Saturday’s loss to Iowa marked the return of leading scorer Ron Harper Jr. after he missed one game with a sprained ankle. It wasn’t a great performance, as the junior scored a season low 13 points on just 5 of 15 shooting and 0 of 3 from the foul line. He did add 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block, as well as played very good defense in the second half. Keep in mind Harper Jr. hadn’t practiced in more than a week before returning on Thursday.
The biggest positive is that he is back relatively quickly, as Rutgers could not afford to be without their top scorer for an extended period of time.
Head coach Steve Pikiell said of his return, “He had a really good practice yesterday, practiced two days ago too, so Ron was ready to go today.”
Harper Jr. said of the injury, “It was sore for a little bit when I sprained it. Had a quick recovery. I’m good. I’m 100% ready to go.”
In addition to Harper Jr., Rutgers saw another key player return to action on Saturday in Caleb McConnell. The third year combo guard has been a key cog for this team in the past and his surprise return is a huge boost for the depth, experience and versatility of Rutgers. McConnell had intended to take a medical redshirt this season due to a back injury, but when the NCAA announced that all winter athletes would not have to use any eligibility this season due to the global pandemic, it gave him an option to return whenever he felt ready.
Pikiell said after the game, “We got some good news with Caleb McConnell returning. He’ll be a really good addition. Have to get him back into game shape.”
McConnell played 11 minutes in the game, 9 coming in the first half, but he failed to score after missing all five shots he attempted. He finished with 2 rebounds and an assist while playing solid defensively. Obviously he’ll need time to shake off the rust from missing the first eight games of the season and regain his comfort level on the court.
“You’re always gonna have that. He hasn’t played in a while,” said Pikiell. “I’m just thankful. His back is back, he’s feeling better, and he wants to do just whatever he can to help our team. He has a lot of experience. He’s kind of a multi-position player as he’s getting his feet wet. He came back against Iowa, one of the best team’s in the country. He did all the rehab. He did everything. His back is feeling a lot better. He’s been practicing with us on and off and he finally came and said, ‘Listen coach, I think my back good and let’s give this thing a whirl’. It was good to have him back.”
For a team that hasn’t had one game yet this season with its top seven players in the rotation, adding McConnell, who averaged 6.7 points and 3.7 rebounds last season with 21 games started, is a major development.
It was great having Caleb back,” Harper Jr. said. “He’s been battling injuries since he’s been here. He’s fought hard. When he checked in I think that was one of his greatest moments of his life. He was really happy and told me he missed playing with us.”
Geo Baker added, “It was good to have your brother back out there on the court. Caleb was really excited to play and just tries to do all the things that help us win. He’s gonna give us more depth.”
Bench play was an issue again in Saturday’s loss, as Iowa’s reserves outscored Rutgers 24-6, with all of RU’s points scored by Paul Mulcahy. Pikiell leaned heavily on his veterans and it ended up being the first game that all five starters scored in double figures since Rutgers did it on January 30, 2010 in a 1 point victory over Notre Dame. Jacob Young led the way with 17 points, while Harper Jr., Baker (5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals), Myles Johnson (10 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block) and Montez Mathis (5 rebounds, 5 assists) all finished with 13 points. The starters combined to shoot 53% in the game, but it wasn’t enough. We covered the team’s free throw struggles here.
Rutgers needs more depth because they can’t have key players wear down during the Big Ten grind by playing too many minutes. Harper Jr., Young, Mathis and Baker all played 30 or more minutes on Saturday. Adding McConnell to the mix will be huge in providing support to better balance out the load being carried, as well as extend the core rotation to eight players instead of seven.
Pikiell said of McConnell, “Working him into the lineup so I can take some of these guys off the court, they’re playing a lot of minutes and they need blows every now and then.”
Getting heralded freshman big man Cliff Omoruyi is also critical long term for Rutgers. After starting the first six games of the season, averaging 5.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, he sprained his knee in the win over Illinois two weeks ago and has yet to practice since. While Myles Johnson, who delivered his third double-double of the season on Saturday, is one of the best big men in the Big Ten, it’s critical that Rutgers has depth behind him. The silver lining is that fellow freshman Dean Reiber, the 6’10” big man from Greensboro, North Carolina, has taken advantage of the opportunity that came in Omoruyi’s absence in the last week.
Reiber played just 3 minutes total in the first three Big Ten games this season, but has now made positive contributions in back to back contests for Rutgers. Against Purdue, he had 3 points, including a nice move that he finished with a 15 foot jumper, 2 rebounds and was solid defensively in 16 minutes. His +/- of 14 was the best on the team. On Saturday, Reiber had 2 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal in 10 minutes, along with the second best +/- on the team with 3.
The most impressive thing about Reiber though has been his fearlessness in going up against Purdue’s Trevion Williams, one of the best big men in the conference, and Iowa’s Luka Garza, the best player in college basketball. Reiber is listed at 225 pounds, which means he was giving up 40 pounds against both players, but his willingness to defend them and hold his own was inspiring. I thought after the first couple games of the season there was no way he would contribute anything more than mop up duty as a freshman. His development in such a short period of time gives hope that Reiber can ultimately become a valuable piece of the puzzle for Rutgers in the long term. Adding muscle and developing his game on the court to go along with his toughness and high basketball IQ will help make him a more complete player.
After the loss to Iowa, Pikiell said “Dean has been getting better and better in practice. You see how athletic he is, we needed all hands on deck. We still have Cliff (Omoruyi) not able to play and so everyone had to be ready. I mean he’s seen every kind of defense, he’s a really a good post player and you needed fresh bodies on (Garza). He wears you down in a lot ways and he could step out and shoots threes too. Dean has been getting better and better and because he has been practicing better, he’s getting more minutes.”
His teammates have noticed, as Harper Jr. praised Reiber after the loss to Iowa. “Dean’s grown a lot in these last couple of weeks,” Harper Jr. said. “With guys going down left and right and the next-man (up) mentality, Dean took it personal. He’s been getting in the gym and he’s getting better. He’s watching film. Can’t really ask for more from Dean. Today he came in and he fought with one of the best, if not the best, centers in college basketball. He held his ground, he held his own.”
Baker said of Reiber’s improvement, “He just has confidence now. He’s getting up and down. He feels good out there.”
The play of Harper Jr., Baker, Mathis, Young, Johnson and Mulcahy has been the foundation of this team’s success this season. However, its a long season and Rutgers was starting to wear thin off the bench.
Pikiell added, “I’m pleased with his (Reiber’s) progress and if we can get Cliff back now, it gives us another weapon and having Caleb certainly experienced guy coming into the game helps us too.”
The reason Reiber’s emergence is even more important is due to the return of McConnell. While freshmen Oskar Palmquist and Mawot Mag were expected to play more due to him taking the season off, they haven’t made much of an impact. Now that McConnell is back, the two freshmen wings won’t be counted on to contribute unless injuries persist throughout the roster. On the flip side, if Reiber can continue to provide solid minutes off the bench on a consistent basis, he’ll bring value to the roster this season even when Omoruyi returns.
For a team that has big goals like Rutgers does, having depth and experience for the stretch run of the season is critical. The return of McConnell provides both, while Reiber’s ability to mix it up with the best bigs in the conference gives Rutgers even more depth in the biggest area of need: the frontcourt. Saturday was a tough loss against Iowa, but it might ultimately be remembered as the game in which Rutgers established two key contributors to help them pursue a dream season.