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Great expectations have arrived for Rutgers men’s basketball

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Next season could be a special one as Steve Pikiell’s team looks to move into the national spotlight.

Rutgers v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With last season now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to start looking ahead to next winter for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. While lamenting on what could have been if the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments had taken place in March, it’s more fun to dream of the possibilities of what next season could bring. For the first time in a long time, Rutgers fans can dream big and have plenty of reasons to justify it.

With a top 50 prospect and four member, top 35 recruiting class being added to a roster that includes seven of the top eight contributors set to return, including four starters and two all-conference performers, expectations should be the highest for this program since the late 1970’s glory days under former head coach Tom Young.

The most incredible aspect of where this team is positioned entering head coach Steve Pikiell’s fifth season on the banks is that it’s exactly where he expected things to be. Inheriting a program that finished 279th in the KenPom rankings after the 2015-2016 season, Rutgers finished a best ever 28th this past season, just four years later. They still have room to improve with a strong core returning that ranked just 242nd in experience in what was a breakout campaign for the program.

Rutgers will not be a surprise next season. Great expectations have officially arrived. Seven writers from national outlets have included Rutgers in their preseason rankings for next season. Andy Katz, who writes for NCAA.com and works for the Big Ten Network, was high on Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights most of this past season and ranks them 13th in his Top 36 power rankings. Zach Braziller of the New York Post, never shy to cast doubt in the past with this team during the early stages of the Pikiell era, has become a true believer and ranked them 15th in his preseason projections. Jeff Goodman of The Stadium ranks Rutgers 17th. Jon Rothstein of College Hoops Today and who coined the phrase, “Steve Pikiell, Pounding Nails”, has RU at 20th. Seth Davis of The Athletic and Rob Dauster of NBC Sports has them 22nd, while Gary Parrish of CBS Sports lists RU at 24th. That’s an average ranking of 19th in the seven respective preseason projections.

ESPN and USA Today also have Rutgers as receiving votes or just outside their respective Top 25 rankings.

It will be a unique return for every Division I college basketball program next season, as most high major teams saw the postseason eliminated before having an opportunity to play. For a team like Rutgers, I look at what happened as both a positive and negative in regards to next season.

On one hand, it would have been beneficial for this team to cut their teeth in the NCAA Tournament when it was a complete surprise that they were even there. Breaking the 29 year drought would have been a satisfying result regardless of how they ultimately performed once getting there. It also would have provided them valuable experience on the biggest stage to help learn and build on heading into next season.

On the other hand, the cold reality of having their postseason dreams cut short after working so hard to finally be in line to get there will likely give this team an edge impossible to replicate under any other circumstances. With Geo Baker as the unquestioned leader of this team, there is no doubt they will be even more motivated and hungry to reach the mountaintop in what will be his last season at Rutgers.

On the court, this is a group that returns the following production from last season: 78.5% of scoring, 81.8% of rebounding, 92.9% of assists, 84.6% of steals, and 80.4% of blocks.

The biggest deficiency with this team last season was shooting the basketball, as they finished 295th in three-point shooting (30.8%) and 333rd in free throw shooting (64.5%) out of 353 Division I teams per KenPom. They also ranked poorly in unforced turnover rate (10.0%) at 203rd and offensive block rate (9.0%) at 204th. In addition, Rutgers was just 265th in assist rate at 47.8%.

Even so, the Scarlet Knights improved dramatically on the offensive end with a 107.9 rating and ranking of 72nd, which was the program’s most efficient offensive season since the 2006 NIT team that finished 68th with a rating of 109.5. One reason for the improvement was that RU shot 50.1% from two-point range, almost 3% better from the prior season.

Under Pikiell, his teams have improved dramatically as the talent has improved, going from 270th in his second season, to 152nd his third season, and 72nd last season. This is an encouraging sign and there are reasons for optimism for the areas they still need to improve in will be better next season.

