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Preseason thoughts and observations on Rutgers men’s basketball

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A few things stood out after attending practice and media day on Friday.

A shot of the Rutgers men’s basketball team practicing on October 15.
Rutgers Athletics

Friday was media day for the Rutgers men’s basketball program and it was the first practice I was able to attend in two years due to COVID-19. I’ll have plenty of content from player interviews leading up to the November 10 season opener at the RAC against Lehigh. Here are five thoughts and observations from Friday’s practice.

Jalen Miller will help this team

Jaden Jones is the freshman that has gotten the most hype and rightfully so. His athleticism and quickness jumps out watching him in person. Patience is needed but I fully expect him to be a significant contributor this season. However, it was the former 3-star point guard, Jalen Miller, who left a major impression on Friday. I’d heard he was playing tough this summer and then the video that the program tweeted out weeks ago shows him playing lockdown defense on Ron Harper Jr., who is significantly bigger than Miller.

On Friday, I watched Miller give Geo Baker all he could handle on the defensive end in Friday’s practice. Even if Miller can’t crack the rotation on a regular basis this season, he will be a valuable addition. Baker has openly talked about his mistakes with the ball down the stretch in the loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament second round last year. Having to face Miller every day in practice is exactly what Baker wants. And don’t be surprised if Miller is called on at times to come in to be a defensive stopper in spots in Big Ten play.

Leadership has strengthened culture

The leadership of this team really stuck out in person. This is Geo Baker and Ron Harper, Jr.’s team with Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy leading right beside them. I saw each of them at least once talking to younger players on the team during and in between specific drills. They carry themselves more confidently and the younger players spoke about how they’ve been welcomed with open arms. The veterans love the competitive spirit that the younger players have brought and it’s made everyone better.

When the class with Harper Jr. and McConnell arrived as freshmen, they had similar moxie but it wasn’t embraced in the same way by everyone on the roster. The culture has always been strong since Pikiell’s arrival, but the veteran core four players have made it even better. Players are focused on succeeding in their roles and helping the team win above all else.

Aundre Hyatt is a perfect fit

The transfer from LSU looked like he has been on this team for years when watching him practice. He fits right in and looks the part of a veteran player who has played well and won in the NCAA Tournament. He is smooth in every way on the court and his versatility of being able to play at multiple spots makes him invaluable. He can shoot from the perimeter, run the floor and defend the four on the block. Expect him to be a productive sixth man who can come in for multiple players off the bench.

Hyatt told me after practice that this is not the same program that recruited him. He is also not the same player when he came to college and has diversified his skill set. Hyatt is a great example of not burning bridges in recruiting on either side. He and Rutgers will benefit from that.

Big men are biggest question mark

While there are many keys to Rutgers returning to the NCAA Tournament, the play of Cliff Omoruyi and Ralph Agee is arguably the most important one.

Everyone has praised the effort Cliff has made in this offseason as he regularly clocks into the APC at 4:30 a.m. for individual workouts. His athleticism is off the charts and he explodes at the rim. I wouldn’t expect him have too expansive of a tool box on the offensive end yet, but I think he’ll be a better rebounder. However, it’s how he develops on the defensive end that is the most important aspect of his game. It shouldn’t be expected he play at the level of Myles Johnson, who was robbed of earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors last season.

That being said, he has to be able to hold his own and defend the rim without fouling. He isn’t going to play 35 minutes a game regardless, but he needs to be available for Rutgers when they need him most. I’ve said all offseason the biggest key is when Omoruyi leaves a Big Ten game with two fouls in the first five minutes, how will Rutgers respond?

Enter Ralph Gonzales-Agee, who looks more polished on the offensive end than arguably any big man that’s played for Pikiell. He has been efficient in two-point shooting and free throw rate throughout his career. I think he can provide some inside scoring punch off the bench, but how he defends in the Big Ten is a huge question mark. It’s not his strong suit and he played for a terrible defensive team at San Jose State last season, as they ranked 338th in defensive efficiency per KenPom.

Rutgers was 16th and if they are going to stay close to that range, how Omoruyi and Agee hold up defensively in Big Ten play is crucial to that occurring.

The key to taking the next step

A theme you heard often and I’ll have more on later this week is the focus for this team to reestablish their identity. That means get back to what Pikiell’s early teams relied on the most and were known for. Defense and rebounding. Even though Rutgers was a top 20 defense last season, they played terribly on that end of the floor at times in big games. It was tied to their inability to rebound against quality competition, which ultimately is what ended their season against Houston in March.

Pikiell has engrained in this team that for them to take the next step, they have to be a better rebounding team. If they can and still maintain a high level defensively, they should be in every game and win a good amount of them. On nights they’re clicking offensively at the same time, Rutgers will be able to play with beat almost anyone. On the flip side, if their defense declines and rebounding stays mediocre, it will put too much pressure on the offense to carry them to be successful.

Pikiell has cited chemistry being at an all-time high and this being his best team yet. That gives confidence that he fully believes this group will be bought in on the defensive end and on the glass, as well as being able to play at a high level in both areas.

Quick Hitters

  • Mulcahy looked the part as the best three-point shooter on the team a year removed from shooting a team best 39.3% from behind the arc. He was the first Rutgers player to achieve that level of accuracy on 50+ attempts from deep since Omari Greer shot 40.5% in the 2015-2016 season. Mulcahy made almost every shot he took along the perimeter in practice on Friday. His release and form are smoother making it obvious how much he has put in on his stroke. But it’s his confidence level and assertiveness in shooting that stood out on Friday and it gives hope he’ll be even better this season.
  • Oskar Palmquist sat practice out with a sprained ankle. He was dressed and partook in some shooting on the side. My guess is he will have a hard time cracking the rotation this season but he could get on the floor if he can prove himself as a three-point shooter.
  • New assistant coach TJ Thompson, who played for Karl Hobbs and Pikiell at George Washington, was taking part in certain drills as a player at practice. The NCAA rule has changed on that now and his size and quickness will only help the players get ready for Big Ten play. He was also mentioned by several players as being a reason they’ve gotten better as he puts in extra time with them.
  • Brandin Knight has grown into his role as the vocal assistant at practice. Jay Young was the coach who was really involved with instruction through practice in the early years with Pikiell before leaving to become head coach at Fairfield. Knight has stepped up and was very active at Friday’s practice. This is a good thing as not only was Knight a great player and is an experienced coach, he has the full respect and ears of the team.
  • There was a big time program feel at practice on Friday. I’ve attended practices since Pikiell’s first season and the vibe is just elevated. Leaving the RAC for the APC is part of it, as the environment is first rate. Having a huge support staff with many student managers is part of it too. But most noticeable is the way everyone carries themselves now. It’s not in a cocky or arrogant way, but rather they know they belong and also know the work needed to get even better. The competition and level of talent within the program has improved a lot and it translates to a higher practice level.
  • Rutgers is scrimmaging at Villanova on Sunday as first reported by Jeff Goodman. This is a significant upgrade from recent years after scrimmaging against Yale multiple times, a very good Ivy League program, and a solid mid-major in Towson two years ago. Jay Wright’s squad is a consensus preseason top five team and it will be a fantastic test for the Scarlet Knights. If there was any doubt whether Pikiell really believes that his team has the potential to accomplish great things this season, scheduling this scrimmage should put that issue to bed.

Watch Steve Pikiell’s media day press conference here: