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Rutgers quickly developing a reliable bench

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The Scarlet Knights are getting significant contributions from several reserves early on this season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 16 NJIT at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While there are legitimate concerns with how poorly Rutgers has shot the ball and started slow in each of the first three games this season, there is a very positive trend developing with this team. Bench play has very strong in the early going and and reliable. If that trend is sustainable this season, it bodes well for a team preparing for the rugged 20 game Big Ten schedule that awaits.

Most notably, LSU transfer Aundre Hyatt has provided a steady force off the bench that is filling a void that existed last season. Although Rutgers won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 38 years last March, that team was extremely inconsistent throughout the season. While there were many reasons for that including injuries and the unique challenges due to COVID-19, a notable difference from the previous season was the absence of Akwasi Yeboah.

The 6’6” grad transfer from Stony Brook averaged 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in his one season at Rutgers while shooting 43.5% from the floor, 35.5% from three-point range and 78.1% from the foul line. However, his impact was more than just stats, as the veteran was a leader on the court and brought balance to the rotation. It was obvious at times last season that Steve Pikiell’s team desperately missed Yeboah’s stabilizing presence.

As hoped, Hyatt has shown the ability to provide a lot of the same benefits that Yeboah did two seasons ago. In all three games, Hyatt has played between 22-25 minutes, scoring 8 points grabbing a minimum of 4 rebounds. Against NJIT, he had 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. He currently has the 68th best block rate in college basketball at 10.6%. Like the rest of the team, Hyatt has struggled some with his shot, making just 1 of 7 from three-point range along with 8 of 18 shooting from two-point range. However, he is 5 of 6 from the foul line. His willingness to do the little things along with his court IQ and spacing have made a major impact on this team as well.

Just as important, Hyatt has been that steady player off the bench that fits well with the returning starters and allows Pikiell to avoid any dropoff when bringing him into the game.

“Aundre’s really evolving too and he’s learning to play different spots as we sub him in at all kinds of different positions,” Pikiell said. “He’s a worker, he can shoot the ball, he can get to the rim. He does a good job rebounding, he can score around the basket. He’s kind of unique, he’s a three-level guy and he plays with poise. He’ll block some shots, he’ll do some stuff, he’s got some emergency defense in him. I like the way he’s developing. Obviously, he’ll be a nice piece.”

As much as the losses of Jacob Young and Myles Johnson have been felt in the early going this season, the added presence of Hyatt is a reason to be encouraged. His big game experience in posting his best performances last season in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament give hope that Hyatt will remain a steading presence in Big Ten play.

Jaden Jones has had spurts of instant offense off of the bench and is playing under control in the first real action of his college career so far this season. Against NJIT, he scored 5 points almost immediately in his first half appearance. While he saw limited action in the second half after making a rookie mistake in drawing a technical foul due to something said in front of an official, Jones was a difference maker in the win over Merrimack.

He scored 9 points in the second half during a critical stretch of a close game that flipped the momentum to Rutgers. Hyatt drove the baseline for a layup in traffic, showing a willingness to attack the rim and ability to finish under control with his athleticism. He followed that by showing keen awareness in scoring on a putback from an offensive rebound after every other player on both teams didn’t realize it was a one and one situation at the foul line.

Pikiell said of Jones after his impressive performance against Merrimack, “He made an alert play, and that was great. He made some big shots too. For freshmen, it’s a tough adjustment to college. It’s very different. And he’s come into first two games, and he hasn’t flinched, and we keep seeing him get better and better and better and what I really liked was his work defensively, he did some good things for us today.”

Jones has been the best shooter for Rutgers so far this season, albeit in limited action. He is 8 of 11 shooting for 63.6% and 3 of 4 from the foul line. He is averaging 6.0 points in 11.7 minutes per game. His offensive rating of 131.3 is off the charts and best on the team by far. While it should be expected that Jones will have ups and downs in his first season, his potential provide scoring punch and energy off the bench is an exciting development early on in the season. His role and impact on this team should grow throughout the season.