To begin with shooting, while the loss of Akwasi Yeboah will be felt in more ways than one, most obviously is that he was the best three-point shooter on the team for the season at 35.2% on 108 attempts (3rd most). However, Ron Harper Jr. was 13th in Big Ten play from deep, shooting 37.3% from behind the arc and second overall in attempts on the team. Geo Baker averaged 35.0% from three-point range his first two seasons, but was much less accurate (28.0%) due to an injury mid-season, which I’ll highlight shortly. Caleb McConnell was shooting 37% from deep for his Rutgers career before missing his final 14 attempts of the season during a stretch his confidence noticeably dropped. Oskar Palmquist, a 3-star recruit who joined the program early this past semester, has the potential to become one of the best three-point shooters on the team. There should be legitimate hope this team will be a better shooting team from deep next season, as their shot selection improved as the season wore on. Rutgers showed how dangerous they can be in victories over Maryland and Purdue to end the season by making 16 of 34 shots for 47.0% from three. If they can become more consistent from behind the arc, which will make them a harder out for opponents, it will also improve their overall offensive efficiency even more.

In regard to free throw shooting, three of four players who shot over 70% this past season return in McConnell, Harper Jr. and Baker. Getting them to the line more so is important, as is guards Montez Mathis, Paul Mulcahy and Jacob Young becoming more consistent towards a 70% range instead of the low 60’s they shot this past season. A top priority of the staff will be to work with Myles Johnson, who struggled mightily from the line this past season at 36.3% on 80 attempts. How the newcomers impact Rutgers from the free throw line remains to be seen, but if next season’s team can approach being close to average from the charity stripe, it will be a major boost offensively.

If the offense can take another step forward, Rutgers should become more consistent on the road next season. Their penchant for falling into scoring droughts and unable to make shots down the stretch was the two biggest reasons for their struggles away from the RAC. Maintaining their dominance on its home floor while becoming a team that learns how to win on the road is key in the programs development next season. Two big things that good teams do is close out games down the stretch and impose their will on opponents, forcing them to play the style they prefer. Rutgers was great at closing out games at the RAC, but fell short with the exception of Purdue on the road in Big Ten play. As for imposing their will, RU was excellent at taking away what opponents do well in many games, but need to take the next step by also maintaining what they do well against good teams. Transition offense and scoring off its defense, while also generating open looks off of good ball movement, while dominating the boards on both ends is when this team was its best.

In terms of personnel, Baker’s production was greatly reduced during half of the conference schedule last season, as he missed three games due to a left thumb injury and struggled for seven contests after likely returning before he was fully healthy. While he did make key shots late in the game to help secure wins over Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska during his return stretch, he only averaged 5.0 points over those seven contests while making just 10 of 45 shots for only 22.2% shooting. Baker returned to form for the final eight games of the regular season, averaging 15.0 points while shooting 47% from the floor. He also cemented his legacy as one of the biggest shot makers in the country and program history. If he can stay healthy next season, his increased production will be a boost for this team, including more attempts from the free throw line. Of course, he also has developed into one of the best leaders the program has ever seen as well.

Ron Harper Jr. took a step forward this season, leading Rutgers in scoring and was second in rebounding. He hasn’t reached his full potential yet though and those within the program feel his ceiling is as a future NBA player. Harper’s team first attitude has been key as well. His continued development this offseason is crucial for this team in order to make the leap to an elite program next season. He needs to become more of an alpha, especially at the end of games, as teams will look to take Baker away more so down the stretch. If both players can be closers for Rutgers, they’ll be that much harder to beat.

Jacob Young had an up and down season after sitting out the previous year due to transfer rules. It was clear he began the season a bit rusty and was forcing the action far too much. While he committed a team high 63 turnovers for the season, he only had one game in his last eight of the season when he turned it over more than once. Young’s production improved over the course of the season as well. While he scored in double digits just twice in the first twelve games, he did so 11 times in his final 18 contests. His importance within the offense grew as the season progressed and his defense was consistently above average all season. Whether he starts or not, it’s clear his role will be very important and more defined when the season begins. Rutgers is more dangerous offensively when Young is clicking and gives them a legitimate third scorer behind Baker and Harper Jr.

