The Rutgers men’s basketball team is 6-0 to start the season and atop the Big Ten standings at 2-0 in large part due to its roster being stocked veteran players who all have different skill sets. Sunday’s win over Illinois sent a message that this team is talented enough to win a Big Ten title.
Ron Harper Jr. has become a complete player, big time scorer and true star. Geo Baker is the unquestioned leader and big shot maker who stokes the confidence level of this team like no other. Myles Johnson is a steady force and rebounding machine in the paint who has also developed into a legitimate rim defender. Jacob Young creates offense for himself and his teammates with his quickness, while also being a top on the ball defender along with Montez Mathis, who attacks the rim and can even knock down the three from time to time.
While overall depth is a concern with freshmen Mawot Mag and Cliff Omoruyi battling injuries, the biggest loss this season has been the absence of Caleb McConnell. The versatile guard can play and defend multiple positions, but it is his toughness and willingness to do the little things that makes him so valuable. Rutgers has struggled to replace his unique skill set, but Sunday’s game showcased sophomore Paul Mulcahy’s ability to fill that role ably.
His stat line was solid but not spectacular: 8 points on 1 of 4 shooting, 6 of 6 from the foul line, as well as 7 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block in 29 minutes. The clutch free throws in the second half were impressive, as was grabbing so many boards against an elite team on the glass, including 4 offensive rebounds, but his impact on the game was far greater.
He played the role of an agitator with his aggressiveness on two consecutive trips to the blocks during free throw attempts. Like a cagey veteran, Mulcahy created frustration on the first trip, setting up Da’Monte Williams to throw an elbow on the second trip which was called as a flagrant foul. Mulcahy was seen talking to the officials throughout this sequence, which highlighted his savviness.
The call against Williams came as Geo Baker made his second foul shot. Mulcahy then converted both free throws off the flagrant foul and on the possession awarded because of the technical, the Scarlet Knights showed great hustle as Montez Mathis dunked off on offensive rebound after a Myles Johnson miss.
Baker had went to the line with Rutgers leading 56-55 with 9:41 to play in the game and when Illinois got the ball back with just over 9 minutes remaining, they trailed 62-55. The gamesmanship of Mulcahy was masterful and helped spur momentum towards the Scarlet Knights.
When he wasn’t outsmarting the Illini, he was outhustling them. He found himself up against 7-foot Kofi Cockburn twice with help defense, preventing the heralded big man from scoring with pure heart and guts. He also battled two players to make a key tip out to Baker off a missed shot, which led to the captain finding Harper Jr. for a back breaking three-pointer that gave Rutgers a 73-64 lead with just over five minutes to play.
For the record, almost every postgame press conference this season head coach Steve Pikiell has praised Mulcahy for doing the little things. Sunday was no exception, as Pikiell said “Paul does a lot of winning things and then down the stretch making all his free throws too. He rebounds, he gets assists, he draws some tough defensive assignments, he’s a really good rotational guy, he gives us direction at times, and I can kind of move them around. Paul has done a really, really good job of helping us in a lot of areas and sometimes those areas don’t show up in the box score, but he’s tough and he does winning things and you saw that today.”
His performance wasn’t lost on his teammates either. Harper Jr. said, “Paul did a great job and fought all night in all the minutes he played. He fought and was in the paint trying to get every rebound, every offensive rebound.”
Through six games, Mulcahy is averaging 6.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists while playing both as a primary ball handler and off the ball depending on the situation. He also has the best shooting percentage from the free throw line on the team at 76.5% (13 of 17).
Mulcahy will eventually take over as the lead point guard for Rutgers before his career is done on the banks, but his versatility shouldn’t be a surprise. He was the first New Jersey high school player to average a triple-double in decades in his senior season at Gill St. Bernards. Perhaps some are surprised by his toughness, but his teammates certainly aren’t.
“Shoutout to Paul Mulcahy. That boy’s a dog,” said Young. “Don’t anyone doubt him either.”
Mulcahy has become a true glue guy willing to do the dirty work for Rutgers and his impact on this team has made a difference so far this season.