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An uncertain but hopeful Odyssey begins for Rutgers men’s basketball

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This season could be a journey unlike any other for the program in more ways than one.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 15 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s finally here! The most anticipated season for the Rutgers men’s basketball team in decades tips off Wednesday night at home against Sacred Heart at 7 p.m. on BTN Plus. However, due to a global pandemic continuing to spread across the country, this season already feels strange with a sizable amount of uncertainty hovering over everything.

The fact that Rutgers just formally announced three games for THIS WEEK and haven’t even set it’s entire non-conference schedule highlights how different this season will be. It’s no longer just a question of how this team will perform for each game, but rather if each game is even played at all. It’s no longer just about whether an opponent shows up to play mentally and physically, but rather literally.

The two biggest questions about this season are simple.

How will Rutgers navigate through COVID-19, both as a program and how many games will actually be played?

How will this team handle the mental and emotional stress of playing in that type of climate while also handling with increased expectations on the court as being a team that’s hunted?

A reason for hope begins with head coach Steve Pikiell. He has proven to be a master of preparation in both game planning for opponents, but also handling bumps in the road as he has elevated the program to a point not many expected entering his fifth year at the helm. Just entering his fifth season in charge is an accomplishment that Rutgers hasn’t witnessed since Gary Waters did it in the 2005-2006 season, which turned out to be his last as he was ultimately fired. The three coaches who followed Waters didn’t last more than four seasons and the only one was just Fred Hill an entire decade ago.

Pikiell has defied odds and has proven adept at steering this program through choppy waters. Whenever disappointments have occurred, whether it was bad non-conference losses, poor stretches in conference play, player defections or rare off the court issues, Pikiell has pushed the right button and gotten his team to recover and respond. The current state of things during the global pandemic is a 100 year storm no college basketball coach has experience dealing with. However, having Pikiell at the top gives hope that Rutgers will fair as well as any team does through the very difficult situation this season presents.

Another reason for hope is that the roster is chock full of veterans that understand the weight that this season carries, but from a historical perspective with this program, as well as the challenges ahead due to COVID-19. Perhaps no other college basketball team was bitten harder than Rutgers in terms of the NCAA Tournament being cancelled last season. This team is battle tested both on and off the court and will be driven to greatness in part due to that heartbreak. Great expectations have arrived and the players are embracing them. As Geo Baker said on media day, “We always say ‘national championship’ when we break (the huddle). Those are the things we are thinking about now. We aren’t even really thinking about the tournament. We are thinking about how are we going to win games in the tournament. That’s our mindset now.

The continuity that the top of the rotation brings will be an asset after a disjointed offseason and potential for longer than usual breaks between games. While all eleven active scholarship players will play early on in the non-conference schedule, I expect the following tighter rotation as the season progresses:

Starters: Geo Baker, Jacob Young, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson

Key Bench Players: Paul Mulcahy, Cliff Omoruyi, Mag Mawot

The likely starting five gives Rutgers as much experience and versatility as any team in the country.

Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. give Rutgers two nationally acclaimed players that could be two of the top ten players in the Big Ten. Baker should improve statistically after battling through injuries during an eight game stretch last season. Harper Jr. seems ready to become a breakout star across college basketball and give Rutgers another gear in closing out games. Both players need to shoot more consistently though for this team to make a leap to the top or near it within the Big Ten.

Jacob Young’s development will be exciting to watch and hopefully gives this team a third legitimate scorer behind them. Myles Johnson brings a steadiness up top and hopefully delivers a double-double or close to it on a regular basis. Pikiell has praised the improvement of Montez Mathis this offseason and if the junior can take a step forward this season, the starting lineup will be scary good.

The best sixth man in the Big Ten could turn out to be Mulcahy, who will be a driving force for the Scarlet Knights in taking the critical next step forward this season.

Despite depth being a strength, the heralded freshmen class does need to make an impact this season.

