Tuesday’s victory over Purdue was the most impressive of the season due to how much Rutgers overcame from an injury perspective. In what Rutgers fans hope will be a dream season for the program, six of the top nine players on the team have had or are suffering from injuries of varying degrees. It’s a fact that makes this team’s 7-1 overall record and 3-1 start in Big Ten play all the more impressive.
Ron Harper Jr., who has the seventh highest scoring average in the nation at 23.7 points per game, was a surprise scratch against Purdue. Rutgers basketball released a statement one hour before tip-off stating that he “will not play in Tuesday night’s game against Purdue due to an ankle injury suffered in a recent practice.”
After the game, Pikiell said he wasn’t sure if Harper Jr. would be available for Saturday’s showdown against no. 10 Iowa. However, all indications are that the injury is not serious and he could be ready for the Hawkeyes. Harper Jr. dressed for the team’s shoot around on Tuesday but was not able to go. He was not wearing a boot during the game, which is a good sign.
As for heralded freshman big man Cliff Omoruyi, Pikiell told Jerry Carino after Monday’s practice that “Cliff is still not back in practice; we’re hoping soon. With my veterans, I’ve got a better feel for when they’ll be back. The younger guys, I don’t have as good of a feel. When he gets a couple of practices in, he’ll be back on, but he’s not there yet.”
Pikiell did a masterful job of getting productive minutes out of his bench in the win over Purdue, while relying on his veterans to close out the game down the stretch. However, getting a player like Omoruyi back in the fold will give Pikiell more flexibility with matchups and rotations. He told Carino, “We have to get Cliff back, we have to get him healthy again so we can change our lineups and do different things.”
Another player who has missed several games is freshman Mawot Mag, who was penciled in as the 8th man at the start of the season. Mag hadn’t established any consistency before the injury, but his potential to contribute on the defensive end is promising. He did return on Tuesday, but played just 1 minute. Pikiell said after he is still working his way back after only practicing twice since his ankle injury.
Jacob Young played a heroic 35 minutes against Purdue but was visibly hampered by the back and hip issue after the hard fall he took against Ohio State last week. He is critical to the success of this team and hopefully can be farther along recovery wise for the next game.
Pikiell commended Young after the victory over Purdue, stating “Jacob (Young) coming off a bad injury plays 35 minutes, I can’t take him out and he has to guard Eric Hunter, who’s one of the best point guards in the league and chase him around all night.” Hunter was held to just 9 points on 2 of 8 shooting in the game in large part due to Young’s on the ball defense. He’ll likely be very sore and limited this week in practice while getting plenty of treatment to be ready for Iowa on Saturday.
In his fourth game back since missing almost three weeks due to a high ankle sprain, captain Geo Baker finally looked like himself in delivering a 19 point, 6 rebound, 4 assist performance in the win over Purdue. Pikiell said, “Geo looked like Geo and that ankle sprain was a bad ankle sprain. He’s been getting closer and closer.” After Tuesday night, it looks like Baker is back to being himself, who said after the game that he feels “real comfortable out there.”
As for the dream of Caleb McConnell returning this season despite currently sticking to a previously decided redshirt year due to a chronic back injury, something that was sparked by a tweet from national college basketball writer Jon Rothstein on Monday, nothing has changed regarding his status. He has been practicing with the team since November, something I previously reported. Pikiell told Carino on Monday that “He’s been doing some drills. I want him to go a lot longer feeling really good. He’s not there yet and I don’t know when he will be.”
Contributions from Dean Reiber, Oskar Palmquist and Mamadou Doucoure on Tuesday were an encouraging sign with so many key guys unavailable. Pikiell said, “It was a good sign for our bench. Gives me a lot of confidence to keep rotating those guys in.”
Paul Mulcahy, who scored 11 points in the victory and Pikiell said “was banged up too”, was adamant after the game how important the entire roster is to the team’s success this season. He said, “Our bench does a phenomenal job. We’ve got guys on the ‘Dream Team:’ Aiden Terry, Daniel Lobach, Luke Nathan, (Caleb McConnell, Nick Brooks and (staffer) T.J. Thompson. They learn new teams’ plays in two days. They work hard. They give us a perfect replica of another team.”
He continued, “They do everything no one sees or talks about, but these guys have helped us all year. They come in and work and then they bring positive energy on the bench. They’ve done an absolutely amazing job. They don’t get talked about, but those guys have set us up and put us in the position we are in right now.”
Mulcahy’s comments also speak to the tremendous team chemistry Rutgers has, as well as the program’s mentality of next man up, which was on full display in the win over Purdue.
While Rutgers continues to win despite not having its full complement of players not even once this season so far, it’s not something they hope lasts too long. Four of the next five games come against ranked opponents.
“We need to get everybody back,” Pikiell said. “We need to get Ron back and we need to get Cliff back. It’s better when you have the whole package, but the guys fought through it tonight. A lot of adversity. We even had a fire alarm go off during our shootaround today for 25 straight minutes. We got through that obstacle too.”
National Player of the Year front runner Luke Garza and Iowa come to the RAC on Saturday. There have been some epic battles with the Hawkeyes in recent seasons and this weekend’s matchup should be no different. Hopefully, Rutgers will be in better shape health wise and we will provide any updates shared by Pikiell ahead of Saturday’s showdown.