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OTB Staff Round Table: Rutgers Men’s Basketball Season In Review

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Our contributors discuss the highs, lows, and progress made, as well as what to expect next season

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been less than a week since the season ended for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, but it feels longer. The void they left is large, as this group made it a fun winter and despite a rough end to the season, no one wanted it to end. That alone is progress. Some of our staff got together to discuss the season as well as expectations for next year. Let’s tip things off here.

Team MVP

David Anderson: Eugene Omoruyi. Without Gene on the floor, the defense was holier than Swiss cheese against Purdue. Either after that game or the subsequent Northwestern awful final minutes, I texted Aaron that RU might not win another game. Then like Willis Reed, Omoruyi returns and the Knights go on a three game winning streak. He played hurt and was overmatched at times, but gave his all which the team rallied behind. His defensive communication and quarterbacking was the impetus that got the freshmen to go from subpar defenders to average or better. I’m hoping he can be a college version of Draymond Green next year.

Dave White: It’s Geo Baker. When Geo was able to get untracked and score the ball, the team competed and even won games. I think Aaron has a stat somewhere of Rutgers’ record when Geo scored over 20 (or was if 15?) (editors note: RU went 7-1 when Geo scored 16+). And even when he was able to distribute--like in both Iowa games, Rutgers played much better. However, when Geo got bottled up, like against Nebraska in the Tournament or Penn State to end the regular season, the team just didn’t have it in them. Gotta be Geo, but I can also see an argument for Eugene Omoruyi. I will, however, leave that to someone else, because you don’t want to see me ramble.

Patrick Mella: Eugene Omoruyi. Regardless of the struggles Geo had towards the end of the season, I still think you have to give Eugene the nod for MVP. Take anyone else away from the team and I think you could get away with some sort of patchwork. But not without Omoruyi. He brings immediate toughness to the team, and someone that other teams have to game plan around. He’s that impactful of a player. It’s not a knock on Baker either, it’s obvious both guys are leaders and critical components to Rutgers’ success. But considering the season Eugene had, much of when he was clearly not 100%, and was still able to lead the team in scoring and rebounding makes him my choice for MVP.

Lance Glinn: Eugene Omoruyi. Just look at what this team was without him for that stretch. He is the heart and soul of the team and someone who really defines the Steve Pikiell era here at Rutgers early on. I think Geo draws some serious consideration here as well and you can make a valid argument for him as team MVP also. But in games that Eugene played in this season, even if it was only for a few minutes against Ohio State, Rutgers went 14-13 in the regular season. This team showed it is a different team without number 5 in the lineup. His presence on the floor, his defense, and his improving offensive ability clearly separated him as this year’s MVP.

Aaron Breitman: When Eugene Omoruyi missed three Big Ten games in January, Rutgers lost on the road by a combined 53 points to Purdue and Minnesota, as well as lost to eventual last place Northwestern at the RAC by 9 points. As soon as Omoruyi returned, less than 100% mind you, Rutgers immediately rattled off a 3 game win streak and an impressive 6-5 record down the stretch before they fell apart in the final 3 games. Omoruyi was the lone player to play well consistently during the final three games, averaging 19 points on 50% shooting, as well as 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal. He also was second in the conference in drawing charges. If the Big Ten gave out an award for most improved player, Omoruyi would be at the top of the list. As important as Geo Baker was this season, Rutgers had no true replacement for Omoruyi, who is the heart and soul of the program.

Best Newcomer

David Anderson: This is a tricky one because I think all of them were up and down. Mathis was the only one opponents had to game plan for, but he didn’t contribute every game. Harper was the best player on the floor at times, but really needs to get a little stronger and just be a stretch four since he’s too slow to defend guards and most wings. McConnell at times took a heavy load at point guard and is an average wing defender, but drove us crazy with inconsistent shot selection and turnovers. Shaq Carter at times was the only person who could score for RU (i.e. Purdue), but really only effective in some games per specific matchups. So despite the poor free throw shooting I’ll go with Myles Johnson. Johnson was reliable at rebounding and critical in passing through presses and in the halfcourt. Everything other than an occasional offensive rebound foul and the charity stripe, ugh.

