The upcoming season for the Rutgers men’s basketball team is the most anticipated in decades, while also expected to be one of the most unpredictable due to the uncertainty that playing during a global pandemic brings. A major plot twist occurred on Friday, as junior guard Caleb McConnell announced he was taking a medical redshirt for this season due to a back injury.
He made the announcement on social media and his statement was sent in a press release from the program, which can be read in full below:
“Rutgers Nation, first and foremost I want to thank you guys for all of the support and love you have shown me and my brothers during my time on the banks. “Coming to Rutgers and helping turn this program around has been an amazing experience.”
“During my time here I’ve battled through multiple injuries. Unfortunately, I am still not fully healthy. After talking it over with Coach Pikiell and my family, I have decided to redshirt this upcoming season to focus on getting 100% healthy. Though I am disappointed I won’t be able to go to war on the court with my brothers this year, I am excited to help lead us from the sideline and off the court. I know we will be ready to take the next step in the Big Ten Conference this year.”
“I’m looking forward to using this season to not only get healthy, but also to improve as a player, person and leader. I will be attacking my rehab each and every day to make sure I am the best possible player I can be when I return for the 2021-2022 season. Go RU!”
McConnell is arguably the most versatile player on the roster and a certified glue guy. The 6’7” guard averaged 6.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists while starting 21 games last season. He was the best free throw shooter on the team, making 79.2% of his attempts, while shooting 41.1% from the floor. His playing time and production fell off significantly during the last seven games of the season in which he scored just 15 total points over 80 minutes played.
Rutgers was 5-1 in Big Ten play last season when McConnell scored in double digits. The best performance of his sophomore campaign was a perfect shooting night against Nebraska on the road with Geo Baker out in early January. He made 8 of 8 shots for a game high 20 points, while adding 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. McConnell put on a clinic from the free throw line in the home win over Purdue later that month, making 12 of 12 from the charity stripe and finishing with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists.
McConnell can play and defend multiple positions on the court, is a solid ball handler, has a high basketball IQ, while also known as a tough, unselfish player and great teammate. His loss is significant for a team that was set to return seven of its eight top producers from last season and looking to make a jump to the upper echelon of the Big Ten. However, Rutgers still has solid talent and depth in the backcourt despite the absence of McConnell.
The Scarlet Knights return guards Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy, all of whom have the potential to impact games in a big way. Baker, a returning captain entering his senior campaign, is an indispensable closer at the end of games who is receiving plenty of preseason honors. In speaking with head coach Steve Pikiell a few weeks ago, he praised Mathis for his offseason improvement and the junior could benefit more than any player in regard to having more opportunity in McConnell’s absence. Young has the potential to be a valuable third wheel for Rutgers in his final season of eligibility. Mulcahy has similar versatility to McConnell on the offensive end and is expected to take another step forward as a sophomore.
In addition, freshmen wings Oskar Palmquist and Mawot Mag arrive as part of a top 50 recruiting class. The pair could see more minutes than originally expected now that McConnell is out for the season. In last month’s interview with Pikiell, he said Palmquist can guard the 1 through 4 and “is going to give us another guy who can score off the post, score off the dribble and score from three.” I think Mag is a player that can contribute early on with his physicality and athleticism, both on the defensive end and as a slasher in transition offense.
Rutgers has just 11 scholarship players available now entering the 2020-2021 season:
Guards: Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Jacob Young, Paul Mulcahy
Wings: Ron Harper Jr., Oskar Palmquist, Mawot Mag
Frontcourt: Myles Johnson, Cliff Omoruyi, Mamadou Doucoure, Dean Reiber
The experience and depth returning even without McConnell should not change expectations for this team. If veterans like Mathis, Mulcahy and Young can show improvement along with some contribution from Palmquist and Mag, the Scarlet Knights could be deeper and more dangerous than last season.
Also being down two scholarship players at the start of the season is never ideal, but could be less of an issue with a reduction of regular season games a certainty due to the NCAA’s decision to have a maximum of 27 contests. The Big Ten schedule and non-conference games have yet to be announced.
As for the long term, McConnell will have two years of eligibility remaining at the start of the 2021-2022 season. The year off will give him time to get healthy and improve his game. While he will be missed this season, having him one year later than expected will give the program an unexpected senior leader in the 2022-2023 campaign to pair in the backcourt with Mulcahy. The freshmen wings this season also will gain more experience to build from for the rest of their careers.
To listen to our latest podcast episode from this week with coach Pikiell, click here.