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Ask a Beat Reporter: Annual Q&A on Rutgers Basketball With Jerry Carino

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NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tradition around here. The season ends, Rutgers closes out its spring recruiting (maybe) and On the Banks wants some analysis. So we sit down with the dean of the beat: Jerry Carino.

Here Jerry talks Cliff, Geo and Steve in a fun interview. Check it out!

On the Banks: This was a breakout season for Rutgers in many ways. What was your favorite or most impressive moment this year?

Jerry Carino: The last week, how they dusted themselves off after that brutal loss at Penn State and then whacked Maryland and won at Purdue, spoke volumes about the team’s character. But the most impressive moment I witnessed occurred in between Penn State and Maryland. I saw them practice two days before Maryland, on a Sunday, and I was shocked at how hard Steve Pikiell got on them in his opening remarks. It wasn’t all negative. It was part “stop feeling sorry for yourselves”, part “we’re good enough to do this,” with a lot of expletives mixed in (Pikes doesn’t typically curse a whole lot in practice, so this part raised my eyebrows). Then I saw how the players responded with a spirited, focused practice and I thought, this is a coach who knows how to read his team and this is an incredibly coachable group. From then on I thought they were beating Maryland.

OTB- In your eyes, would Rutgers have made the NCAAs? What do you think their seed would have been?

JC- No question. I’m 100 percent certain they would have made it. If they lost to Michigan in the Big Ten Tourney opener, they probably would have been a 10 seed. Their profile was more 8-9, but I do think the committee would have dropped them a seed line or two for winning just two games away from the RAC.

OTB- The current sophomore class has been Steve Pikiell’s key class so far. Over the next two years, what is their ceiling?

JC- They have the potential to be the best and most successful class since Sellers, Dabney and company in 1976. Not saying they’re going to a Final Four, but there’s every chance they could make a push for a Big Ten title and make a deep NCAA Tournament run if they stay together, stay healthy and keep progressing. Ron Harper can be an All-Big Ten player, quite possibly next season. The other guys all seem to know their roles and play within themselves. This team started five sophomores at times and went 11-9 in the Big Ten, the deepest league in the country. With a coach who specializes in player development, that’s a springboard for big things.

I can tell you this, for starters: Barring any unforeseen defections, Rutgers will be on my Associated Press preseason Top 25 ballot.

OTB- With Cliff Omoruyi committing to Rutgers (woo hoo!), what should fans expect out of him? What will his impact be on the court and off the court for the future of Rutgers basketball? For example, can he be a pied piper that lifts recruiting even more?

JC- On the court, he fills a huge need in the frontcourt because Rutgers had no other Big Ten-ready big after Myles Johnson. It will be interesting to see how Pikiell handles two true centers. Does he platoon them the way he did Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter? Is Omoruyi going to have an understudy year with an increasing role as the season progresses, the way Paul Mulcahy’s freshman season unfolded? Does Pikiell come up with a way to play them together? Can one of them see minutes outside the paint? I’ll have to see them practice during the preseason before I make any predictions, but for now I think it’s safe to say Omoruyi will replace Carter’s role as an upgrade, slight at first and then significant down the road.

Off the court, that’s three Jersey guys in Rutgers’ rotation. Seeing Ron Harper thrive at home seems to have helped Omoruyi’s recruitment, so that’s always a big positive. But each recruiting battle is its own individual drama so I’m reluctant to extrapolate. The bigger pied-piper effect could be if Cliff develops into an NBA player; now that is something Pikiell and staff could really sell to future recruits.

OTB- What have you heard about the rest of incoming class of Dean Reiber, Mawot Mag, and particularly Oskar Palmquist, who is already on campus?

JC- I’ve seen Palmquist work out. He is a good shooter and ball-handler but he needs to bulk up and sharpen his elbows if he wants to break into next year’s rotation. Reiber seems like a Pikiell-style grinder but I’m reluctant to make judgments based on high school highlight tapes. I’ve heard good things about Mag and he might be the most impact-ready of the three, but right now all three of these guys project to have fringe roles next year. The good news for them is Pikiell plays 10-11 guys so they’ll get some court time to develop and possible prove they can handle a bigger role.

OTB- Tell us a little about Geo Baker’s development. How did he become such a clutch player under Pikiell?

JC- Geo always had this in him. He just needed the right circumstances. As a freshman he deferred to Corey Sanders but you could see this big-moment spark in him, especially during the Big Ten Tournament at the Garden. As a sophomore he had to adjust to carrying the heavy load of running the offense and making shots, and it wore him down because it was new---and he didn’t have enough help.

This past season, with the additions of Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy to take some load off his shoulders, Baker hit stride. I am not one bit surprised by how well he performed. If he didn’t play with a damaged hand for a month, his numbers would have been off the charts. I always cringed when people said he wasn’t a Big Ten starter or this and that nonsense. You have to look at the big picture. Geo is a great fit for Pikiell because they are very similar. He really has become the coach on the court.

OTB- Do you expect Rutgers to have another open scholarship this off-season? We know the coaching staff is picky with how they fill scholarships, do you expect a full roster next season?

JC- There’s going to be some roster attrition. It’s just a matter of when. I’ll be surprised if all the core players don’t return though. Regarding a full roster, generally speaking, I find more and more coaches would rather have 11 or 12 scholarship players eligible than 13, perhaps with a sit-out transfer and one scholarship rolling over. Having 13 guys eligible scholarship means 13 egos to satisfy, 13 sets of parents who will complain, in some cases 13 handlers or middlemen whispering in these kids’ ears about playing time. I’ve had this discussion with both Pikiell and Kevin Willard and I think both fall in line with the aforementioned current thinking, that less can be more from a keeping-the-peace perspective.

The short answer is Pikiell won’t fill a roster just to fill it. If he takes somebody this spring it’s because he has immediate plans for that player.

OTB- Who would you have picked to win the national championship?

JC- Michigan State. They were finally playing like the preseason No. 1.

OTB- Do you think Paul Mulcahy will become the starting point guard at some point next season?

JC- It seems like Geo Baker is going to stay on the ball. After the way he finished, how can you argue? I see Mulcahy doing year two of a two-year apprenticeship, with an even larger role off the bench next season, and then replacing Baker as the floor general as a junior. His freshman year was promising, especially if you saw where he was at in October. Mulcahy came a long way and I anticipate several leaps forward for him down the road because, like Baker, he is on the exact same wavelength as his head coach.

OTB- Now that it looks like Rutgers may finally breakthrough the drought, what makes Steve Pikiell different than other coaches Rutgers has had?

JC- He’s a good teacher, first. And he has a great eye for players who will absorb his methods and respond to them. Gary Waters and Mike Rice could teach the game, too, but I don’t think they ever had the right cocktail of players that fit their personalities and what they were trying to emphasize. Pikiell seems to have found that match. He gets a high, high level of buy-in across the board. That doesn’t just mean playing hard. It means understanding and accepting roles.

The most underrated, misunderstood factor behind success in college basketball is fit. I don’t think the casual fan who gets caught up in recruiting rankings appreciates how vital that is. Rutgers was a monument to fit this past season, because Pikiell puts the concept first and foremost in his program-building.