Paul Mulcahy developed steadily as his freshman campaign progressed and his impact on the offense was apparent. His ball handling and passing skills led to a solid 2.2 assist to turnover ratio, something Rutgers desperately needed. With his height and vision, Mulcahy proved to be very capable against a zone defense, giving the team a weapon that helped neutralize that strategy. His confidence in his overall game and specifically his shot, which led to a 54.0% shooting percentage from the floor, improved with more experience. Last season was clearly a transition period for Mulcahy as he adjusted to the speed and physicality of the college game, areas he needs to continue to improve with, especially on the defensive end. However, his potential is immense and he will be an important contributor for this team from the beginning of next season. The more influence he has on the offense, the more his teammates will be in better position to score and the team’s assist rate will improve.

The biggest strength for this team was on the defense end and it’s realistic to believe that they’ll be even better on that end of the floor next season. After finishing an incredible second in Big Ten play and sixth overall in Division I in defensive efficiency, it won’t be easy to improve but their personnel should be even better equipped on that end of the floor. The addition of 4-star big man Cliff Omoruyi gives Rutgers a potentially dominant rim defender who can rebound and block shots at a high rate right away. He’ll also alter opponents shots in the paint and along with Myles Johnson, Mamadou Doucoure and fellow newcomer Dean Reiber, give Rutgers four big men at 6’10” or taller. Michigan was a difficult matchup for this team last season in part due to their size and versatility, but Rutgers will now pose similar problems for opponents next season. Having multiple lockdown defenders along the perimeter in Mathis, Young and Baker will continue to cause opponents fits as well. Another newcomer, Mawot Mag, might just be the most game ready aside from Omoruyi and could be another very good wing defender.

Aside from Pikiell having even more possibilities in how he utilizes different lineups and rotations, the veteran core returning gives this team another year of experience and cohesiveness playing together. The value of this is unquantifiable but clearly a major positive. It will also allow Top 50 prospect Omoruyi to settle into a manageable role early on and grow at his own pace as the season progresses, as well as the other three freshman.

Of course, the x-factor for this team is the unselfishness and edge in which they play with. Their willingness to sacrifice for each other and for the betterment of the team was their most endearing quality this past season. Players accepted roles and team chemistry was extremely high. With its postseason dreams snatched away upon finally getting there, I expect this team to be even more dedicated, focused and hungry on achieving far more next season.

In regard to expectations, the potential to be a top five team in the Big Ten and play into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is certainly realistic. However, nothing should be assumed or taken for granted. There are two recent examples for Rutgers to learn from. One is Northwestern, who stumbled badly with a losing record a couple of years ago, despite having a veteran core returning after a breakthrough campaign that resulted a 24 win campaign and a second round appearance of the 2017 NCAA’s. The other is Seton Hall, who had one of the best classes in program history recently led by Angel Delgado, but that group won just one NCAA Tournament game in four appearances. Most importantly though, it’s a virtual guarantee that Pikiell and his staff will have Rutgers as well prepared as possible next season. The head coach pushed most of the right buttons all season and had his team playing as well as any team in the country the final week of the season. He knows this group better than anyone and recruited great fits for his style of coaching. The players have proven they have fully bought into everything Pikiell preaches. That’s typically a recipe for success and we saw the seeds blossom this past season.

The most notable positive traits for Rutgers next season is their defensive identity, experience, toughness, versatility and talent. They’ll have to learn how to handle serious expectations for the first time, but this group will only want to exceed them once again and they understand what needs to be done in order to do that. As Steve Pikiell always promised, better days are ahead. We just never realized how much better they could actually become.