Piscataway - As part of media day for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, practice was open to those of us who attended. It was the first practice I’ve been able to get to this season and overall I was impressed with the growth of this team. Here are some specific thoughts just a little more than one week before the 2019-2020 season begins.
- With this team built to play more up tempo this season, it wasn’t surprising to see transition offense as a major focus of practice, including working on knocking down three-pointer’s off the break. With Geo Baker, Akwasi Yeboah, and Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers has three players who have the potential to be a weapon in transition along the perimeter. There is no doubt that Jacob Young will have this team flying up the court in transition when he has the rock. His ability to either finish near the rim, hit the mid-range jumper, or find guys like Montez Mathis and Harper Jr. streaking down the sideline will be a key to the offense. Protecting the basketball in transition and not getting caught giving up easy transition baskets on the other end are hugely important for this team as well.
- Speaking of offense, there is a real emphasis on ball rotations in the halfcourt. Rutgers has not been a great passing team in recent seasons, but it’s certainly something they’ve been working on. Paul Mulcahy is probably the best passer on the team. Myles Johnson will be an asset in the paint and has the ability to find shooters behind the three-point line. The big issue will be for Rutgers to stay disciplined and have patience working the ball around the perimeter in order to create lanes to drive or open looks to shoot, rather than forcing bad shots or turning it over.
- The hype is real with Ron Harper Jr., who shot lights out throughout practice. His confidence and consistency with his shooting stroke was impressive. In speaking with him before practice, he is really focused what he can do better as a player to help the team making a significant jump this season. The way he carries himself on the court is noticeably different in a positive way and he is smooth in his movements during play. I said before that Rutgers needs a legitimate star in order to take a major step up the Big Ten standings and I think he is well on his way to becoming just that for this program.
- Jacob Young is so quick with his first step, even quicker than Corey Sanders was in my opinion. He can create his own shot off the dribble, but his willingness to find teammates open when he penetrates the defense will be a key in his development as a point guard. I also think he’ll end up being one of the best defensive players on the team. He is super talented and has embraced being apart of this program. If he can be a consistent presence on both ends of the floor, he will make Rutgers better.
- Not much has been said about Montez Mathis this offseason, but he has continued to grind and work on his game. He is soft spoken and struggled with his confidence at times last season, but he looked stronger and more confident in practice on Tuesday. Mathis told me he has put a lot of work in on his shot and it showed, particularly when I watched him shoot free throws. I think he is a key cog to this team and whether he starts or is one of the first off the bench, Mathis will play key minutes this season.
- Expectations should be kept in check for Paul Mulcahy this season. I think he could follow the trajectory of someone like Caleb McConnell, who last year as a freshman took awhile to find his comfort zone on the court, but once he did he was able to help Rutgers in spots and in multiple ways. I think Mulcahy will be a good distributor from day one, but he needs to build more strength and confidence to excel at this level. Let me be clear, every freshman goes through that and Mulcahy is no exception. His court vision and basketball IQ are assets. My positive view on his long term upside remains, as the keys to this team will be given to him at some point, just not yet.
- One big difference with former assistant Jay Young no longer with the program is that Pikiell was running the majority of practice. He was always vocal and heavily involved, but Young was the one running most of the drills and correcting players on the spot. While all of the assistants are coaching players throughout practice, it’s mostly Pikiell’s voice communicating to the team as a whole. That’s a positive in the sense that he creates a sense of urgency and really pushes the pace of practice.
- For those concerned about free throws, I can confirm they continue to work on them throughout practice. Sorry, it’s just comical to me how many people question this. I saw Harper Jr. make nine in a row at one point. Pikiell also always puts a player on the spot at the end of practice to make one before the team can finish and head to the weight room. I’ve said before, there are some good free throw shooters on this team, including Baker, Young, McConnell, and Yeboah, along with Harper Jr. The key is getting those guys to the free throw line the majority of the time this season.
- Team chemistry always seems great ahead of the season before players are competing for shots and minutes, but it does some seem genuine with this team. Akwasi Yeboah is a much needed veteran presence and has acclimated well. Many players I spoke with cited the Spain trip as being more valuable in getting to know each other and sharing life experiences to bring them closer as the most important part of that adventure over the time spent on the court. In addition, the biggest upside to the practice facility is that it allows the players access 24 hours a day. A lot of the players spoke about late night or early morning sessions to get work in. They cited the difficulty of previously having to work around the RAC schedule, between other teams practicing and events taking place there. Having the ability to come to the APC at any time and with each other has helped bring the team closer together as well.
- Speaking of the practice facility, it truly is first class in every way. The courts, locker rooms, lounge areas, layout of the space, is all really well done. This is an impressive facility to show recruits of all four programs (women’s basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics too) and a true showpiece for Rutgers. Some fans have discounted the importance of the efforts of athletic director Pat Hobbs, Deputy AD Sarah Baumgartner and other key personnel in getting this facility built, but the prevailing feeling when being there is that it truly makes Rutgers feel like it belongs in the Big Ten. With the Rodkin center under construction and future projects needed, that feeling should only get stronger.
Here are some pictures I captured from practice: