With just one senior and only five returning players with Big Ten experience, there are a lot of unknowns about what to expect from the Rutgers men’s basketball team this season. In Steve Pikiell’s third season leading the program, the roster is made up entirely of his recruits with senior center Shaq Doorson as the lone exception. While early signs point to improved athleticism, lineup versatility and a more balanced roster, expectations should be tempered based on the lack of experience with this team. There are plenty of questions regarding this Rutgers edition ahead of its first game of the season, which tips off on November 9th at home against Fairleigh Dickinson. Let’s start with five here, as well as info on Big Ten Media Day and MidKnight Madness, which take place on Thursday and Friday.
Will The Defense Remain A Strength?
In looking at advanced statistics via KenPom, Rutgers had finished outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency for four consecutive seasons until they were ranked 70th out of 351 Division I teams in Pikiell’s first season. The defense improved even more in year two, finishing 28th nationally. Defense became part of the program’s identity, along with a focus on rebounding, effort areas that Pikiell instilled within the entire roster. Even so, the Scarlet Knights were just about average defensively in Big Ten play, finishing 9th in conference action. It was still respectable and kept Rutgers in plenty of games they wouldn’t have been in the past. Their biggest strength was forcing turnovers, doing so at the third highest rate in the Big Ten.
While there is a lot of intrigue and questions regarding how the offense will operate this season, how they play defense will be a big factor in any success this team has this season. Can the new players pick up the defensive concepts and have the stamina to give the effort needed that Rutgers coaching staff requires on that end of the floor? I have confidence this will be a sound team defensively once again, but there will probably be growing pains along the way in this area.
Will This Be A Better Shooting Team Overall?
The short answer is probably and the honest answer is god, let’s hope so. Last season, Rutgers finished 336th or worse in two-point shooting, three-point shooting, and free throw shooting, making them one of the worst offensive teams in the country. Newcomers Peter Kiss, Montez Mathis, and Ron Harper Jr. have the potential to help this team shooting the ball. Shaq Carter has a different game than Deshawn Freeman and won’t be chucking fifteen footers outside the paint. Look for him and Myles Johnson to help along the glass and score on putbacks off the offensive glass.
As for behind the arc, Geo Baker and Issa Thiam both shot a solid 36% from three-point range on 120+ attempts each last season. It they can both better that mark, along with Kiss, Mathis, and Harper Jr. proving to be competent from deep (30% or better), Rutgers will be much better in this area. Our Dave White wrote about how important this would be here.
As for free throw shooting, Thiam, Baker, Kiss, and Mathis should be solid in this area. Eugene Omoruyi was third last season with 109 attempts, but struggled making only 54.1%. If he can improve in this area, along with frontcourt mates Shaq Doorson, Shaq Carter, and Myles Johnson being competent, Rutgers will be in better shape from the line as well.
What Place Will Rutgers Finish in Big Ten Play?
It should be no surprise, but Rutgers was voted to finish in last place for a fifth consecutive season in the Big Ten’s unofficial preseason media poll conducted by The Athletic and Columbus Dispatch. The reality is until they do better than fourteenth, there is no reason for the midwest media to expect Rutgers to move up the conference ladder. This is a very young team, but I think there is hope they could finish better than last this season. Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota, Iowa, and Penn State are likely to finish in the back half of the conference this season. Rutgers plays all of them but Illinois twice, so there will be plenty of opportunities to win in Big Ten play.
I think a key stretch this season is during a five week period from early December to early January, Rutgers only plays five games, all on Saturday’s. There will be plenty of practice and development time during this stretch that could really help such a young team get better. Six of their last eight league games are against the projected bottom half of the league. I’m not saying Rutgers will put together enough victories to produce a winning record this season, but they will have a legitimate chance to finish better than last for the first time since joining the Big Ten. For a full analysis on the conference schedule for Rutgers, click here.
How Will The Offense Be Different With Geo Baker Running The Point?
It will be an interesting dynamic to watch this season, as Baker is not a true point guard and best suited off the ball long term. With Paul Mulcahy joining the roster next season, it will be Baker running the offense this year and look for him to share the basketball with his teammates. He did play point guard in high school and is a good passer with vision. I asked coach Pikiell on the first day of practice a couple of weeks ago about Baker leading the offense and this is what he had to say:
Big Ten Media Day for men’s basketball is in Chicago on Thursday. I won’t be there this year but I asked coach Pikiell this preseason about how the offense will be different with Geo Baker running the point. His answer: pic.twitter.com/bU2YBZnQM7— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) October 10, 2018
Can The Rookie Second Team Contribute Right Away?
This is the biggest question I feel, because depth will be key for Rutgers to be successful in a lot of the areas I mentioned already in this article. It’s still early, but my guess is that Shaq Doorson, Eugene Omoruyi, Issa Thiam, Peter Kiss, and Geo Baker will start at the beginning of this season. If so, the six scholarship players off the bench would be sophomore Mamadou Doucoure, who may flip with Doorson in the starting role, along with three true freshman, one redshirt freshman, and a JUCO transfer. Caleb McConnell is slated as the backup point guard and his ability to run the offense, as well as his on the ball defense will be key for the second team to provide quality minutes. Harper Jr, Carter, and Myles Johnson provide size and versatility, while prized recruit Montez Mathis could be better served easing into the action by coming off the bench. How many minutes there are to go around will be interesting to watch for in non-conference action. Pikiell will want to get a very green second unit some experience and be able to assess what he has to work with heading into Big Ten play.
On Thursday, Big Ten Men’s Basketball Media Day takes place right outside of Chicago in Rosemont, Illinois. There will be live coverage on the Big Ten Network, starting with the coaches press conferences from 9 a.m. ET to noon ET. There will be additional interviews and coverage from noon ET to 3 p.m. ET, including player and coaches from all 14 teams. Geo Baker, Eugene Omoruyi, and Shaq Doorson will be representing Rutgers along with coach Pikiell. You can watch Pikiell’s Big Ten Media Day presser here.
MidKnight Madness takes place on Friday night at the College Avenue Gym and is a student only event that is already sold out. The men’s and women’s teams will take part, which includes a three-point and dunk contest, among other activities.
Hey @RutgersU students! This event is for YOU. Join us @RutgersWBB @RutgersMBB this friday at College Ave Gym for a great night. We’re thrilled to be joined by @TaylorRooks and a performance by @ArtistHBTL. R season is right around the corner! ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/bZ4zcLQlut— C. Vivian Stringer (@cvivianstringer) October 9, 2018