Dave White: Oh, wow, this is a really tough one. All of them shined at some point or another. Myles Johnson had great touch at the rim and Aaron loves to point out his offensive rebounding. Peter Kiss made an impact early on while kids who had never seen a college basketball court before adjusted. Montez Mathis went from nervous to finding his edge and being one of the best defenders on the team and Caleb McConnell was able to spell Geo at important moments. But I’m going to go with Ron Harper Jr. I think I said in one of my early four thoughts, that Harper always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. And when his shots started falling, he really got to be an important player on the team. His 27 points against Iowa on the road were so impressive and he never really stopped scoring in the last quarter of the season. So much upside for this kid who truly seems to love Rutgers.

Patrick Mella: Myles Johnson. Another guy on the roster who was not heavily recruited out of high school. Johnson was impressive in his first year. I don’t think anyone would be surprised that he was second on the team in rebounds, rebound average, blocked shots and first in offensive rebounds, especially for a guy of his size. But he also showed above average hands, finishing fifth on the team in assists and third in steals. He’ll need to continue to improve on defense and develop his low post game, but he’s got time and the physicality to excel in the Big Ten.

Lance Glinn: Perhaps the most difficult question considering all the newcomers played significant roles. Myles Johnson, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell, Ron Harper, Shaq Carter, and Peter Kiss all had an impact on the season. Between the six of them, I believe the best newcomer this season was Myles Johnson. While technically not a newcomer considering he redshirted last year, Myles helped solidify the middle of the paint alongside Shaq Doorson. I believed that going into the season, the biggest question mark for Rutgers was down-low. How improved was Shaq going to be? Would Myles live up to the praise from the staff? Well Shaq improved substantially, and Myles Johnson became a force for the Scarlet Knights. Offensively, defensively, and on the glass, he made some big, game-winning plays this year and should only continue to improve just as all the first-year players should as well.

Aaron Breitman: This question should give Rutgers fans the biggest reason for optimism. You could make a reasonable argument for any of the freshmen four, that’s how well that group played this season. They all showed flashes and at times each of them were the best player on the floor for Rutgers. The exciting part is that typically college players make the most significant jump in their game from freshman to sophomore year, so watching these four develop will be a lot of fun. As for who was the best this season, Ron Harper Jr. showed his massive potential and developed as the season went on. In terms of efficiency, he was by far the best player on the Rutgers roster in Big Ten play, as his offensive rating was 16th overall in the conference. Not among just freshmen, but the entire league. He was particularly good in two areas Rutgers must get better in moving forward: he was 5th in the Big Ten in turnover rate (9.4%) and 18th in two-point field goal percentage (53.5%). It was more than stats though, as I thought Harper Jr. carried himself like a star in the making and brought much needed confidence on the court to this team. He backs down from no one, perhaps the single most impressive aspect of the freshmen four as a group this season.

Most improved player from game 1 to 31

David Anderson: Montez Mathis. The short of it is that Mathis went from no clue what he was doing on defense to having a clue but being too emotional to finally being a solid defensive player. He still is learning how to defend without fouling as evidenced by the number of games he had two fouls in the first half, but on a team that has no other above average wing defenders, he was critical to the team’s success. His attacking ability made zone pressing Rutgers completely idiotic despite RU’s lack of true point guards, unless the opponent had a true elite rim protector stationed in the back. In the halfcourt, Mathis ate up subpar defenders which forced the opposition to account for him with one of their better defenders OR just wait for him to get near the basket and foul to send him to the line. If Mathis could hit free throws, RU would have won one or two more games easy AND been able to close out three others before they had to come down to the wire.

Dave White: I’m going with Caleb McConnell. Early impressions were he had a lot of adjusting to do to the college game, but when Big Ten rolled around, he became a reliable contributor. He had a huge game against Illinois on the road, was the team’s best free throw shooter late. And, like all the freshmen, he’s only going to get better.

Patrick Mella: Caleb McConnell. This was a tough call and I could have easily gone with Ron Harper Jr., but McConnell stands out to me more because of how low he flew under the radar the beginning of the season. The backcourt was a crowded group between Baker, Thiam, Kiss and heralded recruit Montez Mathis. But as the season unfolded he seemed to get better and better, and ultimately he would get rewarded seeing more and more minutes. Through the first two months of the season McConnell played over 25 minutes just once, getting 27 minutes at Seton Hall. From January 9th on he logged ten games of at least 25 minutes, including a 39 minute game at Illinois. He also scored in double figures seven times in conference play this year, and led the team in free throw percentage at .752.

