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Rutgers Men's Basketball Enters Offseason With Recruiting Momentum As Program Build Enters Critical Stage

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After the success enjoyed the Big Ten Tournament, the focus on the future is now

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Minnesota vs Rutgers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been just over a week since the season ended for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, but the positive vibes generated from their run through the Big Ten Tournament remains. After a regular season record of 13-18 and a fourth consecutive last place finish in the Big Ten that left most fans disappointed, perception changed after wins over Minnesota and Indiana sent Rutgers into day three at Madison Square Garden. As well as they played in coming back after trailing by 16 points to knock off the Hoosiers, their most impressive performance at the Garden last week was in defeat, as the Scarlet Knights battled a top ten Purdue team into the final minute of the game before succumbing in the Quarterfinals. It was the farthest Rutgers had advanced in the Big Ten Tournament in four appearances and they became one of the top stories of the weekend.

It was a significant end to head coach Steve Pikiell’s second season at Rutgers and has resulted in a positive change in perception regarding the program in the eyes of the media and other Big Ten fan bases. Pikiell told Gannett’s Jerry Carino in an interview this week that he has been receiving “tremendous feedback” since the three-day run at the Garden ended the season. The Big Ten Tournament was viewed as a universal success by the national media, which was the opposite of how it was written about for years leading up to last week, and Rutgers was a major reason why.

While there was a solid crowd filled with scarlet faithful in the opening round win over Minnesota, it wasn’t until the surprising 21-4 run to end the first half against Indiana that Rutgers began to own the Garden crowd in a way it hasn’t in years. They finished the game making 26 of 35 shots from the field and created an electric atmosphere in the process, as Corey Sanders led a parade of dunks near the end of the contest that left every Rutgers fan delirious on their feet. While Purdue ended the magical run the next night, Steve Pikiell’s team gained even more respect and had the Garden rocking again, pushing the Boilermakers to the brink.

The BTN crew was effusive in their praise of Pikiell and Rutgers throughout the three days they played in the Big Ten Tournament. In this clip, they harp on how bright the program’s future is after their performance at the Garden.

Respected national writers noticed as well.

The Big Ten Tourney run has done a lot to change perception in the college basketball world, but it will be fleeting if Rutgers can’t build off of this and improve next season. There is still plenty of work to be done. With the departures of Mike Williams, Deshawn Freeman, and Candido Sa, while the future of Corey Sanders remains uncertain, Steve Pikiell will have a lot of new pieces to develop for next season. The arrivals of 4-star guard Montez Mathis, JUCO standout Shaq Carter, and wing Ron Harper Jr. certainly add talent to the roster. Another wing, Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss, is in line to make an impact next season, giving Rutgers a shooter they desperately need. Former 3-star recruit and big man Myles Johnson, who was redshirted and had a year to develop, could be a key contributor next season as well. Having a nucleus back with Geo Baker, Eugene Omoruyi, and Issa Thiam gives Rutgers a solid base to build off of.

Still, Rutgers needs more talent to truly climb the ladder of the Big Ten and Pikiell now has the success of the Tournament run to sell on the recruiting trail this offseason. The program just released this video on Friday loaded with positive selling points for recruits to consider:

The staff have been active since their arrival almost two years ago and one advantage of the Big Ten Tournament taking place one week earlier than the rest of the high major conferences is that they’ve been able to pound the recruiting trail in recent days. While Rutgers doesn’t technically have an open scholarship for next season available, having a player or two transfer out is a reality that every Division I program needs to be prepared for these days. If someone does ultimately leave, with Sanders expected to confirm one way or the others soon, the coaching staff will be prepared.

The roster has many needs, but none are more important in my opinion than Pikiell finally landing his point guard of the future. Although the offseason has begun, Rutgers finds itself in another Big Ten battle already.

Rutgers is targeting 3-star point guard Tai Strickland, son of longtime NBA player Rod Strickland, and the 6’2” floor general has generated a lot of interest as his senior season winds down. The St. Petersburg, Florida native holds offers from Wisconsin, Rutgers and Minnesota, while Maryland is showing interest as well. Strickland told Pat Lawless of Prep Circuit this week in this article that those are the four schools recruiting him the hardest. He is set to visit Wisconsin on March 15th to 17th and Lawless reported that Strickland will visit Rutgers on March 23rd to 25th.

At the end of February, Strickland spoke to Sean Bock of Zagsblog and had this to say about the Rutgers coaching staff:

“I love the coaching staff,” Strickland said. “Most of the coaches are former point guards, and they preach toughness. Also, they run a very guard friendly system, and that’s very attractive as well.”

Other schools mentioned as showing interest in Strickland from Bock’s article include SMU, UMASS, Virginia, Oklahoma State, Baylor, South Carolina, and DePaul, his father’s alma mater. Rutgers has watched Strickland play often in the past month and has been out in front of most other high major programs now targeting him.

