The Rutgers men’s basketball team tips off the 2018-2019 season on Friday night. Some of our contributors got together to make some predictions about the road ahead this season. It’s young group with a lot of unproven players at this level. However, there are also a lot of reasons to be excited and optimistic about the third team with Steve Pikiell as head coach. Without further ado, here are our staff’s thoughts regarding six questions for the upcoming season.
Who will lead the team in scoring?
David Anderson: Geo Baker. Is it a good thing is that this is actually a legit question after two years of being sure it was Corey Sanders? I’ll take Baker with the caveat that I don’t think he will lead the team in scoring in 50% of the individual games. However, Baker will have games he explodes and therefore boost the average with 25, even 30 point performances. The other reason is that he can make steals at the top of the key and has a knack like Sanders did for leaking out if someone else gets a turnover to get easy baskets in transition.
Patrick Mella: Peter Kiss. He spoke over the summer about how difficult it was to sit out last year but with the help of the coaching staff he placed a lot of his focus in the weight room and improving his defense. Offensively, he remains one of the better pure shooters on the team. His freshman year at Quinnipiac he averaged 13.3 points, shot .408 from the field and .742 from the free throw line. With Geo running the point it should allow Kiss to play off the ball and try to get some open looks. He’s a confident player that brings some swagger to his game. That confidence should benefit him and could trigger some hot shooting streaks.
Matt M: Geo Baker. I think this really comes down to minutes and as a freshman, baker was on the floor for 31.8 minutes per game. Without much depth at PG, Baker is going to be on the floor for as much as he can handle, with the ball in his hands. I do think Peter Kiss will be a double-digit scorer and agreed with above that we will see more of a variety of individual game leading-scorers than past years.
Dave White: Geo Baker. I think scoring will be distributed very evenly this year, so it could also be Peter Kiss or Issa Thiam. This team is such an unknown, but I do know it won’t be a crazy number. Whomever leads the team will probably be in the 14 or 15 ppg range.
Lance Glinn: Geo Baker. The ball will be spread around more than it has in the past 2 seasons under Steve Pikiell. However, Geo will still have the ball in his hands a lot more than any other player. His shot will only continue to get better, and the depth scoring, which has gotten much better this season, will allow Geo more opportunity.
Nick Kosko: Geo Baker. I feel Pikiell will want to spread the ball around this season after losing Corey Sanders. Baker will be the main facilitator but can also put up points at will. His development will be key and it will also help that he’ll have a shooter in Peter Kiss beside him. Without Sanders, it’ll be fascinating to see if Baker can take full command of the offense and the team. He had some big days last season; look for that to expand.
Namrita Singh: Geo Baker. I’m pretty much just going to echo everyone else’s sentiments. He’ll have more space and time, and I think he’ll have the ball in his hands more often than not. He was fun to watch last season and as David Anderson mentioned above, he has games where he’ll explode and I think he’ll really make his mark this season.
Aaron Breitman: Eugene Omoruyi. Last season, he was just fifth on the team in shot attempts, but scored in double figures ten times and had eight or more points sixteen times. He is going to be the lead frontcourt scorer on this team and if he can actually expand his game by connecting on a three-pointer here and there, his potential to boost his scoring average increases. Also, he was third in free throw attempts last season, but made just 54%. He may lead Rutgers in free throw attempts this season, so if he can become competent from the line and shoot between 65%-70%, it will have a major impact. I think he can average between 13-15 points per game this season, coming off a summer that coach Pikiell called him the most improved player on the team for a second consecutive year.
Who will lead the team in rebounding?
David Anderson: Eugene Omoruyi. Thought about going with a dark horse here, but I’m more confident in this pick than at any time since Rashod Kent patrolled the paint. Eugene will get plenty of minutes, knows how to get good position for boards on both ends, and most importantly will play with a lot of hustle. Though if the answer ends up being Issa Thiam or Shaq Carter that could be a sign of a program transformation as long as Eugene is not injured.
