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Offseason A Pivotal One For Rutgers Men’s Basketball

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It’s early, but a lot is already happening

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

March madness may be close to over, but the offseason has already been a busy one for the Rutgers men’s basketball program. Head coach Steve Pikiell wisely made several media appearances after Rutgers made an unexpected run to the Big Ten Quarterfinals, including with the CBS Sports Network and the legendary Chris “Mad Dog“ Russo on Sirius. In addition, he and the coaching staff took advantage of the week head start by hitting the recruiting trail hard. They were able to watch more New Jersey high school playoff action with the Big Ten holding the conference tournament a week earlier than usual. They also traveled to states like Florida and Kansas, with likely more visits having occurred but going unreported.

With signees Montez Mathis, Shaq Carter, and Ron Harper Jr., who put on a show in the NJ TOC Final, Rutgers didn’t officially have a scholarship available for next season at the beginning of March, but roster attrition was expected. Last Friday, as 3-star point guard Tai Strickland made an official visit to campus, not one, but two spots opened, as the program announced the departures of Matt Bullock and Souf Mensah. While both were team players during their time on the banks, it was exciting to know that Pikiell now had flexibility to improve the roster even more so this offseason. Both players were projected to be at the end of the bench next season, so this turnover can be viewed as a positive in terms of rebuilding the roster.

UPDATE: Two hours after this article was published, Corey Sanders announced he was declaring for the NBA Draft and was hiring an agent. His Rutgers career is over. There are now three open scholarships for next season.

In going head to head with Wisconsin and Minnesota for Strickland, the wait for the point guard of the future continues, as Tai announced on Tuesday that he was committing to the Badgers. While it was disappointing, missing out on Strickland is no reason to panic. Wisconsin started recruiting him first and Minnesota was scheduled to host Strickland as well, but he ultimately never visited there. He would have been a fine addition for Rutgers, but there are other potential answers that the program can find this offseason.

Fans can be impatient with recruiting and Rutgers fans have the added frustration of not experiencing a winning season in over a decade. Look at it this way though, would a fast rising point guard from Florida with a father who is a longtime NBA veteran have included Rutgers in his final three and actually visited in the past? Certainly not as recent as two years ago and maybe not even last offseason either. Taking baby steps forward while not achieving the ultimate goal is often not looked as progress, but as Pikiell enters year three at Rutgers, its important to remember how bad this program was perception wise and was in reality when he took over in April 2016. Under the previous coaching regime, the program had such little visibility on the recruiting trail that Pikiell was essentially starting from scratch. Building relationships and establishing credibility within a high major program that isn’t a traditional powerhouse takes time.

The good news is this staff has the security of three players in the 2018 class already being signed and can focus this offseason on pursuing any unsigned propsects from this cycle, as well as JUCO and grad transfer targets. Perhaps they’d even consider a sit-out transfer as well. Remember, as college basketball heads into its final weekend of the season, MANY players around Division I have yet to announce their intentions to transfer from their current schools. The last couple of years, there were hundreds of transfer targets to choose from. Pikiell and the staff have recruited well late each of the past two offseasons, so it’s possible a player still with another program could end up in Scarlet next season.

Two years ago, they landed grad transfer CJ Gettys and Canadian high schooler Eugene Omoruyi in August of that offseason. Last year, while Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss announced he was joining the program and 3-star center Myles Johnson committed on Mother’s Day, the news of 4-star center Mamadou Doucoure reclassifying and joining the program didn’t break until right before Labor Day.

For the present, Rutgers continues to aim high....and tall. Recruiting analyst Andrew Slater announced this week that Rutgers was set to visit 5-star big man Charles Bassey, who is 6’10”, on Wednesday.

While the top five player in the class of 2019 appears to be a Western Kentucky lean, with Kansas in hot pursuit as well, a staple of the Pikiell era has been the staff’s fearless and relentless nature in recruiting the best players available, regardless of the competition. The footprint that he and the staff have laid the past couple of years has been significant. Rutgers is hosting and visiting players at a level they couldn’t even get a call with in the recent past before this staff arrived. Recruiting is a numbers game and while it’s easy to be skeptical or get upset when a top prospect chooses a blue blood program over Rutgers, which has been an issue for decades, the quality and volume of recruits that the staff is involved with is extremely high. That increases the chances that sooner rather than later, Rutgers is going to pick up some more notable wins on the recruiting trail, whether that is under this current cycle or in future ones. And yes, Mathis counts as the first big win of Pikiell’s tenure on the recruiting trail, as he was the program’s highest rated recruit in almost a decade.

Aside from recruiting, another thing that is crucial this offseason is maintaining continuity within the program. It’s only the second full spring and summer that the players will have to work in the strength and conditioning program under David Van Dyke. As many gains as players like Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi made last offseason, there are plenty more still to come. Rising sophomores Geo Baker, Mamadou Doucoure, and Myles Johnson enter an important offseason where their development, which is key to the team’s progress next year and beyond. It looks likely the core of the roster is sticking with the program and that’s a positive development on its own. How many times have key players left Rutgers just as it appeared a corner was being turned? Too many to recall in this space. This is another sign that positive things are happening and the culture is strong under Pikiell.

Of course, the key question this offseason is whether Corey Sanders returns for his senior season or not? It’s likely Sanders hasn’t even made up his mind yet and it’s hard to really know which way he will go. Rutgers fans should be supportive and thankful for his past accomplishments. Now that he decided to go pro, Sanders leaves behind a major void on the roster and it puts more pressure on the coaching staff, as they’ll have three open spots to fill for next season.

