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State of Rutgers Basketball Recruiting Entering Steve Pikiell’s Fourth Season

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The coaching staff continues to pound to recruiting trail

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 13 Big Ten Conference Tournament - Nebraska v Rutgers Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fall sports are in full bloom, but that also means the beginning of college basketball is getting closer as well. In fact, we are now less than nine weeks away from games being played. We covered the Rutgers men’s basketball’s recent trip to Spain and we’ll have plenty of preseason coverage in the next two months regarding the season ahead. However, today let’s discuss the current state of recruiting for the program ahead of head coach Steve Pikiell’s fourth season at the helm.

First, let’s review the current roster and how it breaks down from a scholarship perspective by class entering the 2019-2020 season:

Seniors: (2) Akwasi Yeboah (F/W); Shaq Carter (F/C)

Juniors: (4) Geo Baker (G); Jacob Young (G); Peter Kiss (G/W); Mamadou Doucoure (F/C);

Sophomores: (4) Myles Johnson (C); Ron Harper Jr. (F/W); Montez Mathis (G); Caleb McConnell (G/W)

Freshman: (1) Paul Mulcahy (G)

Open Scholarships: (2)

Thoughts: As of today, Rutgers will enter the season with two open scholarships. The coaching staff made runs at a few transfers and prospects late in the cycle to add a player to the roster for next season, but it didn’t work out. One high profile visitor was Utah transfer Donnie Tillman, but the PAC-12 sixth man of the year chose to play near his sick mother in his hometown of Las Vegas at UNLV. Another was Lok Wur, who reclassified to the 2019 class and received a slew of offers, including Rutgers, before committing to Oregon. While anything is possible and someone could come out of the woodwork between now and the start of practice, which begins the end of this month, it’s unlikely.

I don’t think Pikiell is too concerned about having two open spots on the current roster and I actually think it’s going to become more common for high major teams to leave an open spot or two each season. Call it a reaction to the transfer portal and how common it has become for players to make a move each offseason.

The pro’s are you can roll these open spots over into next year’s class and allows programs to capitalize by having a scholarship available to grab an impact grad transfer each spring. Also, running with less than the maximum of 13 scholarship players means coaches have less players to juggle in regard to playing time and therefore, less ego’s to manage.

The downside is not filling every scholarship spot opens up the possibility to have depth issues, particularly if injuries pile up throughout the season. It also means for a program like Rutgers that isn’t grabbing high impact, short term players who will only be around for 1-2 years before joining the professional ranks, there is potentially less of a grooming process for younger players. Redshirting Myles Johnson two seasons ago was a major positive for his development. Let’s say the coaching staff felt in the preseason it might be positive for current true freshman Paul Mulcahy to redshirt as well? (NOTE: I’m not saying he should at all, this is merely a hypothetical). In the current situation, Rutgers really couldn’t afford to do that because it would leave them with just ten scholarship players. Again, not a deal breaker in having the philosophy of keeping an open scholarship or two each year, but it does reduce some roster flexibility for sure.

As for the current roster itself, Rutgers has a lot of depth and versatility along the perimeter with the guards and wings. They are extremely athletic and have the potential to play an effective, up tempo style. Shooting from behind the arc and free throw line are still big question marks for this season. In the frontcourt, Rutgers looks likely to improve upon its scoring output from recent seasons, but depth could be a major issue as the grind of the Big Ten takes its toll.

Alright, now that we have the current state of the roster sorted out, let’s examine the current state of recruiting.

It was a strange summer recruiting wise across college basketball with all the new changes that the NCAA implemented in limiting AAU events and other showcases that took place each July. Instead of three live periods during that month, there was only one that featured the typical slate of tournaments. The rest were invitational camps runs by the NCAA that limited exposure of some lesser known prospects and reduced the amount of actual games that coaches could evaluate recruits. While the previous system wasn’t perfect by any stretch, the new recruiting calendar of events this past July was worse in my opinion.

That being said, the Rutgers coaching staff continued to be diligent and strategic in their approach in regard to recruiting. They offered many prospects stretched across the 2020, 2021, and 2022 classes.