Patrick Mella: Eugene Omoruyi. My man crush for Eugene is no secret on this site. Everything about his game I love. Last season he brought a high level of intensity when he was on the court and played with a relentless motor. The team as a whole just looked better when he was on the court. For a second straight year we’ve heard Coach Pikiell rave about his improvement during the off-season. With the loss of Deshawn Freeman and Omoruyi most likely jumping into a starting role I think we’ll see an increase in his rebounding numbers and ultimately lead the team in boards.
Matt M: Eugene Omoruyi. Last year, DeShawn Freeman finished 7th in the Big Ten with 7.3 RPG and Omoruyi finished 28th with 5.0 RPG. The difference is Omoruyi was averaging 21 minutes per game, often coming off the bench and this year should be on the court for 30+ minutes per game. I think he has a real shot to not only be the team leader, but to finish in the top 5 rebounders in the Big Ten.
Dave White: Everyone is going to say Omoruyi, so I’ll switch things up and say Shaq Doorson. He’s healthy, he’s big and he’s a senior. I think this is going to be Shaq’s year.
Lance Glinn: Eugene Omoruyi. I was tempted to say Shaq Doorson, but I think we will see a rotation at center, just as we did last year, between Shaq and Mamadou Doucoure. I think the amount of minutes played will directly impact this stat. Eugene will get 30+ minutes a game, while Shaq should average around 20-24 Minutes.
Nick Kosko: I’ll go out on a limb and say Shaq Doorson. I think this is finally the year we will see him put it together at center and if there’s one thing he can dominate this season, it’ll be rebounding. If I’m Pikiell, I want Doorson focusing on defense and rebounding and figure out the scoring later.
Namrita Singh: Eugene Omoruyi and really for no other reason than the fact that Freeman’s gone and Omoruyi had the most (total) rebounds after him last season. I like his game and I think he’ll take significant steps forward again just as he has the past two seasons.
Aaron Breitman: Eugene Omoruyi. I have big expectations for Omoruyi this season, but they are no bigger than what he expects of himself. He has the potential to become an All-Big Ten player this season and really, Rutgers needs him to make that leap to make progress in league play this year. He had 5 or more boards in seventeen games last season and he needs to produce like that every night this year. I think he will be more consistent and improve his average to about 7 rebounds per game, after averaging 5 last season.
Most Impactful Newcomer?
David Anderson: Ron Harper Jr. A year ago I would have said Montez Mathis, but the hype train seems to have derailed with him. Despite not being a Bulls or Lakers fan of his father, I have to say Ron Harper Jr. He seems to be a winner and his length may find him on the floor in many different situations. He may not explode on the scene like Geo Baker did early last year, but over the long haul Harper should be a key part of the team each game. I see a Marquis Webb-type freshman year at worst with likely more future potential. The long term upside is Ron Harper Sr. which isn’t too shabby.
Patrick Mella: Montez Mathis. Freshman are always a little tricky to predict but Mathis’ combination of talent and rare athleticism should translate well to the college game. I think you’ll see him improve greatly from November to January as he gets more and more comfortable. Let’s face it. Rutgers needs playmakers and Mathis has the tools to be that guy. He is excellent at driving to the basket 1v1, often exploiting defenders with his uncanny athletic ability and many times earning a trip to the charity stripe. Something that could prove invaluable for Rutgers especially late in games.
Matt M: Peter Kiss. If Kiss counts as a newcomer after sitting out last year, I think he’ll have the biggest impact on the team this year. I expect him to get the nod as the starting shooting guard and to be a primary option in the offense, especially in creating his own shot. Depending on Montez Mathis’ development, I think the strongest lineup for Rutgers is going to end up being a small-ball lineup where they get Baker, Mathis and Kiss all on the floor together and have Omoruyi guard opposing big men for stretches.
Dave White: Peter Kiss is going to have a head start on some of the other newcomers. Along with Myles Johnson, Kiss spent a year in the program, redshirting and practicing with the team. Word is he has the grit and scoring ability the team needs. If he meshes well with Baker, he’s going to get the team rolling with some high impact.
Lance Glinn: I am going to go a little off the cuff and go with Jacob Young. Now you may ask, Lance...Are you dumb? He’s not even playing! Yes, you’re right. He is not playing. But he’s practicing. He is a big-ten level starting quality point guard that Rutgers will have on their scout team for this season. His presence will allow Geo and the other guards to go up against high-major talent every practice, which will help better prepare them for the big ten season. Sure, Peter Kiss or Montez Mathis or Shaq Carter, or any newcomer will have better stats than a guy who is ineligible this season, but Jacob Young’s impact this season will be huge.