Strickland is a prospect who has steadily improved throughout his high school career and is a hard nosed, two way player that projects as a good fit into the culture that Pikiell is building at Rutgers. While it’s likely Wisconsin will push Strickland to commit on his visit next weekend, hopefully the point guard takes his time. It’s possible Rutgers will have an open scholarship by the time he is scheduled to visit Piscataway at the end of this month. There are plenty of video highlights of Strickland in action this season here.

Another player that Steve Pikiell watched in action this week is guard Devonte Bandoo of Hutchinson Community College, a JUCO national powerhouse and the same school that Deshawn Freeman played at before Rutgers. Pikiell could be going head to head with another Big Ten school, as Indiana head coach Archie Miller was at the same game.

Bandoo was named to the KJCCC All-Conference First Team and averaged 16.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steal and 32 minutes per game in 33 contests this season. The 6’3” guard shot 49.5% from the field, 42.5% from three-point range and 81.3% from the free throw line. With the JUCO national tournament beginning soon, Bandoo will have another opportunity to showcase his talents in front of high major coaches. While Rutgers hasn’t made an offer yet, expect them to stay on top of the sharp shooting guard this month. The shooter is from Ontario, Canada and the last player Rutgers grabbed from that area, small forward Eugene Omoruyi, has become a key piece for the program. Bandoo holds offers from Buffalo, West Virginia, and New Mexico, per 247 Sports.

Other options for Rutgers for next season could come the way of the graduate transfer route, as many will become available in the coming weeks once the college basketball season is officially over. Rutgers fans should take comfort in the fact that Pikiell and the staff filled the 2018 class back in the fall, giving them time to focus on filling potential spots that open moving forward. This is a sign of forward progress, as Rutgers has typically still been working to fill scholarships that remained open throughout the current recruiting cycle once the season was over. Their hard work has given them the luxury of focusing on specific needs and future classes as well.

In addition to next season, the Rutgers coaching staff has been working hard on class of 2019 recruits since last summer. Gill St. Bernard’s guard Paul Mulcahy remains the top target in this class and Pikiell has watched him play multiple times since last summer. Mulcahy has visited campus multiple times as well and led his team to a Somerset County title, while eclipsing the 1,000 point mark in his high school career this season. The consensus 3-star and top 200 national recruit would be a major win for Rutgers on the recruiting trail. He is ranked 7th in an absolutely loaded New Jersey class that includes other Rutgers targets Khalif Battle and Kahlil Whitney, both 4-star prospects. Mulcahy has picked up offers from Marquette, Xavier, and Northwestern since January and also holds offers from Rutgers, Seton Hall, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Rhode Island, among others, per 247 Sports. Of course, Villanova is lurking in the shadows and if they end up offering Mulcahy, they would be the biggest threat to Rutgers in landing the multi-talented player that has been a priority since Pikiell arrived on the banks.

Rutgers is also pursuing 4-star wing Aundre Hyatt, who I’ve written about in the past here when he visited last August. Pikiell watched him as recently as mid-February and he would be a major addition to the program as well. Another 4-star in the class of 2019, forward Eric Dixon, visited Rutgers in January for the Ohio State game and has been pursued by the staff since last year. All of the groundwork laid by Pikiell and the coaching staff has been crucial in having a chance to land players of their caliber up to this point, but the end of this season for Rutgers was vital for them to have proof that that progress is actually occurring.

At the end of February, Rutgers entered the Big Ten Tournament with little momentum and had won just two conference games in the past 42 days. They left the event held at the Garden with two wins in as many days and put up a fight against a Final Four caliber team on a national stage that earned much needed respect for the program. With the 2017-2018 season complete, Rutgers won five games against Top 100 teams per KenPom, the most since the 2011-2012 season. Steve Pikiell has now won three conference tournament games in two seasons, more than any Rutgers coach since Kevin Bannon did almost two decades ago. As of this writing, KenPom has Rutgers ranked 26th in the country in defensive efficiency for this season. These are tangible selling points Pikiell can use on the recruiting trail this offseason. However, the show they put on and the support this team received from the Rutgers faithful at the RAC and at the Garden last week are just as important in showing recruits that something special is being built.

Momentum is a delicate thing and Rutgers needs to capitalize off of their recent run on the recruiting trail. While the expectations for next season should be measured, if Rutgers can add a key piece or two this spring, the future will be even brighter even sooner than expected. With the April live recruiting period just a few weeks away, Steve Pikiell and the staff will be very active in pursuing 2019 targets as well. There is no doubt that perception is changing, but this is a critical stage in the rebuild of this program. Pikiell has proven his formula is working, but adding talent is the ingredient needed most moving forward. It’s an exciting time to be a Rutgers men’s basketball fan and the coming months on the recruiting trail will shape the future immensely.