Lance Glinn: Caleb McConnell. Looking back to the beginning of the season, in the first competitive game against St. Johns Caleb only played 5 minutes. Fast-forward to the end of the year in the B1G Ten Tournament game against Nebraska, Caleb played 25. Going into the year I was under the impression that McConnell would solely be tasked with giving Geo a breather here and there, playing between 5-7 minutes a games. While that was the case starting out, Caleb quickly developed into a reliable distributor, scorer, and free-throw shooter. He carried the Scarlet Knights at times offensively, 25 points against Illinois, and finished the season with the highest 3-point percentage (35.7%) and free-throw percentage (79.2%) on the team.

Aaron Breitman: Ron Harper Jr. averaged 5.8 points on 35.9% shooting in non-conference play. In 21 Big Ten games, Harper Jr. averaged 8.8 points on 43.6% shooting, which isn’t otherworldly, but showed there was steady progress. It’s rare for a player’s numbers to improve in conference play, let alone as significantly as Harper’s did. He finished with a flurry, making 33 of 60 shots from the field for 55% in his last seven games of the season. He started his college career shooting 17 of 75 from three point range before making 12 of 23 down the stretch in a five game period from the first Iowa game to the Penn State loss. It was clear he got more comfortable with the speed of the game as the season progressed and was taking better shots within the offense as well. His defense also improved, as he stuffed the stat sheet with 6 steals and 4 blocks his last three games of the season, showing he could contribute in more ways than one when his shot wasn’t falling. It’s clear to me Harper Jr. has the potential to be a legitimate star in the Big Ten in the years to come.

Favorite Win

David Anderson: The first Ohio State game probably, although the obvious answer here is Iowa, both ranked teams. As a fan of college and pro teams that are often snakebit, it was nice to see RU get the monkey off their backs for a first Big Ten win. The most important thing to me is that Kaleb Wesson is a really good player and the type of guy that Rutgers could not overcome in past years, so by being able to weather the storm it added a critical step in the program’s development. A ranked opponent going down really showed the RAC that this Scarlet Knight team was worth watching at home and the young players that they could get wins. In turn, the home atmosphere once Omoruyi returned from injury was great anytime RU could give the faithful something to be excited about.

Dave White: There’s the program win, which is Iowa on the road. A total revenge drubbing of a ranked team on the road. When has that ever happened before at Rutgers? But there’s also, a sentimental win, against Minnesota where I got to sit courtside thanks to Mike Greengarten. That game came down to the wire and Geo Baker got to show off his clutch gene once again. A completely fun game.

Patrick Mella: Rutgers 76, Nebraska 69. The Iowa revenge game was sweet, but this was the game that got the three game win streak rolling. Maybe this game makes the Big Ten Tournament loss sting a little more, but it showed the rest of the conference how dangerous this team could be when it fires on all cylinders. Nebraska was a solid team at the time and as I write this is pulling off an upset of Maryland. It was a great game for the newcomers, Myles had a double-double, Montez had a 20 point, 9 rebound game, and even Geo had 16 points with 3 three pointers.

Lance Glinn: I think my favorite win was the 59-56 win over Northwestern, on the road in Evanston, Illinois. Sure, the Iowa road victory had more excitement to it, the Miami road win was seen as major progress, and it was great beating then-ranked Ohio State at the RAC. But that win against Northwestern in Evanston proved to this team and the program really, that they could win on the road in places other than the Bryce Jordan Center. We as fans had seen the progress at the RAC, but the biggest obstacle surrounding this team’s ability to take the next step in the conference was winning away from Piscataway. They had done it twice at Penn State but failed to do it elsewhere. The win on the road against Northwestern got the monkey off the Scarlet Knights back and quieted the trend of in-conference road losses.

Aaron Breitman: The win over Indiana was the best for a few reasons. Rutgers put together its most dominating run of the season, outscoring the Hoosiers 22-0 spread over two halves. They built a double digit lead early in the second half and made enough plays down the stretch to keep Indiana at bay. This was a different way for Rutgers to win and the blueprint for how good teams take care of business in conference play. It was also the program’s second consecutive win over the Hoosiers, which was significant. Even if they had a disappointing year, their talent level is a step above Rutgers. In addition, the win marked the first three game conference winning streak since joining the Big Ten and first for the program in 15 seasons overall. It was a key accomplishment mid-season that helped signal progress was occurring and that they were no longer a pushover in the Big Ten. It was also the fourth win in league play, eclipsing the most for the program since joining the Big Ten and it was only the halfway point of the conference schedule. The best win on many levels.

