to the NCAA Tournament. It’s just going to take time and in a “I want it now” society, unrealistic fans aren’t going to be happy. However, I’ll take disappointment and frustration over apathy, which everyone except the diehard fans of this program felt just two years ago. The fact that so many people are upset after these two losses shows progress.

Biggest Disappointment So Far This Season?

Patrick Mella: V1.1 Ok, so this is my second go around as I've scrapped my previous entry with the horrific loss to Hartford. It was bad but I wanted to give myself a full 24 hours to truly process what just happened. Listen, this was a bad loss and by far the worst of Coach Pikiell's short time here. But if we're complaining about one very bad loss (this was much worse than Stony Brook) in almost two years then he's doing something right . It's not being a "homer" or sugar coating anything. This is the reality of college basketball. Rebuilds take time and don't come without pitfalls. Coach Pikiell's 2016 Stony Brook team team that made the tourney included regular season losses to Western Kentucky, Albany and Vermont. Every year we see upsets happen during March Madness. 2016 saw Michigan State lose to Middle Tennessee, 2013 Georgetown upset by Florida Gulf Coast, 2014 Duke downed by Mercer. I could go on and on, but the point is that one loss (or win) can't define a program.

Jim Hoffman: I’m writing this the morning after the loss to Hartford, and I am still shaken. This one REALLY got to me. Originally I was going to say the Michigan State loss was most disappointing to me. We were right there, on the cusp, and it slipped away. It would have been a bigger win than Seton Hall. The game was ours for the taking, and we couldn’t get over that hump. But last night’s loss has me questioning everything that I previously thought about the team.

Dave White: It’s easy to say the Stony Brook loss, and it was disappointing. But, I was hopeful more shots would start to fall this year. With Geo Baker, Issa Thiam and Mike Williams on the squad, and my (admittedly unscientific) belief that shooting is contagious, I was hoping the shots would start falling. While there have been some signs, it hasn’t clicked yet. I really am begging for a team that can hit 8-10 three pointers a game, but that might still be a year or two off.

Bob Cancro: See my comment above (editor’s note: Bob is still salty)

David Anderson: Consistent guard play. People can get on Freeman for his occasional bad games, but the truth is he is simply an undersized 4-man. But Hartford guards just outplaying RU, come on. Geo Baker showed promise early but seems to be hitting the wall way to early in the season. Sanders is good, but not good enough to turn it on (especially on D) only in the clutch of big games. Mensah has been a huge disappointment so far. Mike Williams is Mike Williams, really the same guy he has been the last three years. It would have been nice for his ballhandling and passing to have improved a little more.

Brian Fonseca: The answer to this is obvious, but I’ll offer some consolation.

People are upset at what happened in the past week with this team, which is totally understandable. Losing to two straight America East Conference programs is reason to panic, especially after it sucked the air out of the program’s biggest win in a long, long time. But consider this — would the fanbase be this upset at this stretch two years ago, when 17-game losing streaks were a regular occurrence with Eddie Jordan at the helm?

That’s the biggest sign of progress I can point to under Pikiell. When Jordan lost games like those — and there are plenty of examples to point to — the reaction of many was apathy. The hope around the program was gone. The question wasn’t whether Rutgers would lose, but rather by how much. Pikiell changed that within a season and a half.

Now, comparing Steve Pikiell to Eddie Jordan is a disservice to the current Rutgers head men’s basketball coach, but I do it to demonstrate what Pikiell is working with. To put it nicely, Jordan’s recruiting prowess was horrendous. Pikiell is doing the best he can with who he inherited, which included approximately zero consistent shooters.

I’m not making excuses for Pikiell — there is absolutely no excuse Rutgers should’ve lost to Hartford. But the fact those who are reading this are probably still steaming over that loss is a good thing. Two years ago, you would’ve gotten over the loss within the hour, your apathy for the program increasing by the day. Now, you have hope.