UPDATE: Two hours after this article was published, Corey Sanders announced he was declaring for the NBA Draft and was hiring an agent. His Rutgers career is over. There are now three open scholarships for next season.

Speaking of the coaches, Pikiell was able to retain all three of his assistants last spring, but two have already been contacted about other jobs this month. It was reported last week that Jay Young was being considered for the head coaching job at Loyola MD. However, it was reported yesterday that Georgia Tech assistant Tavares Hardy was tabbed for the positon. Young is a valuable member of the Rutgers staff, as he is the conductor of the defense and does a great job mentoring the frontcourt players as well. He brings an edge and toughness to the team that is an asset. Hopefully, he remains on the staff for another season, as his departure would only be likely if he did land a head coaching position.

In addition, it was reported yesterday by media outlets in Pittsburgh that newly hired Panthers head coach Jeff Capel offered Rutgers assistant Brandin Knight a lateral move to join his staff. Knight was a star player for Pittsburgh and served as a key assistant there under former head coach Jamie Dixon for eight years. Knight was passed over two years ago when the school hired Kevin Stallings, who was a disaster and fired after just two seasons. Stallings had asked Knight to remain on his staff when he was hired, but he declined, opting to join Pikiell at Rutgers.

While it’s possible Knight would go back to PITT with a new athletic director and the respected Capel now in place, it’s fair to question whether it would really be a better position for him to be in. Their roster is bare after eight players were given their release to transfer out and it will likely take at least a couple of seasons before they get on the right track and climb out of the basement of the ACC, where they failed to win a conference game this past season. Rutgers is already in year three of this rebuild and Knight is from New Jersey. He cited his desire to return home and be close to family two years ago and those factors are still in place. Also, Pikiell stated before this season that he hoped all of his assistants would only ever leave if they were offered their own head coaching jobs. For Knight, who was instrumental in getting Geo Baker on the team and very involved with Montez Mathis as well, it could make more sense to stay and continue being a positive part of the progress this program is making. His oversight of the backcourt is also crucial to the future success of the program. When Rutgers does ultimately cross the divide and become a winning team once again, his stock will only rise.

There are plenty of questions to be answered this offseason.

Will Knight turn down Pitt to stay and continue to develop the now young backcourt of Rutgers? We should know very soon.

Who will Rutgers find to fill the three current scholarships available next season? Can the staff find a competent point guard to back up Baker, which is even more important now that Sanders is gone? Who will replace Corey’s offensive production?

Looking ahead, will the staff be able to close on any top targets in the class of 2019 at the end of this summer, before those recruits enter their senior seasons? Priority target, 4-star guard Paul Mulcahy from Gill St. Bernard, received an offer from Georgia Tech this week and could become the focus of newly hired UConn head coach Danny Hurley, who offered him while at Rhode Island. Can the hard work and relationship building that Pikiell has done with Mulcahy be enough to ultimately land him? Will he want to become the leader of the 2019 class and help change the narrative of the direction of Rutgers basketball?

Will other top targets seriously consider Rutgers when decision time comes? 4-star players like Khalif Battle, Eric Dixon, Ismael Massoud, and Aundre Hyatt have been heavily recruited by Rutgers dating back to at least last summer and have all visited the program multiple times now.

It’s still very early in the offseason and so much will happen between now and the end of August. That’s the exciting part, as these next few months are crucial to the long term outlook for the program under Pikiell. The staff is well positioned to improve the talent within the program quicker than they had thought with the exits of Bullock and Mensah, who were the last two scholarship players on the depth chart. The roster is turning over and the only non-Pikiell recruited player who could be on the court next season is Shaq Doorson, who proved to be a valuable rebounder and defender this past year. However, replacing the production of Corey Sanders is now a major question for this program.

Now that there is the opportunity to add three more impact players to next season’s roster, the staff need to take advantage. Finishing off the 2018 class strong and putting together an even stronger 2019 class is imperative to ensure more forward progress. Just know the idea that all it will take is one or two more players for Rutgers to be postseason ready couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a long way to go and while something significant seemed to be percolating during the Big Ten Tournament run, this team needs more talent and depth to make a real climb up the conference standings. The roster has the makings of an intriguing team, but development is needed across the board. That and more shooters, shooters, and even more shooters. Rutgers was 347th out of 351 Division I teams this past season with effective field goal percentage. It’s going to take time, but with Kiss, Mathis, and Harper Jr. to go along with Thiam and Baker, next season there should be real improvement, even before potentially adding another shooter this summer.

With the live recruiting period beginning next Thursday, April 5th, expect the staff to be extremely active. After finishing year two with legitimate momentum after becoming one of the stories of the Big Ten Tournament, Steve Pikiell is looking at a critical stretch in the progression of the program. If you’ve been paying attention the past two years, he and the staff have been preparing for this period of time since they arrived. Remember, college basketball recruiting is a lot like being a weatherman and a major league baseball hitter, where having success 30% of the time still means success. There will be recruiting battles lost, but the real key is winning the ones with the players that are truly a fit to be part of the rebuild of Rutgers basketball.

Have confidence in how organized and diligent the coaching staff has been under Pikiell. They have backup plans for backup plans and just because things appear quiet today and they missed on Strickland earlier this week, expectations should remain high. Having hope they’ll land a significant recruit or two for this class or next in the next few months is fair and based on what we’ve seen from the staff’s recruiting results last offseason, Pikiell has even more to sell this time around. Better days ahead appear to still be on schedule.