Toughest Loss

David Anderson: The Big Ten tournament game. After two years of solid opening round performances, RU backpedaled into Day 1 action but drew a depleted Nebraska squad. Six scholarship players for the Huskers and when their center got his second foul, Rutgers should have gotten the ball to Myles Johnson in the post EVERY ... SINGLE ... TIME. Instead they had a bunch of turnovers, sometimes without even having a chance at an entry pass. The lack of ability to make simply entry passes is something I harped on in our preseason predictions each of the last two years. Then Rutgers fell apart after the refs (with tick-tack fouls on RU in contrast to allowed physical D from NU) and turnovers kept Nebraska in it. I understand it’s a young team, but you have to go for the jugular in the first half of a game like that. Don’t let the refs have a chance to influence the outcome.

Dave White: Iowa at home. Penn State at home. Why did you ask me this Aaron? How could you do this to us? I need a box of tissues now.

Patrick Mella: Iowa 71 , Rutgers 69. Maybe someone here will pick another game just to mix it up, but that game was about as gut wrenching as it gets and that’s saying a lot coming from a Rutgers fan. Rutgers deserved that game. The coaches, players, fans, the guy working the Premio Sausage cart, ME, everyone and I mean everyone who has stuck with this team through all the losses, deserved that game. I actually grabbed my phone to take a video of the final play expecting to capture the biggest win of the season. Just several seconds later, there was no groaning, no screaming, no sighing. Just dead silence. As Brad Pitt said in Money Ball, “that’s what losing sounds like.”

Lance Glinn: I was sitting in section 215 going crazy when Geo hit the step-back 3 to take a 1-point lead against Iowa with 3.2 Seconds left. I don’t think I have ever gone from such a high, to such a low so quickly. In a game where the refs were seemingly pulling for Iowa all night, it was incredible to see the team face such adversity yet be in position to win with 3 seconds left. I give Joe Weiskamp all the credit in the world for hitting that shot. He takes that shot 100 times, he misses 99 of them. It just so happened that the 1 make gave Iowa the victory. What made it worse after the fact was that from my view, I did not know he banked it in. After seeing the replay, seeing that it went in off of a bank, I couldn’t understand how physics allowed that to happen. Yet it did, and resulted in the toughest loss for Rutgers in a long time.

Aaron Breitman: It has to be Penn State in the final home game of the season. A win would have clinched a .500 regular season record, a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and a better than bottom four finish in the conference regular season. It was such a frustrating night, as Rutgers played one of its worst halves of the season in front of a sold out RAC on senior day. Even so, this team put together a ferocious comeback and still had a chance to win on the final possession, but missed not one, not two, but three shots, in addition to passing on another that was probably the best look of them all. This loss changed the trajectory of the end of the season and will stick with me for a long time.

Overall feelings & thoughts on this season

David Anderson: After that purge about the finale, this is what everyone wanted to see this year, so I am pleased with the progress. In fact, what makes me even more optimistic is how Rutgers was able to achieve what they did with glaring deficiencies in some areas. With a young team, you worry players or the team overall has plateaued, but it’s clear as day that RU will improve in these areas with experience and/or better personnel that WILL be on the 2019-2020 roster even if no other scholarship players are added to the fold by opening night. This current Rutgers student body is also getting indoctrinated to being competitive, so it is becoming part of their student experience to ensure they get to the RAC, an underrated component of the whole rebuild.

Dave White: What an absolute blast of a season. The most fun in ten years. Except for a few hiccups, the team competed night in and night out. It was great to watch all the players get better as the season went on (when have you seen that before?) and there were a ton of big wins. The RAC was rocking again. You can tell Pikiell knows what he’s doing. Just think, a few more breaks (and Rutgers never ever gets breaks) and the team wins 4 road games (Illinois), and two more games at home (Iowa and Penn State) and they are 10-10 in conference. Rutgers is coming.