Jayson Love: After the Seton Hall win, which may have been the worst thing to happen to a developing program, expectations began to raise for this season, perhaps unfairly. Of course, the Knights lost improbably to Stony Brook (a team used to winning) and Rutgers, which is a program used to losing, lost again to Hartford - an even worse loss. It is important to realize that while RU has some nice players on this team, Pikiell is still picking up the pieces left by Eddie Jordan and Mike Rice. “Enjoy the build” is a motto I have seen bandied about these parts, and while frustrating at times, nothing has changed. The future is the types of players Pikiell has brought into the program and we haven’t seen a front-court/back-court freshman duo like Baker and Omoruyi impact the program like this since Carter and Jack. Unlike in those days, Pikiell has backed up that recruiting class with a solid 2018 incoming class. So while things have been disappointing lately, it is still progressing how you would want in the second year of a regime.

Pete Winter: This is an easy one. The loss to Hartford was a huge disappointment. We were on such a high after the Seton Hall win, and considering the time of year, the loss to Stony Brook is somewhat understandable. But I still can’t figure out the follow-up performance against Hartford. Good teams find a way to respond after adversity, and we couldn’t do that at home against a team ranked #307 in the KenPom rankings. That’s hard to handle.

Aaron Breitman: The lack of consistency from Corey Sanders. His second half effort against Seton Hall will go down as one of the best individual performances all-time by a Rutgers basketball player in delivering a signature win against its blood rival. However, the junior has now been benched on three separate occasions this season. The first came against Coppin State, as Pikiell stated he was sending a message to Sanders, who he felt needed to improve his practice habits. The second came when he said something an official did not like during the loss to Minnesota with seven minutes to go in what was a somewhat competitive game up to that point. He received a technical foul because of it and Pikiell sat him down the rest of the game, as a 12 point deficit ended in a 22 point defeat. The third was due to missing his flight back from Christmas break, resulting in missing practice, something that occurred in two consecutive years. Pikiell benched him the first nine minutes of the game against Hartford and Rutgers trailed by 8 points when he did enter the action. In the end, his solid play on the court wasn’t enough to prevent the worst loss of the Pikiell era. Sanders is a good kid who has shown a willingness to embrace team play and has become a more complete player under Pikiell and this coaching staff. However, it’s been disappointing to see him continue to have issues like the one’s he’s had this season. This team needs him to learn from these mistakes quickly and be a leader, both on and off the court the rest of this season, so more progress can be made, both for him as a player and for the program.

Biggest Surprise So Far This Season?

Patrick Mella: The Seton Hall win was the signature victory of the Pikiell era but how about the fact that they've played every ranked team tough? Although FSU wasn't ranked inside the top 25 when they played, they are now 11-2 and #24 in the country. Rutgers would end the first half down by one and after struggled at times in the second half they would cut the FSU lead to three with just under two minutes left. That would be the closest Rutgers would get but it showed they could play with the better teams out there. The Minnesota loss looks on paper like it was a blowout but Rutgers played tough all game even getting within eight points by the nine minute mark. But Jordan Murphy and a loaded Minnesota team were just too much to handle and would end up winning by twenty two. The schedule only got tougher for the men when they faced a #3 Michigan State Spartan squad with national champion aspirations. It was a game that would have surely been a forty point blow out two years ago but Coach Pikiell rallied the troops and gave MSU all they could handle. After being tied at half, Rutgers wore down towards the end and would lose by ten points. I believe those three games really helped the men believe they could compete with any team on any night and ultimately catapult them to the Seton Hall victory.

Jim Hoffman: My biggest surprise is actually a negative. I am surprised that the team’s free throw shooting percentage has not markedly improved since last season. It is a basic that even high school coaches stress, as those are often the difference between winning a losing a close game. Coach Pikiell is a coach who stresses fundamentals, and this is such a fundamental. It really surprises me.

Dave White: Geo Baker’s seamless transition to the point guard position on this team. It’s clear the team runs more smoothly when he is handling the ball, and he even has shown up big time against top talent. Geo Baker has only scratched the surface of what he can be in his college career at Rutgers. Steve Pikiell called him a 4 year starter. Soon, he might be the best player on the team.

Bob Cancro: The integration of the newcomers; great job by Pikiell and great buy-in by players. Geo Baker, as Dave noted, has been a tremendous asset.

