Rutgers men’s basketball opens up the 2021-2022 season on Wednesday night at Jersey Mike’s Arena at 7:00 p.m. against Lehigh. The road back to March officially begins with fans in attendance for the first time in two seasons. With five players back from last season’s core rotation and several intriguing newcomers, expectations are high for the Scarlet Knights heading into head coach Steve Pikiell’s sixth season. Our contributors give their thoughts on the season ahead in this round table preview. Let’s tip things off here.
Who is the most important player for this team?
Pete Winter: Cliff Omoruyi. Rutgers was fortunate to have their two best players return after testing the NBA waters, but their biggest loss of the off-season was Myles Johnson. That leaves a significant hole in the paint, especially defensively. After showing flashes last season as a freshman, Omoruyi now has to take the next step. For Rutgers to get back to the NCAA tournament, he’ll have to be solid on both ends of the floor. He’ll also have to stay out of foul trouble, something that plagued Johnson throughout his RU career.
Lawrence Krayn: While many might say Geo Baker, since he is clearly the heart and leader of this program, or Cliff Omoruyi, who will need to make massive strides in the paint in order for Rutgers to bang with the Big Ten, I am going to go with Ron Harper Jr. When Harper is on, he is one of the best players in college basketball. Harper can sink 3 pointers, drive to the basket, and convert from mid-range. When he’s at his best, he presents real problems for defenses and can be unstoppable enough to take over games decisively. Throughout his career, we’ve seen how well the team performs when he’s hot, and how they struggle for offense during considerable stretches when he’s cold. I say that Harper is the most important player, because how this season goes, and how far this team gets is going to depend a lot on how consistent Harper Jr. can be for how long. If Harper Jr. has his best season as a senior this year, Rutgers is contending for conference championships and high seeds. If that happens, Harper Jr. will be well on his way to being a high NBA draft pick.
Dave White: Defensively, it’s very clearly Cliff Omoruyi, but since he will be a popular choice I’ll mimic Lawrence and say Ron Harper Jr. Last season, #RonFire emerged playing like a sure fire NBA first rounder and the Scarlet Knights looked like a top ten team. But, after an ankle injury, Harper Jr’s numbers fell off and he never seemed to get his rhythm again. Let me put it plainly, Harper Jr. is a very good basketball player who will lead this team, but if he can be anywhere near the player he was for the first ten games of the season last year, Rutgers will go very, very far. Which Harper Jr. will we see? My guess is somewhere between his two extremes last season and they should be enough to carry the Knights.
Fred Gaudios: As Cliff Omoruyi plays this season, so will Rutgers. Even in years past when Rutgers wasn’t so good, they could always go 3-4 deep with respect to big bodies who could hammer the paint defensively, block shots, draw five good fouls, etc. This always struck me as an essential part of Pikiell’s defensive playbook—the idea that opposing teams needed to know they were going to get banged up if they went inside all game. Looking at the current roster, I see a lot of movable bodies and a lot of positional flexibility (all of which are good things!), but I’m not sure anyone draws that same level of fear/respect among opponents... unless it’s Cliff. So I’m kind of spoiling a later response of mine by saying this, but Cliff is the most important player for Rutgers this season.
Art Stein: The Scarlet Knights have shown that they can weather absences from Geo Baker, Ron Harper and Paul Mulcahy. Not to sound like a broken record but Cliff Omoruyi, has to stay healthy. Omoruyi arguably one of the highest rated recruits in Rutgers history has become the first Scarlet Knight to record a double-double in his debut in 12 years. Omoruyi suffered from nagging injuries last season, which is also concerning.
B Vincent P: Without a doubt it is Cliff Omoruyi. His in game maturity and fundamentals growth will be critical to the success of the team. He will need to control his emotions and contain his passion while playing defense under the rim and when getting hacked while trying to drive to the hole. RU will need him to play 30+ minutes and avoid foul trouble. Cliff has, without question, the highest upside of any player on the team. His development as a shooter 15 feet from the rim is equally as important. Opposing teams expect Cliff to go for the dunk or Baby J-shot which has him vulnerable in getting fouled, putting him at the charity stripe. Getting his free throw conversion percentage up to 65% or better is going to be a potential difference in the team scoring an additional 5-10 points per game. That will be the difference in winning and losing closely contested games.
John Catapano: Big Cliff is the easy answer here. As Cliff’s D and his ability to stay out of foul trouble goes, so goes RU in Big Ten play. It goes without saying, we need Cliff healthy and freakish to play deep into March. That said, I’m going to throw out my wildcard here: Caleb McConnell. Glue: Sniff it, squeeze it, brush it, get it in stick form, I don’t care. In theory, melt the glue, and everything else falls apart. Caleb played in 20 games last year and started 8. Despite missing 8 games, Caleb finished 5th on the team in offensive rebounds at 23, only 4 behind Ron Harper Jr’s 27, which was second best. Defensively, McConnell pulled down 63 rebounds, good for 5th best. Throw in his 7 blocks, 29 steals, and 79.3% career free throw shooting percentage, and you have a player who is gonna see a lot of crunch time and help reduce the acid in our collective tummies.
