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Ask a Beat Reporter: Jerry Carino Talks Rutgers Basketball and Steve Pikiell’s Year 3

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Nebraska vs Rutgers David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Every year after the season ends, I drop Jerry Carino an email to pick his brain about the current state of Rutgers hoops. It’s become one of my favorite traditions around here. Jerry, as always, is sharp and insightful—and I tried to throw him some tough questions.

There’s some great info here, so sit back with your coffee and enjoy this one:

On the Banks: This was clearly a step up year for Steve Pikiell and Rutgers. What grade would you give this season? And, what were the most important factors in Rutgers getting better in year 3?

Jerry Carino: Solid B. Definitely Pikiell’s best team--and probably RU’s best team since the Gary Waters years. Moved out of the Big Ten basement (for good, I suspect) and broke through on the road. The most important factor was the emergence of a strong freshmen class. Montez Mathis lived up to his billing, Ron Harper was as good as I thought he would be (and better than most others thought), Caleb McConnell and Myles Johnson were huge surprises. These guys were minor contributors in November and December and wound up holding their own over extended minutes in the Big Ten. Impressive in-season development, and every coach will tell you the biggest leap college players make comes between their freshmen and sophomore seasons, so there is lots to look forward to from this group.

OTB: That said, this season had the potential to be even more, but the Scarlet Knights dropped the last three games. What factors caused them to drop off like that?

JC: The three best players -- Geo Baker, Mathis and Eugene Omoruyi – hit a wall. Baker because he was asked to do too much playing out of position, Mathis because he’s a freshman and opposing coaches studied the book on him, and Omoruyi because of his knee (he still put up numbers, a testament to his toughness). I want to add this about Baker: I firmly believe he has the ability to be a high-quality Big Ten starter next season, when he can be more of a combo and get some playmaking and defensive relief from teammates. He was dominant in practice before he wore down. I’ve seen some message-board commentary about Baker not being good enough to make an impact at this level and I firmly reject that. Steve Pikiell trusts him implicitly and that should tell you something. He just needs more help, like most non-superstars, and I believe he will shine when he gets it next winter.

OTB: Next season, Rutgers will probably have to embrace some expectations for the first time in a long time. What should the expectation be for more progress and what steps will Rutgers have to take to get there?

JC: Next year’s team should post a winning season and make the NIT. Barring injuries, anything less will be a major disappointment. The talent, depth and leadership finally will be there, and there’s no reason to think the toughness we’ve seen under Pikiell will disappear. The biggest step is role allocation: With so many good guards vying for time and the ball, can everyone get and stay on the same page? That’s a huge intangible and it doesn’t happen automatically. It takes a deft touch by the coaching staff and the right attitude among all the players. It’s not just, ‘Will someone be a cancer?’ (doubtful with this group). It’s, will a player or two become disheartened or disillusioned if their piece of the pie is smaller or different than envisioned? You’re talking about five guards sharing that pie. I’ll be real interested to see how that shakes out. The other step is Omoruyi and Johnson will need some help up front. One more quality big has to emerge or materialize.

OTB: The big get for next season is Paul Mulcahy, a 6’6” point guard. I know you’ve seen him play a few times. Tell us about him. What can Rutgers fans expect?

JC: In 20-plus years of watching high school basketball, he’s one of the very best passers I’ve seen. He has vision you can’t teach and no other Rutgers player possesses. Given his height and basketball IQ, I have no doubt this will translate to the high-major level. He’s also a competitor, a winner, a great teammate and extremely coachable. I will be surprised if he doesn’t get the keys to the offense either from day one or early on. His shot has gotten better and must continue to improve. His defense? He’s crafty but Pikiell may have to scheme a little bit when Paul’s facing upper-level B1G points rather than relying on straight man. There is no question he will make Rutgers better and in the long run will be a huge asset to the program.

OTB: The other player Rutgers adds is Jacob Young, who was on the roster, but sitting out because of transfer rules. Can you give us an idea of what he will add to the team?

JC: Young is the fastest player and highest-level athlete in the program. He doesn’t seem to have a position. Until the lights go on, it’s hard to say what exactly his role will be. He has the tools to be a very good defender and if Rutgers really does want to pick up the pace on offense, he’ll be a big part of that. In summary: He’s the No. 1 X-factor next season.

OTB: Rutgers has a two open scholarships. How do you expect Steve Pikiell and staff to fill them? What kind of players are they targeting?

JC: The No. 1 priority is a big with finishing skills. If Rutgers can’t pluck one off the grad transfer market, they could look to the JUCO route. In addition, a high-priority grad-transfer target is former Lehigh/CBA wing Pat Andree, one of the country’s best 3-point shooters this past season. Immediate impact player wherever he lands, but especially at RU which needs shooters. The competition will be stiff. Getting top grad transfers is like getting five-star high school recruits at this point.

OTB: In your article wrapping up the season, you and Pikiell talked about having the depth to press next season. Do you think Rutgers identity on the court will change an all next season? Will we be watching a different type of basketball?

JC: Pikiell worked on a three-quarter court trap quite a bit last preseason but didn’t end up deploying it as much as I thought he would. He may well revisit that this year with better depth and more quality guards. Offensively, I see it as more evolution than transformation. Transition points might not skyrocket, but there could be a good deal more of early offense.

OTB: Jay Young has left to become the head coach of the Fairfield Stags. The architect of Rutgers defense and developer of big men is a huge loss on the staff. How do you expect Rutgers to fill the void here? Will they go for a developer or a high profile recruiter?

JC: I don’t think the void can be filled. Young is the best instructional assistant I’ve ever seen in 16 years on the beat. The players were constantly quoting him. He also possessed Pikiell’s utmost trust after 14 years together. That’s irreplaceable. Rather than find a Jay Young Light, I suspect Pikiell will lean more toward recruiter when filling the vacancy. He’ll also could add a player-development type of guy, perhaps an ex-pro, in a staffer-level (non-recruiting) capacity if he wants to reshuffle the chairs a little if Young takes some personnel to Fairfield as expected. Because there are various moving parts here, it could take a while for all of this to play out. I do know that Pikiell is going to take his time and not rush any hires.

Thank you so much, Jerry for the time it took to put this together!