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Rutgers Basketball Recruiting: The 2020 Class is the most important of the Pikiell Era

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While filling next season’s roster is still a work in progress, the future is rightly a top priority as well.

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

It’s been an interesting offseason so far for the Rutgers men’s basketball program, to say the least.

First, head coach Steve Pikiell lost his longtime assistant and right hand man, Jay Young, who became the first Rutgers assistant to leave for a head coaching position since some guy named Dick Vitale did it in the seventies. The program was named the most improved team last season by Sports Illustrated, which was amazing and strange at the same time in realizing national perception is actually changing for the better. One of the most sought after grad transfers on the market, Akwasi Yeboah, announced he was coming to Rutgers to reunite with Pikiell after being recruited to Stony Brook by him. A non-conference game against South Carolina in Toronto was originally reported, then the Gamecocks dropped out and St. Bonaventure filled the spot. Hours after Rutgers announced the game, senior captain Eugene Omoruyi shocked everyone, including the coaching staff, in announcing he was transferring.

There is no denying there is a lot riding on next season for Rutgers and Pikiell, even without Omoruyi in the fold. The point guard of the future, Paul Mulcahy, is officially the point guard of the present after participating in workouts with the program this week on campus. Yeboah is on the banks as well and is impressing everyone. Ron Harper Jr. looks to be in great shape and knocking down shots from any distance, even if the intel is from a Zapruder type video circulating on social media. There is plenty to be excited about next season’s team, which Lance Glinn and I discussed here.

Let’s review the scholarship players on the roster for next season as of Today, June 7th:

Frontcourt/Wings: Akwasi Yeboah (Sr); Shaq Carter (Sr); Mamadou Doucoure (RS So); Myles Johnson (RS So); Ron Harper Jr. (So)

Backcourt: Geo Baker (Jr); Peter Kiss (RS Jr); Jacob Young (RS Jr); Montez Mathis (So); Caleb McConnell (So); Paul Mulcahy (Fr)

Of course, there are now two open roster spots for next season with Omoruyi no longer with the program. While Pikiell has a deep and versatile roster overall to work with, the frontcourt is a bit thin and you can never have enough depth in the Big Ten. The question is who will Rutgers land to fill the last two scholarships? It’s a difficult answer to predict, as close to 1,000 players are reportedly in the transfer portal currently and most high school players are already committed to programs. It’s likely if the coaching staff land a player, it will either be a grad transfer or from the JUCO level. Pikiell has proven to be resourceful and creative when filling a roster spot late in the recruiting cycle, so we’ll see who he can find this time. It’s also possible Rutgers takes a sit-out transfer as well.

It would be ideal, in my opinion, if the coaching staff can find a grad transfer who could be a reliable bench player, preferably in the frontcourt, providing steady defense and rebounding for next season. Easier said than done. And with the second scholarship, I think it would be most useful by rolling it over to the next recruiting cycle. The reality is minutes are going to come at a premium with the current roster that has plenty of talent and versatility, even without Omoruyi. I think adding a frontcourt player is important depth wise, but I think it makes sense to keep the other one open. Here is why.

If Rutgers rolls over the scholarship, they’ll have three available for the 2020 recruiting cycle. If they keep both open or land one or even two more grad transfers, those scholarships will still open back up for the 2020 class. Having four open spots to fill for the 2020 class is important for one major reason.

According to 247 Sports, which updated its 2020 class rankings this week, there are 154 recruits rated 4-stars or above per their composite rankings, which includes grades from multiple recruiting services. That’s an extremely deep pool of highly ranked players and the most in recent memory. I researched the 247 composite rankings every year back to 2003 when they first began keeping track. The average amount of recruits ranked 4-stars or better the previous 16 years has been 128 per class. The 2019 class had 122. There has never been a class with as many highly rated talent as the 2020 class, with 2009 coming the closest with 143 prospects ranked 4-stars or above.

Now rankings are subjective and just because a player is rated highly as a recruit does not guarantee success at the next level. On the flip side, lightly ranked or recruited players can emerge and become big time players in college as well. That being said, there is no denying the 2020 class is extremely deep. Here is 247 Sports Director of recruiting Evan Daniels discussing why he loves this class:

Under Pikiell, Rutgers hasn’t broken through in consistently landing 4-star prospects, but he has upgraded the talent on the roster in a big way. Montez Mathis is the only player recruited to Rutgers by Pikiell that was a solid 4-star, top 100 prospect throughout the majority of his high school career. Jacob Young was as well, but he began his college career at Texas.

Where Pikiell has excelled is identifying talent early in the recruiting process and ultimately winning the recruiting battles for those players who end up moving up the rankings late in the cycle. Ron Harper Jr. and Paul Mulcahy are examples of this. Each garnered 4-star ratings by some services and moved up the composite class rankings at the end of their class cycles.

