The first practice for the 2019-2020 Rutgers men’s basketball season tips off Thursday with the first game less than seven weeks away. Big Ten Media Day is October 2nd in Rosemont, Illinois, Geo Baker, Shaq Carter, and Ron Harper Jr. are set to attend along with head coach Steve Pikiell. There will be lots to discuss regarding this team before the season officially begins and today we start with five key questions on the road ahead.
Can the frontcourt hold up?
There is no question this is as deep a team on the perimeter that Rutgers has had in years. Most of the backcourt can play multiple positions and give Pikiell plenty of lineup versatility at his disposal. The depth concern is with the frontcourt.
Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter are primed for big seasons. They need to be consistent night in and night out for Rutgers to take a step forward, but all indications from the offseason, highlighted by the Spain trip, lend the belief they will be big contributors.
With the void left from the departure of Eugene Omoruyi, there will be plenty of Ron Harper Jr. and Akwasi Yeboah at the 4 at times. While they will offer more rotation flexibility and stretch the defense out of the paint, their ability to defend near the rim is something they need to prove capable of doing.
Another important factor is the development of Mamadou Doucoure, who I confirmed did receive a medical redshirt for last season and is listed as a third year sophomore on the roster. He was thrust into the starting role as a true freshman after reclassifying to a senior at the end of the 2017 recruiting cycle. It was a tough transition and then he only played six games last season in limited action due to a back injury. With Omoruyi and Shaq Doorson gone, as well as two open scholarships on the roster this season, there is an opportunity for Doucoure to play a meaningful role off the bench. It’s inevitable that there will be games in which Johnson and or Carter are in foul trouble. While Doucoure will likely never be an offensive force, his ability to provide defense and rebounding when needed is an underrated key to the season.
Is Ron Harper Jr. on the verge of stardom?
The belief within the program is that Harper Jr. is poised to make a big leap forward this season. He has worked extremely hard on his body and his game. The biggest leaps players typically make is from their freshman to sophomore years, but Harper Jr. has been improving season after season since his early in his high school career. An after thought on the recruiting trail until his junior year, Pikiell wisely pursued him diligently and signed him before his eyebrow raising senior campaign that resulted in him leading Don Bosco to the Tournament of Champions Final.
After a slow start last season as a freshman, Harper Jr. showed off his massive potential down the stretch in February. From an advanced stats perspective Harper Jr. excelled in Big Ten play in three areas Rutgers desperately needed help in. He finished 5th in the conference in turnover rate at just 9.4%, 18th in two-point shooting at 53.5% and produced the 16th best offensive rating in the league at 113.8. This was in spite of poor shooting from behind the arc that improved quite a bit near the end of the season. The sky is the limit for Harper Jr., who will be a more dangerous scorer due to improved versatility and in my estimation likely to be the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He is the best chance Rutgers has of having a bonafide star this season and if he can become just that, the ceiling for this team will rise with him.
Can this team excel in transition?
It’s no secret this team is well equipped to push the pace on both ends of the court and look to run often this season. With multiple capable ball handlers and players who can finish on the break, this will be the most up tempo team Rutgers has had in years. Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy will look to run in transition as often as possible and find Baker, Yeboah, Harper Jr, McConnell and Mathis streaking down the sidelines. Young is also capable of taking it the distance and finishing at the rim, while Mulcahy is more likely to find shooters spotted up behind the arc. They are a good blend of point guards to have and both are deft at making difficult passes in traffic.
Defensively, they have the depth in the backcourt to offer mid to fullcourt pressue more often. There is length among the Rutgers guards that will pose problems with traps and disrupting passing lanes. Of course, defensive rebounding is key to be able to run on the break as well. Rutgers can’t afford a step back in this area despite the losses of Omoruyi and Doorson. They need to generate offense through their defense on a more consistent basis to take a step forward this season by forcing opponents into mistakes and capitalizing on them. Speaking of defense.....
Will the defense be good enough?
This is probably the biggest question for this team. Halfcourt defense has to be a concern and Pikiell wasn’t shy in telling Jerry Carino in this article that this team as of right now is “not very good defensively.” Omoruyi was a key cog in the middle and Doorson gave this team valuable minutes as a rim protector. In addition, assistant coach Jay Young ran the defense previously but is now gone to lead his own team at Fairfield. Pikiell said in my Q&A with him in June that assistant Brandin Knight will have a bigger role on that end of the floor with Young’s replacement, Steve Hayn, being involved as well. It’s still Pikiell’s defensive philosophy, but finding guys to step up is the real key.
Johnson and Carter need to become tougher defensively near the rim, while Baker and Mathis need to be shut down, on the ball defenders that they’ve shown potential to be in the past. McConnell and Harper Jr. have the size to cause opposing guards problems, but need to keep up with their quickness. Expect Pikiell to mix and match defenses, including some zone, depending on the opponent. As a unit, Rutgers will be a work in progress defensively, but will need to tighten up, particularly in the halfcourt, if they want to make a leap as a team this season.
How far can this team go this season?
There are obviously a lot of variables on how this team’s story will ultimately be written. Last season, KenPom listed Rutgers as 330th out of 353 teams in regard to experience. After producing the best single game performance of the Pikiell era in blowing out a ranked Iowa team on the road last February, the season ended with a thud due to three consecutive defeats.
Most of that roster returns and are much more battle tested entering this season. The Spain trip was essential for this team to build even more chemistry and adjust to a more up tempo style, as well as the new three-point line. With two open scholarships, injuries need to be avoided to have enough depth to endure the grind of the Big Ten season. (Note: Carino reported Yeboah is sidelined for two weeks with a minor knee issue).
After threatening to make a big jump up the conference standings a year ago, Rutgers stumbled down the stretch. That experience should be a positive this season, as this team knows they can’t take anything for granted. Avoiding bad losses in non-conference play, as well as capitalizing on opportunities against quality opponents outside of the Big Ten (Seton Hall, Pitt, St. Bonaventure) are very important to have a legitimate chance at postseason play. Establishing the RAC as a legitimate homecourt advantage and winning those sellouts (they went 0-5 last season) are key as well.
Talent wise, this is far and away the best team Pikiell has had at Rutgers. They are all his players now and the culture is firmly established. This season brings real expectations and is the most anticipated since the 2011-2012 campaign in my estimation. The fan base is starving for success, as the program looks to produce its first wining season in 14 years. That was also the last time Rutgers went to the postseason, advancing the to second round of the NIT.
What is this team’s ceiling? The opportunity to finish in the middle of the Big Ten and challenge for a spot in the NCAA Tournament is certainly a the hope. Realistically, a winning campaign and an NIT appearance is what the expectation should be. This team needs to learn to close out games they left on the table last season, which will ultimately determine how far they will go.
We will have plenty of more coverage in the preseason, but for now, Steve Pikiell’s fourth season brings excitement and hope. Basketball season is finally here.