Top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi has the potential to be an elite rim defender and rebounder this season. On the offensive end, his ability to make an impact from close range off the bounce, through the air and on the offensive glass will give him double-double potential at times, but expectations for his scoring production this season should be kept in check. Wing Mawot Mag should also be a factor right away after playing for Prolific Prep last season, the top scholastic program in the country for most of the year. His athleticism, ability to defend multiple positions and toughness should make him a perfect fit to give Rutgers a spark off the bench.

While Oskar Palmquist could bring a much needed boost from three-point range, I think it will take him more time to adjust to the speed of the college game, especially on the defensive end. His development is key though for the future and any help he can provide this season would be great. Big man Dean Reiber, who along with veteran Mamadou Doucoure, will provide depth in the frontcourt but will likely be brought along slowly.

A wild card for this team is Caleb McConnell, who is still planning to sit this season out to heal from past injuries. However, he didn’t rule out a potential return at some point at medai day now that the NCAA ruled it a free year in regard to eligibility. It still is preferred he take the year off, but if a long term injury occurs to a key rotational player, McConnell’s status is something to keep an eye on. Regardless, his impact at practice on the court will be a positive.

Offensively, Rutgers needs to take a leap if they want to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s elite teams this season. Shooting has been a concern and was an issue last season, despite improvement from years past. If this team can approach average shooting percentage’s from three-point range and the free throw line, it will make them a very dangerous team and hard to beat.

While expecting the Scarlet Knights to be even better defensively this season may be unrealistic, Pikiell has mentioned their increased versatility and ability show different looks with the current roster. Expect more pressing at times as well. Rebounding should remain a strength, but they also need to be better on the boards against the Big Ten elite.

The idea of Rutgers playing Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi together to form an impenetrable force at the rim is exciting but unlikely to occur very often. Keeping both out of foul trouble is important and won’t be an easy task when Big Ten play takes place. Having them able to rotate and keep each other fresh will be key, as well having them both available down the stretch of games. The depth behind them in Doucoure and Reiber lacks scoring punch and is a level or two behind on the defensive end and on the glass.

A big question mark is how Rutgers handles playing at the RAC without fans? The best homecourt in the country will instead have cardboard cutouts and piped-in crowd noise. It’s going to be strange to watch on television, let alone play in that environment. However, every Big Ten team will be in the same situation and it could be a benefit for the Scarlet Knights playing on the road this season. The overall maturity level for this team will be a major factor, as their ability to create their own energy and bring a heightened focus is paramount to their success this season.

Of course, those two big questions for Rutgers stand above all else.

Staying healthy from a virus perspective is an absolute must in order to avoid having to cancel games and prevent a potential pause from practicing. It does seem unlikely every scheduled game will take place just based on how the college football season has gone and the fact that some Division I college basketball programs have already been paused due to COVID-19 before traveling has even begun. Dealing with longer than usual breaks between games, potentially scheduling opponents on the fly or having a shift in the schedule, as well as the mental toll of it all will be key factors they must overcome.

As for how this team will handle the hype and increased expectations remains to be seen, but the mental fortitude of this group seems strong. The Scarlet Knights will likely get every opponent’s best shot after beginning the season ranked for the first time in 42 years. Every game is weighted eve more so due to less regular season games and the likelihood some will get cancelled. That means every big win and every bad loss will count that much more. There will be less opportunities to gain signature victories and less chances to recover from upset defeats. This team will need to stay focused and energized without the natural buzz that playing in front of fans bring.

It’s going to be a college season like no other and perhaps, positive karmic energy will break the way of the Scarlet Knights, who are an experienced, versatile team with a chip on its shoulder.

In a matter of hours, the Rutgers men’s basketball team will embark on a journey that no other in program history will ever replicate in regard to circumstances. Hopefully, their ultimate destination will be the farthest trip that any team in program history has ever taken. Even if that doesn’t happen, this group has the opportunity to be what only a few Rutgers teams have ever been....Special!