David Anderson: Eugene Omoruyi. He almost single-handedly won a few games and is the only guy who truly understands how to defeat a major mismatch every time he gets one. When a smaller, slower guy is on him, he can seemingly put the biscuit in the basket every time. Everybody else does not seem to have their fundamentals to a level to do the same thing. Eugene, if he gets better may morph into a guy who can create mismatches at the 3 or the 4, but until he can add a pull up jumper, longer range, or some unstoppable post move will remain a guy who is limited to a burst once a week or so. Hartford figured they might as well just foul him where he was just 3 of 9, but I think his free throw shooting will return to a reasonable level.

Brian Fonseca: It’s a cop-out, but I’m going to agree with Dave above. Geo Baker is playing above his age and often looks like a vet on the floor. He’s never afraid to take a big shot, showcased by his late jumper in overtime against Stony Brook.

I was speaking to a friend of mine who goes to Indiana and the conversation swung to basketball. When I asked him what he thought of Rutgers, without hesitation, he said Geo Baker has the chance to be a star. I can’t say I disagree.

Jayson Love: The biggest surprise to me has been the impact of the freshmen. Geo Baker has looked not just explosive and talented, but remarkably comfortable for a first year player. Eugene Omoruyi has also looked aggressive and confident playing among the trees, and looks to be an impact player for the years to come on both the offensive and defensive end. Surprisingly, the most heralded incoming freshman Mamadou Doucoure has looked the least confident in the group, but is still contributing right away for the program.

Pete Winter: I agree with David – the biggest surprise has been Eugene Omoruyi, who has averaged an unexpected 9 points and 6 rebounds. He’s been a completely different player this season, as his confidence has grown by leaps and bounds. He’s carried us on more than one occasion and his versatility will be a huge part of our success moving forward.

Aaron Breitman: The team’s ability to play so well against top competition despite being so limited offensively is the biggest surprise for me. The way Rutgers was able to give Florida State (11-2, #27th in KenPom) and Michigan State (14-1, #2nd in KenPom) all they could handle in close losses (15 points combined), despite shooting 41% and 26% respectively in those games, was extraordinary. They only shot 34% from the field in the stunning, come from behind victory against Seton Hall. Think about that for a second. For me, this is what people are missing in being so upset about the losses to Stony Brook and Hartford. This is an extremely poor offensive team and the fact that they’ve even been as successful as they’ve been this season is a testament to the coaching of Steve Pikiell and the rest of the staff. It’s obvious they played up to it’s competition in those games and they’ve struggled to match that focus and intensity against lesser teams since, which they have paid dearly for. For Rutgers to win a record amount of games in Big Ten play, they’ll need to match the effort, defense and rebounding they were able to produce against those three opponents mentioned above.

Hopes & Expectations For Rest Of Big Ten Play?

Patrick Mella: The schedule is fairly daunting for Rutgers. They'll struggle against Purdue and handling big man Isaac Haas, plus two games versus an underrated Ohio State team, a road game against Michigan State who will not be caught off guard by Rutgers this time around and contests at Maryland and Michigan. That's seven potential losses but other than those games I think Rutgers can compete with the remaining teams. Two winnable games versus Illinois and Nebraska, a home game against a Northwestern team they almost beat on the road last season, and a Penn State team they went 1-1 with only a year ago. I think if they could improve on the four win total from a year ago, in the range of five or six victories I think that would be notable progress with anything above six wins being outstanding. It's important to remember that this is a rebuild and there will be more ups and downs to come for this young program. I'll be looking for the quality of the teams performance, how they respond to adversity and whether or not there is marked improvement by the end of the season. But one thing is clear. This is the toughest men's basketball team that Rutgers has had in years. They play very good defense, rebound well and most importantly they play for each other, making this team a must watch for any Rutgers fan.

Jim Hoffman: My greatest hope is that teams sleep on us, and we can catch a few unaware. I think we may steal a couple of games that way. I think that is why the Michigan State game was close, they had low expectations regarding Rutgers’ performance. My expectation is that we will win between 5-7 conference games this season. If they can get the upper end of those numbers, we’re looking at a possible NIT bid this season. I would be thrilled at this point for that to occur. (editor’s note: Rutgers will likely need 20 wins total to have a shot at the NIT)

Dave White: I want to see this team play in front of sold out student sections and crowds at the RAC. Beyond Purdue, Rutgers isn’t going to face another (currently) ranked team at home. That means almost any game is a toss up and a full crowd can rattle the opposition and motivate Rutgers. The road schedule is difficult and Rutgers hasn’t been a good road team in a long time, which means this team needs to turn itself into an excellent home team. The win over Seton Hall shows what this team can do when it brings the effort--they will need to bring it every night at the RAC.

Bob Cancro: The Big Ten is still the Big Ten. Dave thought I was crazy for predicting 20 wins; maybe I am. The way the team was playing going into the Seton Hall game gave me hope that my prediction would hold. But a lot is going to depend on the Hartford game - and I won’t update this after the game no matter what happens. If they lose, confidence is going to drop, fans are going to shake their heads, and who knows what will happen.

David Anderson: Taking the emotion out and looking at the big picture, I still think five or six Big Ten wins is the ceiling. Having already dropped their first two conference games with sixteen to play, it’s hard to say they will go 6-10 in those. Five and eleven the rest of the way is probably the most likely because nothing jumps out right now as a part of the Knights game simply on the cusp of being “great”. No injured players are about to come back for a boost, no one is missing jumpers that you know will start falling consistently, and the team rebounding simply is not as good as a year ago for whatever reason. You just can’t win more than one out of every three B1G games when every offensive trip down the floor is a struggle to get a good shot. And IF Rutgers has a lead late, the poor free throw shooting will never allow them to pull away. So all that negative, the best two reasons for hope are that Doucoure has not shown any signs of figuring it out yet, but if he does, could look like a completely different player. Also Thiam has been able to get his three point shooting down enough to use it as a way to get better two point looks. He’s so tall that he should never be blocked, so if he can continue to score in the low teens every game that should ease the load on everybody else.

Brian Fonseca: This is a down year for the Big Ten. Aside from the top three of Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue, most teams are playing at middle-of-the-pack level. This bodes well for Rutgers, who can certainly steal some wins at home.

I expect Rutgers to finish 6-12 in conference. I think it steals a win against a team it shouldn’t beat (I’ll predict Penn State away) and lose a game it should win (I’ll say Nebraska at home). Regardless of record, the biggest thing for Pikiell’s team is to not get embarrassed. The most important thing is to keep games within reach until the very end and above all, be a respectable team.

Jayson Love: Obviously, the win over Seton Hall increased expectations which were then immediately squashed by back-to-back losses to teams in which the Knights were a double-digit home favorite. So now, I don’t know what to expect from Big Ten play. There were some games that looked winnable that now, I can’t be sure of the result. One thing is for certain, despite the two recent losses the Knights are a much better team at home and can ride the energy of the bigger crowds. I think RU steals one they shouldn’t win, lose a few they should win, and struggle on the road. 6 and 12 sounds about right as Brian stated.

Pete Winter: Despite the recent setbacks, my hopes for Big Ten play have not changed. I’m expecting 6-7 wins and a winning record overall. I also expect the Scarlet Knights to play with great effort and put up a fight every night, beginning at Purdue on Wednesday night.

Aaron Breitman: My hope for year two of the Pikiell era was for Rutgers to achieve it’s first winning season in 12 years and finish better than last place in the Big Ten for the first time in four tries. All of that is still attainable, but accomplishing a winning campaign was certainly made harder by the losses to Stony Brook and Hartford. However, the Big Ten is wide open, aside from Michigan State and Purdue. As I said above, if Rutgers can match it’s focus and intensity on the defensive end and on the boards in Big Ten play, they’ll be able to win its fair share of games. I still believe they can go 6-12, which would likely have them finish better than last place in the conference. They would be 16-15 headed to Madison Square Garden and needing to win the Big Ten Tournament opener to clinch a winning season. Count me in as one who still believes this will happen.