They received their first commitment in the class of 2020 this past weekend when Dean Reiber out of North Carolina announced he was joining the program. Reiber is a stretch four who can shoot from the perimeter, while also having the ability to make an impact in the paint with his 6’10” frame. His current high school coach cited his passing ability, vision and touch in this article by Matt Agnoli of 247 Sports. The 3-star prospect plays in a talent rich state and although his only other high major offer out of almost two dozen offers total was Penn State, Pikiell and the coaching staff are very high on his potential, making him a priority since offering him back in April. Their hard work paid off and it was important to add someone to the 2020 recruiting class before the season began.

I think Reiber is going to need some time to develop before he potentially makes an impact, but I had scouts tell me the same thing about Myles Johnson and he has improved quite a bit in the two years since he joined Rutgers, so Reiber could do the same in a relatively short time frame.

Rutgers offered 4-star shooting guard DJ Gordon this summer, right before he blew up as a national prospect. The Pittsburgh native has a dozen high major offers, but it’s looking like a local battle between Pitt and Penn State, with Illinois in the mix as well, per 247 Sports.

2020 prospects that reportedly visited over the summer that Rutgers has strongly pursued includes 6’10”center Martice Mitchell, 6”11 forward Jaylon Gibson, and 6’8” forward Coleman Hawkins.

Mitchell has seen his profile explode this spring and summer. He has about two dozen offers and is also being pursued by Big Ten schools Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland and Xavier is also in the mix.

Rutgers offered Gibson in April, but he ultimately committed to Wake Forest in August.

Hawkins has been on Pikiell’s radar for over a year, as he was offered after last summer’s July live period. The 3-star versatile recruit seems to be high on the staff’s radar, but it will be a battle for Hawkins, who has already taken official visits to Rutgers and San Diego State, with official visits set for later this month at Illinois and Marquette. Adam Zagoria reported Hawkins will no longer visit USC like he originally planned and he could sign in November during the early signing period.

Zed Key is a player who I think has great potential and has risen up the recruiting rankings over the past year plus. The Long Island native is a intriguing prospect who can play high or low with his 6”8 frame and versatile game. Rutgers has recruited him for a long time, but his offer list is lengthy and is slated to visit Florida this weekend. Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, and Illinois are other Big Ten schools to offer, as well as local programs like Seton Hall, St. John’s and several ACC schools too. I think he would be a great fit for Pikiell’s system, as he plays hard on both ends of the floor and is willing to do the little things that lead to winning.

The highest rated target for Rutgers in the 2020 class is Roselle Catholic’s Cliff Omoruyi, a top 50 recruit who was on campus last week touring the new practice facility with Pikiell and lead recruiter Brandin Knight.

However, he then visited Pitt and has visits scheduled for TCU and Auburn later this month. He also visited UConn and Temple in August. The race for Omouryi is packed with many more suitors and although Rutgers is certainly in the thick of it, ultimately signing him will be a difficult task. Credit the staff for making him the top priority and not backing down to the competition to land his services.

As for the class of 2021, 4-star point guard Rahsool Diggins is a top priority for Rutgers and was on campus for the season opening football game last weekend. He took an official visit to DePaul the next day and in addition to both schools also holds offers from Florida, Penn State, Xavier, and Virginia Tech per 247 Sports. The top 75 recruit from Philadelphia was offered by Rutgers during the July live period. With the frontcourt the focus of the 2020 class, expect Diggins to be the top target of the 2021 class for the coaching staff.

TaQuan Woodley from Camden is a 6’7” forward who also visited Rutgers for the season opening football game. He holds offers from the Scarlet Knights and South Carolina at the moment and it’s likely several of the local programs in Philly will get involved as well.

Rutgers just offered Micawber Etienne last weekend during his visit to campus. He is a 4-star center from Suffield, Connecticut. Seton Hall offered him on the same day and the 6’10” big man also holds offers from over a dozen high major programs, including Syracuse, St. John’s, Pitt, UConn, Xavier, UCLA, and Iowa, among others. He plays for the PSA Cardinals on the AAU circuit, the same program current Rutgers center Mamadou Doucoure played for. He is very athletic and plays hard. While he is needs to refine his game on the offensive end, he drew a lot of attention over the summer with his play during the live period.

Rutgers offered forward Chris Hodges in early July, but he ended up committing to Wisconsin in August. The 3-star recruit was a bit under the radar, which Pikiell and his staff of done a good job of identifying during his tenure. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in this case.