David Anderson: I see the argument for Cliff, but it has to be Ron Harper Jr. At times in his career, Ron has been passive on defense and in crashing the boards. This team will not be able to survive any lack of effort on that end from anyone. On offense, no one is a true trusted scorer except for Harper Jr., who can score baskets consistently against good defensive teams. Geo can get a clutch buckets with the game on the line, but Ron is the only one who has proven he can get hot for sustained periods especially when he is posting up, cutting inside, and stepping outside to prevent defenses from setting up. His passing is also inconsistent, but if he can drive and dish seemingly at all, plenty of open shots will appear for other players. I was higher than most on Harper Jr. when he arrived, then more critical the past two years. I think the team will go as he goes.
Patrick Mella: Cliff Omoruyi. With the void left by the departure of Myles Johnson, Rutgers is desperate to have a strong low post presence this year. My reason for optimism? From just an athletic perspective, Omoruyi is actually an upgrade over Johnson. The games that Rutgers really struggled with last year, were the games where they couldn’t rebound effectively. And we all know the fundamentals Coach Pikiell instilled when he got here – defense and rebounding. Those two essentials will be very much decidedly tested down low this year.
Greg Patuto: There can be two answers to this question when looking at the current roster. First, it begins with Geo Baker returning. He has been the unquestioned leader for the Scarlet Knights on and off the floor. With his presence back in the locker room, Rutgers should feel confident about the season moving forward. On the other hand, the popular answer is going to be Cliff Omoruyi — and rightfully so. He entered Rutgers as one of their highest-rated prospects and played a backup role to Myles Johnson. With Johnson on the West coast, Omoruyi will have to step up and play with the other big men in the conference.
Aaron Breitman: It’s Aundre Hyatt because of his versatility and ability to plug several holes for Rutgers that need plugging. Adding a player with his experience and skill set to compliment the established starting five was a major score for Steve Pikiell this offseason. It wasn’t a move lauded nationally or even by most within the fan base, but Hyatt brings so much to this team. First and foremost, he takes pressure off Ron Harper Jr. in that he can defend the post and rebound at the four spot. Last season, it was all on Harper Jr. Second, Hyatt can also defend on the perimeter and can shoot from there as well. Third, he adds a calming veteran presence with big game experience. I don’t personally like to make player comparisons often, but I look at Hyatt as Akwasi Yeboah 2.0. The former Stony Brook transfer was sorely missed last season and Rutgers was not as steady or complete a team without him. Hyatt has fit into the team culture and style on the court seamlessly and think he can have the same impact that Yeboah did on that 20 win team two seasons ago. He also offers a solution to the concern regarding front court depth, which I will explain in more detail in later question.
Which player will have a breakout season?
Pete Winter: Paul Mulcahy. I’m expecting a lot from Mulcahy this season. He’s been an important rotation piece (as a Freshman and Sophomore) on two really good Rutgers teams. Now Jacob Young is gone, and Mulcahy will be running the offense. I think his shooting numbers will improve, and his elite court vision and playmaking skills will make life easier for his teammates. He’ll bring a steadiness to the offense that has been missing in the past.
Lawrence Krayn: Based on early reports from practice, raw talent, and potential when recruited, it’s got to be Omoruyi. Big Cliff came in with about as much fanfare and as much anticipation as we’ve seen since head coach Steve Pikiell landed on the banks. Cliff has all the raw tools, the right frame, and the right mentality to develop into a dominant force in Big Ten basketball. Athletes in general tend to make big leaps between their freshman and sophomore years, as they are still at a point of rapid physical development and adapt to changes in competition over their first year of acclimation. Under Pikiell, we’ve seen this bear out regularly. All indications are that Omoruyi is one of the hardest workers we’ve seen at Rutgers over the past several years. By all accounts he’s improved his shooting, has hit the gym relentlessly, and has a desperate will to compete. All those intangibles added to someone with as much talent and potential as Cliff is going to be dangerous. I expect Omoruyi to go from roleplaying freshman to Big Ten headliner this season.
Dave White: Geo Baker. Okay, okay, I know what you’re saying. He’s the face of the team, the leader, the voice. What else can he do? He is one of the more clutch players in his career here, but I’m looking for him to take that kind of consistency across entire games. Maybe he won’t be like his 2019 Northwestern self the entire season, but he should be healthy this year. And he’s looking to make the NBA. In a recent interview, Baker said he’s been working on his catch-and-shoot capabilities from NBA range. Basically, what I’m looking for is consistency from the top two guys, Harper Jr. and Baker. I think Geo is really going to stand out as a fifth year senior this year.