San Jose State transfer Ralph Gonzales-Agee had his best game so far in the win over NJIT on Tuesday night. He scored 4 points and grabbed 2 rebounds while playing better defense in 14 minutes of action. His low post move for a basket was Kevin McHale like, as he swept across the lane and buried a hook shot from seven feet away. His offensive skill set could be a real weapon off the bench.

“He gave us great minutes,” Pikiell said. “I thought he gave us great energy, too. He set great screens. We talk a lot about those kind of things that he can really do for us. He’s a big body. He’s going to keep getting better and better, too. I like his approach.”

Gonzales-Agee struggled defensively in the season debut, but last night gave reason to believe he is settling in. He played for one of the worst defensive teams in the country last season and never played in front of large crowds that he is now experiencing at Jersey Mike’s Arena. His performance against NJIT shows his comfort level is growing on this stage. Proving he can hold up defensively in Big Ten play is the biggest question regarding his ceiling this season.

While Mawot Mag missed the first game due to a dental emergency and played just 3 minutes after struggling defensively against NJIT, his extended play in the win over Merrimack showed his potential. He grabbed 2 rebounds, blocked 2 shots, as well as added an assist and steal in 13 minutes. Mag isn’t going to be much of a scoring threat right away, but he brings toughness off the bench and a willingness to defend and rebound. He showed his passing ability against Merrimack with a great entry pass to Cliff Omoruyi that led to a dunk.

Pikiell spoke after the win against NJIT about cutting his rotation to nine players and the limited action the rest of the bench has gotten, including Mag.

“It’s hard. We were trying to go 3-0, that was our number one goal, as it was for going 1-0 and 2-0,” Pikiell said. “The season is long. All kinds of things happen during the course of the year. We’re a bit fortunate we haven’t been in any foul trouble either. We’ll get those guys more minutes. Those guys have been good and patient and their time will come.”

While Dean Reiber has had positive stretches in limited action, Oskar Palmquist has played just 3 minutes in one game and Jalen Miller has yet to make an appearance. If anyone jumped out from Pikiell’s comments, it is Mag that is likely the player to see more time moving forward.

It’s fair to be concerned about the offense and inability to establish control early on in games against inferior competition. However, this team is still developing. Of the top ten lineups utilized by Pikiell last season, none of them involved the current starting five.

Rutgers played its best so far in the win over NJIT when adjustments were made. They included Geo Baker taking the lead with the ball in his hands more so and Caleb McConnell focused on being a defensive stopper, shutting down Dylan O’Hearn in the second half. Ron Harper Jr.’s insistence on dominating the paint has resulted in three straight double-double’s to start the season. Cliff Omoruyi had a quiet night after NJIT made a point to deny entry passes inside to him, but his athleticism and impact on the boards has been immense. Paul Mulcahy, despite his struggles as point guard, was able to penetrate more on Tuesday and even though his shot continued to not fall, he contributed 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Winning players find ways to help when their shots aren’t going in. Both Mulcahy and McConnell did that against NJIT.

The bench is comprised of either newcomers or inexperienced players seeing their first real action. The encouraging part through three games is Aundre Hyatt, Jaden Jones, and Ralph Gonzales-Agee have made positive contributions. In the comeback against Merrimack, Hyatt and Jones combined to score 15 straight points. Rutgers hasn’t had that type of scoring punch off the bench in a long time. They’ve played so well some are clamoring for them to be added to the starting lineup. I wouldn’t expect that anytime soon and think Pikiell likes having their change of pace off the bench. They key to watch is how much time they both get at the end of games. Hyatt is already seeing considerable minutes down the stretch.

Gonzales-Agee is a work in progress, especially on the defensive end, but if he can contribute with points in the paint, the Scarlet Knights will have their best offensive combo at the 5 spot in Pikiell’s tenure.

The next test for this team is Thursday night in Chicago against DePaul (2-0). A strong defensive effort will be needed against a team having scored 90+ points in their first two games. Of course, strong bench play, home or away, is something good teams are accustomed to having. Rutgers has reason to believe their bench play can be a consistent weapon this season.