Another big man that the Scarlet Knights offered in July was Julian Reese, a 6’9” forward from Maryland. Despite not being rated by any of the recruiting services, Reese picked up an offer from LSU later in the month and also holds offers from Maryland and Virginia Tech, among others. He is a perfect example of why recruiting rankings shouldn’t always define the potential of a prospect. It’s why I think Pikiell is such a good fit to rebuild Rutgers, because he has always prioritized players based on how they fit into the program over their ranking.

Other 2021 recruits that Rutgers offered this summer include 6’10” center Nnanna Njoku from Delaware, who also holds offers from Villanova and several ACC schools per 247 Sports, as well as 6’5” shooting guard John Poulakidis from Illinois, who also holds offers from TCU and Butler.

The staff previously offered several 5-star prospects in the class of 2021, including four of the top ten recruits in the country. It will obviously be an uphill battle for all of them and Rutgers doesn’t seem well positioned to stay in the hunt for them in the end, but Pikiell continues to pursue the top players in every class. In addition, a consensus top 50 recruit and 4-star prospect that is local that Rutgers has put time in with is 6’7” wing Trey Patterson from Somerset and plays for Rutgers Prep. However, his recruitment has blown up and Villanova is recruiting him hard. No word on any recent visits planned to Rutgers, but they will likely try to get him on campus during the season.

As for the 2022 class, rankings haven’t been released by 247 yet, but Rutgers is targeting several likely top 150 prospects, including Dariq Whitehead, who plays for Kevin Boyle at Montverde Academy in Florida, as well as Hudson Catholic guard Zion Cruz and Roselle Catholic’s combo guard Corey Floyd.

With Rutgers officially opening the RWJBarnabas Athletic Performance Center on Thursday, September 12th and with the basketball team already moved in, Pikiell has some momentum in being able to tour recruits and show them the new facility home for the program. It’s no longer a hypothetical or a blueprint, but recruits can come watch this team practice in a state of the art facility, which is significant. It’s certainly a selling point to recruits and finally puts Rutgers on a more level playing field, as the Scarlet Knights were the last school from a power five conference to have their own dedicated practice facility. With that obstacle now in the past, it’s really important for the program to now make undeniable progress on the court this season to keep that momentum moving forward.

What does that mean exactly? A winning record for the first time in 14 years would be a start and a considerable climb up the Big Ten standings would be another. If they can do both of those things, Rutgers would likely be in NIT consideration and who knows, maybe even on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Notching some signature wins this season within what is an always challenging conference schedule is what will likely determine the trajectory of this team. The non-conference schedules poses some tests, like Seton Hall, Pitt and St. Bonaventure, but Rutgers really needs to capitalize on winning Big Ten games to increase it’s tally of quality wins.

As of now, Rutgers will have at least four open scholarships to use in the 2020 recruiting cycle. With Reiber verbally committed, there is still plenty of work to do to fill out the class. The Scarlet Knights will lose two frontcourt players after this season to graduation in Akwasi Yeboah and Shaq Carter, so they need to add a couple more big men who can make an impact on both ends of the floor. Whether they come locally in the form of a program changing recruit like Cliff Omoruyi, an intriguing two-way player like Zed Key, a grad transfer, or even a player not even on their radar yet, Steve Pikiell and the staff know the importance of adding talented players in this class. Of course, it’s possible they roll over a spot to the 2021 class as well, but that will be determined by the quality and depth of the current recruiting class.

The core of this program is based on the current sophomore class of Harper Jr., Johnson, Mathis and McConnell, which has bookends of Baker and Mulcahy from the other classes. It’s a big year for them and the program, as Rutgers has an opportunity to further change the perception for the better by finally breaking through with a winning campaign.

The staff have been relentless on the recruiting trail ever since Pikiell arrived in the spring of 2016. He has done a good job of identifying talent and closing on players with upside that his staff have been able to develop. The staff have also won key recruiting battles for players like Montez Mathis and Mulcahy. They’ve recruited locally, nationally, and overseas. Stars or no stars, it’s about the recruit’s fit into the culture of the program and their potential to elevate the roster.

With local competition even tougher now with the new staff led by Mike Anderson at St. John’s, Danny Hurley at UConn and Kevin Willard turning Seton Hall into an annual NCAA Tournament team, Pikiell needs a winning campaign to help close out the 2020 class with a level of talent that can take this program to greater heights. The staff is involved with many prospects that can help this team do just that. While Pikiell is very good about keeping his recruiting plan close to his vest, there is no doubt he has one that he believes in and has confidence in that can ultimately get Rutgers to the next level in this rebuild.