Nick Kosko: I like the freshmen in Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. but it has to be Peter Kiss. He was hyped as a transfer last season and now that he is finally eligible to play, Rutgers fans will be expecting a lot. There’s going to be some pressure, but from what we have seen and heard, Kiss can be a knockdown shooter and be the guy you want with the ball in his hands late in the game for a dagger jumper.
Namrita Singh: Peter Kiss. After sitting out last season, I think he has something to prove and he’ll be able to help the team score more with Sanders gone. He plays with a ton of confidence and I’m excited to see what he can do.
Aaron Breitman: Shaq Carter. There is a lot of opportunity in the frontcourt with the departure of Deshawn Freeman. Someone has to fill those minutes and that production. While Myles Johnson will see minutes, I think Shaq Carter has the most potential to be a solid producer this season. He is physically ready to compete in the paint in Big Ten play, is super athletic, and has a clearly defined role. Rebound, defend, and score near the rim. Carter played two seasons for JUCO powerhouse Eastern Florida State and has the maturity to step in right away and make an impact. If Rutgers wants to be as strong on the boards and on the defensive end this season as in the past, they need Carter to produce in both areas, which I think he will.
David Anderson: Tuesday February 5 against Michigan. Students shouldn’t have midterms yet and love an excuse to go nuts on a random week night. The 2018 national finalist will have some supporters in the arena to bring out some extra juice at the RAC. Yes it’s a stretch to pick a victory over a top 25, but funny how these things happen in college basketball. And that’s what the question is all about, right?
Patrick Mella: I don’t want to downplay the importance of the conference schedule especially since Rutgers has had some brutal stretches between January and February. But to me beating Seton Hall a second straight year, in their building, would prove that the victory last season was no fluke. Moreover, it continues to improve the optics of the program in the tri-state area and affirms that things are in fact trending upwards at the RAC (notice I didn’t say Piscataway).
Matt M: It’s only the third game of the season, but I think a home upset against St John’s will go a long way to establishing the tone of the season. With the 20 game Big Ten schedule this year, Rutgers will get plenty of shots to take down a ranked conference opponent and I do think they’ll do that as well. But with an antsy fan base looking for something positive after this football season, taking down the former Big East foe is not only achievable, but will help build confidence that the team can pull off more upsets with this difficult schedule.
Dave White: Sigh. This is hard for me, because I feel like a jinx. I think the team is going to gel late, so give me a second to look at the schedule. Be right back. I’m going to say Wednesday, January 30 against Indiana. Indiana is going to be much improved this year, but they’re still young. They should be an up and down team, but some are predicting a Tournament appearance. I’m going to guess that Rutgers has all the shots go in that night, and it starts a good end of the season.
Lance Glinn: You look at the schedule before the season starts and go through every game determining whether it will be a win or a loss. To me, one game that stands out is November 28th in the Big Ten - ACC Challenge at Miami. The Scarlet Knights played the Canes tough in Coral Gables not too long ago, and this is not the most talented squad Jim Larranaga has had at the U.
Nick Kosko: I’m with my bud Lance right above me. During my junior year at Rutgers, I traveled for WRSU down to Miami and called Rutgers close contest with the Hurricanes (court side somehow!). There were bright spots in that game and with the development over the last two seasons, I think Rutgers can make a name for themselves nationally with an impressive win on the road. It just feels like the year to do it.
Namrita Singh: Don’t ask me how they’re going to win or if I’m delusional but Michigan State on November 30th at the RAC. Listen, I know it’s two days after they play at Miami. I know it’s their first conference matchup. When these two teams played each other last season, Rutgers lost the first game at home by ten but then lost in overtime by four on the road. I’m cautiously optimistic. I think this is a game they can win.
Aaron Breitman: Maryland on January 5th. This game is at the RAC and ends a six week period where Rutgers only has games every Saturday during that stretch. I really think that extended practice time during the season will benefit this young team greatly. Maryland should be in the top half of the Big Ten once again this season, but they are certainly beatable, especially on the road. For Rutgers to make progress in league play they need to start winning games like these at the RAC. While I don’t think that will happen on a consistent basis this season, this game will give fans a taste of what this group is capable of down the road.
