UPDATE: Tai Strickland committed to Wisconsin on March 27th. Original story below:
Since Steve Pikiell became head coach at Rutgers almost two years ago to the day, he has been searching for his point guard of the future. He has come very close twice to landing a floor general that fits the style of play he envisions for the program, but neither target ended up in a scarlet and white uniform.
First, Rutgers lost out on New York City’s 4-star point guard, Jose Alvarado, who ultimately chose Georgia Tech over Piscataway during the 2017 recruiting cycle. He had a solid freshman season with the Yellow Jackets, averaging 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.7 steals in 35 minutes per game, while shooting 44.8% from the floor and 37.0% from three-point range. When he missed the last 7 games of the season due to injury, Georgia Tech went 2-5 without him.
In this recruiting cycle, Pikiell landed 3-star point guard and walking highlight machine Mac McClung, who verbally committed last August. However, he decommitted shortly after an official visit in October and ultimately signed with Georgetown. The newly opened scholarship was put to good use by the staff, as they quickly landed JUCO standout Shaq Carter two days later, who officially signed last fall. Along with 4-star guard Montez Mathis and Don Bosco star Ron Harper Jr. signing, with the latter having a monster end to his high school career, the promising 2018 class was full for Rutgers.
Now with the likelihood that at least one scholarship will open for next season based on the transfer culture that exists in college basketball today, Pikiell and the staff have been focusing on their top priority for the current roster. Finding a point guard is clearly a major need for Rutgers, despite the fact that Corey Sanders and Geo Baker did an admirable job this past season in sharing the role. The fact is both are better suited playing off the ball and IF Sanders stays one more year and IF Rutgers can land a point guard this cycle, the program will be poised to take a step forward next season. Hence, the coaching staff is prioritizing that role and have found who they deem the right fit for the program.
The player Pikiell has zeroed in on is 3-star point guard Tai Strickland from Florida and the son of 17 year NBA veteran Rod Strickland. After watching him several times in 2018 during his senior high school season, Rutgers offered in late February. Their pursuit was well timed, as soon after fellow Big Ten programs Wisconsin and Minnesota also offered Strickland. While Maryland was showing interest, in addition to Boston College and DePaul, his father’s alma mater, offering him as well, the 6’2” point guard decided to narrow his decision down to three schools this past Monday.
Strickland visited Wisconsin last weekend and spoke about his experience with Jesse Temple of Land of 10 here. The Florida native will be on the banks starting today through Sunday visiting Rutgers, which was first reported by Pat Lawless of Prep Circuit. After Strickland received a visit from Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino this week, he is set to visit the Gophers during the first weekend of April.
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.”
As for the timeline of Strickland’s decision, Strickland told Temple in this article that he plans to announce around April 11th, when the spring signing day period opens.
Rutgers pursuing Strickland is important for multiple reasons. Most importantly, he would fill a major need. Pikiell yearns for an athletic, tough minded, and gritty floor general that can dictate the action, spread the basketball around, while also being able to rebound and get out on the break. He can also score in bunches and attacks the rim under control, making him a true triple threat in being able to dribble, pass, and shoot. Rutgers needs another playmaker and his versatility would fit perfectly with the prototype of player Pikiell is filling the roster with. Here is a recent County Tournament game from February in which Strickland went off for 35 points for St. Petersburg Prep. He is #2 in the white jersey.
Another reason Strickland’s recruitment is important is because Rutgers is battling two conference foes for his services. The Scarlet Knights beat both Wisconsin and Minnesota on the court this past season. Beating them for a dynamic point guard, which Strickland is, would be another step forward for Pikiell and make a statement that Rutgers is starting to hold their own in recruiting Big Ten caliber players.
While not nearly as important, the cache of having two sons of respected NBA veterans on the current roster would be a positive endorsement for Pikiell and the staff to have in their arsenal on the recruiting trail. Allow me to get a little nostalgic here, but I personally loved watching Rod Strickland and Ron Harper in the 90’s. Both were tough players who delivered in multiple big moments throughout their careers. Their sons have been groomed for years and while both have been late bloomers to a degree, the potential for them to continue to develop their games and take their skills to another level seems likely. If you would have told me 20 years ago both of their sons would eventually play together at Rutgers, I would have said where do I sign?
Oh by the way, if you are wondering whether the two father’s know each other aside from playing against each other countless times during their NBA careers, check out this picture from a golf outing at some point in recent years.
This doesn’t mean the two are close, but it can’t hurt Rutgers’ chances for Strickland to know that Harper has confidence in Pikiell and the direction of the program to have his son commit to playing on the banks.
UPDATE: Rutgers announced on Friday afternoon after this was published that Souf Mensah and Matt Bullock were granted their releases. That opens two scholarships for next season.
I’m not here to speculate on who will depart from Rutgers to open a roster spot for next season. I’ll leave that to the message boards. While Corey Sanders returning remains very much up in the air, it’s certainly possible another spot opens up and may even already be known internally. The point being, don’t worry about that being an issue in Strickland’s decision, as it’s clear the staff have made him a top priority. On twitter, several players have made overtures to Strickland, including Geo Baker here, as a tweet from Montez Mathis here and Harper Jr. as well. Seeing this type of unity and having players make mention of Strickland on their own twitter accounts can be a factor in the recruitment process for sure.
The bottom line is Rutgers generated positive momentum at the end of the season due an unexpected run to the Big Ten Quarterfinals. It’s crucial as the program enters year three under Pikiell that they take advantage of that performance by continuing to upgrade the talent on the roster, both for next season, now with two open roster spots, and beyond. Rutgers hosted 4-star wing Ismael Massoud from the class of 2019 earlier this month and have made fellow classmate 4-star guard Paul Mulcahy a top priority as well. The staff continues to grind and build relationships with impact players in future classes.
Now, the biggest recruiting battle for Rutgers since Pikiell landed Montez Mathis over UConn last summer is officially underway. Hopefully, the staff will produce the same result and add another high ceiling player who could make an immediate impact next season. Even more importantly, Strickland would bring balance to the backcourt and give Pikiell the long term answer at point guard he has sought since he took over the program.