Other 3-star players who held limited or no high major offers that Rutgers has landed under Pikiell include Geo Baker, Myles Johnson, and Caleb McConnell. Baker was just the second Rutgers player to earn All-Big Ten recognition by both the coaches and media since joining the conference, which occurred last season. McConnell and Johnson had solid debut seasons and are poised to be major contributors throughout their Rutgers careers.

Pikiell and his coaching staff have shown they can develop players and this is key for the future success of the program. Other Big Ten programs that are consistently good without recruiting top rated classes are Iowa and Wisconsin. Those staffs develop players and are examples of why Pikiell can make Rutgers successful moving forward in the Big Ten. The reality is that it took him four recruiting cycles to upgrade the roster to a point that Rutgers can finally be a real factor in the Big Ten next season. Iowa and Wisconsin have been extremely stable, successful programs over the years and demonstrate how important finding the right fit or style of player is in maintaining consistency. Pikiell said when he arrived that rebuilding the program would be a process and he and his staff have grinded on the recruiting trail since day one. They are close to seeing the fruits of their labor blossom on the court, but more work is needed to truly elevate Rutgers within the Big Ten.

The reason that the 2020 class is so important is that Rutgers will likely have at least three open scholarships and possibly more in a cycle that has an extremely deep pool of recruits to choose from. With a young and talented nucleus in place on the current roster, the 2020 class is a chance for Pikiell to take the program to another level if he can bring in a highly rated group. That’s why having at least one of the two current scholarships available for next season roll over in some way for the 2020 cycle could be a real key to landing a heralded class.

Rutgers has been active with the 2020 class for quite some time. The program hosted the 29th ranked player in the class in Xavier Foster from Iowa last summer. 4-star Isaiah Cottrell visited last fall, who is ranked 52nd in the class, which was his first official trip anywhere and the Las Vegas native listed Rutgers in his top 8 back in March. The staff has been actively recruiting North Carolina wing Josh Hall for months before his class ranking jumped considerably this past week to 85th overall in the composite rankings. His former high school teammate Daniel Lobach has walked on at Rutgers, so that relationship certainly helps.

A potential star in the making is Roselle Catholic’s Cliff Omoruyi, the 46th ranked player in the class of 2020. Pikiell has been recruiting him for years and the center could be a landmark recruit for the program. As with any top ranked recruit, Rutgers faces an uphill battle against college basketball’s blue bloods. Even so, Pikiell continues to be relentless in trying to breakthrough with a blue chipper. At the same time, he and the staff continue to spread their eggs among many baskets.

While Rutgers is battling Kansas for Hall and Kentucky for Omoruyi, Pikiell and the staff have been wisely dipping deeper into the talent pool that the 2020 class offers. Visits are scheduled for next weekend for 3-star forward Coleman Hawkins from California and unrated center Martice Mitchell, who is from Chicago. Rutgers offered Hawkins last summer, while they just offered Mitchell in late May.

In regard to other recent offers to recruits in the class of 2020, Rutgers offered New England wing Reece Brown and North Carolina big man Jaylon Gibson during the April live period. They also showed interest in two local recruits from St. Benedict’s Prep in wing Toby Okani and 4-star shooting guard C.J. Wilcher, which I covered along with the offers for Brown and Gibson here. Later in May, Rutgers offered 4-star wing Darius Miles from Maryland, 4-star center Josh Gray from New York, and 3-star forward Dean Reiber from North Carolina, all of whom I covered in detail here. Other local recruits Rutgers has previously offered that seem like players Pikiell and the staff thrive in developing are 3-star forwards Zed Key and Matt Zona, both of whom would be intriguing adds.

With such a deep pool of prospects in the class of 2020, Rutgers has a major opportunity to add a lot of talent to the program for the near future by having potentially four open scholarships to fill. Of course, college basketball rosters are constantly in flux these days, as we all experienced first hand with the surprise Omoruyi transfer. Rutgers is in good position right now having already identified so many potential targets they are interested in.

With a strong core of sophomores already on the roster in Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell, Mamadou Doucoure and Myles Johnson, the 2020 class will potentially mix with this group for two seasons. If Rutgers can continue to climb up the Big Ten ladder and challenge for the postseason for the first time in over a decade next season, it will only help change perception on the recruiting trail, which in turn will lead to even more talented players brought into the program.

The coaching staff continues to implore a balanced approach, going after top rated recruits while also targeting less heralded but solid prospects both locally and throughout the country. The advantage of having several scholarships available during such a promising recruiting cycle such as the 2020 class, is that it allows them to pursue good players that in any other year would be getting more attention from higher profile programs. We know Pikiell and the staff have been able to find capable 3-star players and identify prospects before their stock peaked who ultimately became 4-star recruits after they were already in the fold, so the 2020 cycle seems to be playing to their strengths. This is a encouraging, as the 2020 recruiting class is unquestionably the most important of the Pikiell era so far. If Rutgers is to become a top half Big Ten team and postseason regular under Steve Pikiell, we’ll look back at this coming recruiting cycle as a key reason why.