What are your expectations and how will you measure progress for this season?
David Anderson: I will measure progress by if the RAC is rocking or not. For this to happen, there has to be at least one impact newcomer to generate buzz and a significant leap from a returning member of the squad to continue belief in the staff’s ability to develop players. For example, let’s say Issa Thiam is finally able to hit 3s in bunches because no one can really block it and Montez Mathis is explosive on the fast break. Then the Scarlet Knights will have a positive feedback loop, particularly at home and we’ll see what can happen at the end of games. As we have seen so much during the football season in the Big Ten with Maryland, Ohio State, Purdue, and of course Rutgers, so much is about perception and hope for the future rather than how many are in the W and L columns. Last year it took until the Big Ten tournament to see consistent ball movement, that needs to happen sooner and a good crowd builds energy as the ball whips around quickly.
Patrick Mella: I would be thrilled if they made it to the NIT. I know a lot of fans are calling for Rutgers to go dancing this year and if they weren’t before, they were after Coach Pikiell mentioned it during the off season. I mean that should be an expectation for every team but my issue with it is that it puts thoughts in peoples minds that if they don’t make it that the season was somehow a failure or disappointment. Fact is, it’s very difficult to make it to the tournament. Every year there are legitimately good teams that get left out. How about finish the season with a winning record? I for one am tired of being picked dead last every year in the Big Ten. This is a young team but to me finishing above .500 would be considered a very solid season.
Matt M: The KenPom rankings have Rutgers projected as the 149th best team in D1 and a final record of 10-20. Progress to me means exceeding those expectations, but that could happen in a bunch of different ways. NIT and above .500 seem to be common expectations that I don’t think we necessarily have to achieve this year to show “progress”. I’d like to see one of the freshman emerge as a playmaker, see improvement from veterans like Thiam, and not see a huge step back on the defensive end. With only one senior (Doorson) and a bunch of newcomers, ultimately, I want the season to end with the feeling that we can compete for an NCAA bid in the following year.
Dave White: I want to see the team get better from November to March. There are going to be some rough stretches this year, but as long as Pikiell can hold the team together through the losing, we are going to see some fun development going on here. I look forward to Montez Mathis finding his legs. Ron Harper hitting some big threes. I can’t wait to see how much Omoruyi and Baker have improved. Let’s not forget Myles Johnson. This team finally has the height, length and look fo a Big Ten team. Now they have to gel. It’s going to be fun to watch. Enjoy the build.
Lance Glinn: Progress is winning the games Rutgers is supposed to win, and competing, just as they did at times last year, against the teams they are aiming to reach. It is a much more difficult schedule in year 3 under Coach Pikiell, with an improved non-conference that can give Rutgers fits. Games like Eastern Michigan or Fordham will not be easy wins, but they are games the Scarlet Knights should win regardless. Have games like last year where you play Michigan State close and play Purdue close, and perhaps maybe one of those tight games goes Rutgers way. But remember, this year is not about wins and losses. It is about improvement. Geo improves, Eugene improves, the newcomers find their stride, that is how progress will be measured.
Nick Kosko: I think this team is going to be exciting to watch with the returners and the young and exciting newcomers, of course. However, losing a guy like Sanders and DeShawn Freeman, makes this team a bit younger and they could be in line for a step back record wise. Things will have to fall into place like: Geo Baker taking the next step, Peter Kiss being the real deal, and Mathis and Harper Jr. being early contributors. I will say, it is not unreasonable for this team to finish .500 but the NIT or any tournament berth will likely have to wait until 2019-20.
Aaron Breitman: The biggest thing I’m looking for is in February and March this team shows clear signs of improvement and makes it obvious the core group of players have a chance to make a real leap the following season. In terms of specifics, the defense and rebounding at the end of the season needs to be where Pikiell wants it to be. On offense, Rutgers needs to establish an identity and share the basketball more than in previous seasons. In Big Ten play, it should be a usual occurrence that four or more players are scoring in double figures each game. Shooting should be improved in all three phases. Most importantly, this team should be the most competitive of any previous Rutgers team has been in Big Ten play, by winning more games than ever before and reducing their average margin of defeat in losses to single digits. If we see a team that fights to the end, sticks together and shows signs of learning how to win as a group, it will all equal up to achieving the expectation of the following season being the breakout year for the program.