Patrick Mella: I love the progress the team made this season, but fans are so quick to jump on the “same old Rutgers” bandwagon when they struggle. Look- they played poorly the last three games of the season. There’s no hiding that. The things they struggle with such as shooting, turnovers, free throws, etc., are very apparent. The biggest takeaway for fans this season should be that Pikiell got about as much out of this team as he could’ve with what he had. The Big Ten is the toughest basketball conference in the country. Rutgers was able to get seven conference wins with one of the youngest rosters in the country and realistically could’ve had nine or more. And please lay off Geo. He played 1053 minutes this year, next on the team was Eugene with 815. A true PG is on the way and should take some of the load off of his shoulders. It was a good year overall. Rutgers got a lot of respect from the rest of the Big Ten and will have high expectations next season. See below:

Lance Glinn: I remember during the summer I had Jerry Carino on Episode 5 of the On The Banks Podcast. He said that this team could be better than last year’s squad but not win as many games. He was right. This team from game 1 against Farleigh Dickinson to game 31 against Nebraska got so much better. Sure, are we as fans upset about how the season ended? Yes. But don’t lose focus of the progress made this whole season because of a tough stretch at the end. This season changed the perception of the program in the eyes of Rutgers fans, fellow big ten schools, and media members throughout the country. We even got our own Rothsteinism! You need to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk. This season Rutgers was learning how to crawl, setting up an exciting season next year where the team finds its legs and starts walking.

Aaron Breitman: I understand the frustration and disappointment to the end of the season, but do not think some of the anger that was spewed once it was over made any sense at all. This team had flaws, but they got better and played together. The talent level improved and the freshmen four gave real hope something special is starting to brew. While achieving more progress was there for the taking and left on the table, I still think this season was a success in the context of this rebuild. I’ll have a season by the numbers article coming out soon to really highlight the progress made, but just watching this team this season they passed the eye test that things are changing for the better. Steve Pikiell clearly has things pointed in the right direction after year three.

Fair expectations for next season

David Anderson: The expectations for next season should be a .500 record in conference play. I think it’s unfair to expect any team to break a 29 year NCAA drought because there are a lot of factors out of your control with that as an at-large. If RU can finish .500 in the Big Ten, then they should get to some sort of postseason, marked progress for a fourth straight year.

Dave White: Allow me to take a deep breath here. Just for a second. But I think it is time to embrace expectations. This team needs to finish .500 or better and get into the NIT at minimum. I think they are super deep at guard and there will be at least two more pieces added to this team. The core is still young, but Eugene and Shaq Carter are seniors. A true point guard is coming in. It may not be the NCAA year we’re all hoping for, but the team really has to take the next step.

Patrick Mella: The pressure is going to be on for sure. But they have two players coming in next year that should have an immediate impact in PG Paul Mulcahy and Texas transfer Jacob Young. They also have an additional scholarship available (two total) with the dismissal of Issa Thiam. The framework has been laid, the coaching staff is there, they’re just missing a few more pieces to the puzzle. Is it March Madness or bust next year? It’s close. Finishing in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten should give them enough to make it to the tourney but I wouldn’t considerate it a failure to come up just short and make the NIT.

Lance Glinn: Calm down. Its so hard to set expectations now without knowing what the schedule will look like. I have talked to quite a few Rutgers fans since the season ended and a lot of them have set NCAA Tournament expectations next season. While that could very well happen, I think reasonable expectations would be a winning record and NIT berth. This past season was great and Rutgers blew some opportunities I know they wish they could have back. But let’s not forget this is a program that hasn’t finished with a winning record since the 2005-2006 season. Before any tournament comes, that streak needs to be broken. Seton Hall went 5 years under Willard without making a tournament before they finally broke through and have been to 4-straight including this season. We are only going on year 4 under Steve Pikiell. Be patient. Is a winning record expected next season? Of course. But before fans yell and scream for an NCAA Tournament, realize how much progress has been made already, and realize how much this team has left to do before it could become a consistent winner.

Aaron Breitman: Achieve the first winning season in 14 years. Challenge for a middle of the pack place in the Big Ten standings (6th-8th) and be in the postseason conversation, with making the NIT the baseline. The Big Ten sent a record 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament this season and shouldn’t be counted on as the norm, but being a top ten team in the league pretty much ensures a postseason invite to at worst the NIT. Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State, and Minnesota are losing a lot of veteran talent. There is a legitimate opportunity to pass those programs next season and take a much needed step forward in the Big Ten. Adding Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy, along with waiting to see how the remaining two open scholarships are filled, should leave Rutgers fans with a lot of hope that next season will the most exciting and successful one in many years.

Poll

What are your expectations for next season?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    A .500 record & better than bottom four finish in Big Ten
    (38 votes)
  • 71%
    A winning record overall, middle of the pack in Big Ten & NIT appearance
    (263 votes)
  • 17%
    A top half finish in Big Ten play & NCAA berth
    (66 votes)
367 votes total Vote Now