What is your prediction for regular season record?
David Anderson: The wins and losses matter less than the play on the floor. If Rutgers has a few hiccups in non-conference as they start to jell, but really turn it on in the Big Ten that is fine with me. I still have serious concern that they can play consistently at a high level in the Big Ten to get wins. What makes the Big Ten different than the old Big East and every other conference in America today (yes even the ACC, did you see #1 Virginia lose?) is that the level of play every single night is so high, you are never going to stumble into wins. 11-19 (4-16 Big Ten)
Patrick Mella: This is probably one of the most difficult basketball seasons to predict that I can recall. Maybe Dave or Aaron can remember one that was more uncertain but there are just so many new guys and questions that we just can’t answer right now. I can tell you though with 100% certainty that Coach Pikiell is the right guy to take this program to where it ultimately wants to be. But just remember- the college basketball season is a long one and we’re most likely going to see them struggle at times and even stumble in a few games like we saw last year versus Hartford (the Stony Brook loss wasn’t a shocker!). With that being said, I’m going to make a cautiously, optimistic prediction based partially on the fact that I desperately need something to look forward to. Prediction: 16-14
Matt M: I’m going with 14-16, which doesn’t sound all that impressive, but would be a big feat considering the 20 game Big Ten schedule and OOC matchups against St. Johns, at Miami, and at Seton Hall. More importantly, I think we avoid the Big Ten basement for the first time and finish with 6-7 wins in conference.
Dave White: I’m going to go 13-17 (6-14 Big Ten). Fans are going to need to stay the course here. There are going to be frustrating moments. This is a young team that lost 3 of its best players. It will take time, but I think we’re all going to be very, very excited going into 2019-2020 (!!) season.
Lance Glinn: This program is improving and the talent in it is getting better and better each year. But Coach Pikiell knows this team still has a long way to go. If Rutgers is at least 8-4 once 2018 comes to a close, that is a big step in the right direction. That means they either avoided the big upset, or upset a team like Miami, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. Big Ten play, like it always is, will be difficult. I think reaching 5 wins should be the goal. I think the team reaches those 5 Big ten wins. I believe they will go 13-17 (5-15 Big Ten).
Nick Kosko: The talent is there for this team to come out swinging but once Big Ten play hits, they might hit a few brick walls. What you want to see is the competitiveness on the road in conference play (i.e. Purdue (Lance knows what I’m talking about)). If the above scenarios I mentioned in the previous section pan out, we could be in for a fun ride. I might be a little too optimistic here, but the RAC advantage is real and with a more spread it around type of offense, there could be more consistency to hang with the big boys. 15-15 (7-13 Big Ten)
Namrita Singh: They’re taking steps in the right direction. The team is fairly young and has a solid foundation heading into the future of this program. With that said, this season will have a bit of everything. Highs, lows... maybe a lot of lows. I think we’ll see more consistency from them, day in and day out. I don’t think they finish at the bottom of the Big Ten and one thing I’d definitely like to see is wins on the road. They finished 0-9 away from the RAC last season (2-1 at neutral locations) so a road win or two would be great. I think they’ll finish 15-15 (6-14 Big Ten)
Aaron Breitman: This is the most unpredictable Rutgers team in years. So many newcomers, just one senior, only eleven scholarship players eligible to play are all issues that make it hard to envision this team becoming the first in over a decade to produce a winning record. That being said, it’s an intriguing group and should be an incredibly fun team to watch. There will be highs and lows. I see Rutgers at 7-5 at New Year’s Day, followed by the Maryland upset, and then some tough losses ahead. However, I think the February slate beginning on the 9th at Illinois through early March gives Rutgers a chance to win more Big Ten games than ever before. Hopefully that buoys the confidence of this team and they can some type of statement in the conference tournament for a third straight year. 14-16 (7-3 non-conference; 7-13 Big Ten)
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