Fred Gaudios: Again, I feel like it’s Cliff Omoruyi. A reasonable-but-optimistic, 90th percentile-type scenario for his sophomore year might look something like 25 mpg, 8 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.5 bpg (BTW, this is really close to what Myles Johnson did last year, although the engineer did block more shots and rebounded at a slightly better clip). That’s also an Honorable Mention on the All-Big Ten Team, probably. I literally, earnestly, honestly believe he can be that good, if he can hold up from all the physicality of the Big Ten.
Art Stein: I have this as a tie between Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi. Mulcahy’s contributions sometimes go under the radar, but I think as a junior, this is the year that he is going to really shine. Omoruyi as a true freshman in the Big Ten had his struggles which is to be expected but from all reports during the off-season, Cliff has done everything he can (strength, conditioning, film study) to prepare for the 2021 season. Add in his phenomenal natural abilities and only injuries can hold him back.
B Vincent P: I am going with the relatively inexperienced former 4-star recruit Jaden Jones. He was a mid-year enrollee last year who entered four games and saw very little time. A breakout season to me equals a player who is full of potential, but has yet to have it tapped. Yes, that could easily be Cliff Omoruyi, but most of my staff colleagues have already made that their choice. For the most part we are returning the same team, except for Myles Johnson leaving and adding Agee and Hyatt. Jaden Jones is a big kid who can play forward or guard and can shoot the rock. Again, Jones is unproven with considerable upside. Overall, this team is not a great shooting team, not just at the foul line. They win on hustle, fundamentals, stifling defense, back court pressure and intangibles. If he can find a shooters touch and use his big body of 220 lbs and 6’8” frame, on defense, he will find significant time on the court.
John Catapano: Mawot Mag. I don’t know why, but this feels like the natural pick for me. The 6’7 forward and down under product form Melbourne, Australia only played in 12 games last season but I’m banking on increased playing time and him making a case for a breakout season. Mag is the classic two-way player coach Pikes loves to recruit. He brings toughness and energy to the defensive end and can defend multiple positions. Mag also does a good impersonation of JY/Caleb diving on the floor for loose balls. Ultimately, Mag’s ability to knock down 3s, which coach Pike has hinted at, will most likely determine how much playing time he sees this season.
David Anderson: Since basically every other answer has been taken, I am going with Dean Reiber as a dark horse. He has played out of position as a center, when he’s more of a face up four man who gets his long arms in passing lanes on defense but has had to be an energy guy out of necessity. The style Pikiell wants long term is like Iowa and Wisconsin play, loading the floor with tall shooters which means Dean factors into the long term plans. Reiber will probably be forced to play minutes at the five if Cliff and Agee are banged up or in foul trouble, but I expect all of them will do more mid-range shooting (dare I say pick and roll) to open things up as Mulcahy, McConnell, Baker, and Harper Jr. can be more effective in the post. The only reason I don’t have more confidence in this pick is because Rutgers has a lot of guys who best case will play the small forward, but may be required to play more minutes at the four spot on defense: Jones, Palmquist (if in the rotation), Harper Jr., Hyatt, McConnell, and Mulcahy. None are trusted shooters yet though, so Reiber may have to be on the floor for spacing purposes when RU goes through scoring droughts, which we know they will.
Patrick Mella: Caleb McConnell. I love me some Caleb McConnell! The Swiss army knife, McConnell really is a jack of all trades contributing in nearly even factor of the game. He’s got excellent size for his position, he rebounds, gets steals and is one of the best free throw shooters on the team. He has battled through injuries in his career but heading into his Senior year fully healthy, I’m expecting a big year from him. I’ve been saying it for a while now - McConnell is the best player on the team that no one is talking about. Maybe that fits his personality, as he carries himself with a quiet swagger. But I think this year you’re going to see him take that next step to be one of the best overall players on the team.
Greg Patuto: Caleb McConnell will be on many radars heading into the season but Paul Mulcahy is my breakout player this season. As a sophomore, Mulcahy started 21 games. While he did not put up big numbers, he showed an ability on both ends of the floor that is only going to improve. Mulcahy shot 39.4% from three-point range. At 6-foot-6, Mulcahy has the size to get to the basket. As a junior, expect Mulcahy to be more aggressive offensively while keeping up the same fire on the defensive end. He has a huge upside that can help him take the next step this season.
Aaron Breitman: Caleb McConnell is primed for his best season at Rutgers with finally being healthy as Patrick pointed out. His performance against Clemson should be celebrated forever, as they wouldn’t have won that game without him. He might go down as one of the most underappreciated players in program history, although a breakout season this winter could change that. There are plenty of important roles to be filled on this team, but if McConnell can emerge as a consistent scorer and rebounder to go along with his elite defense and free throw shooting, Rutgers will be a better team. Is he ready to be a 10 point, 5 rebound, 2 assist, 2 steal player this season? I think he is and don’t underestimate his leadership on this team, either. He leaves his ego at the door and wants to win more than anything, while also wanting to help the younger players step up. His importance to the success of this team is immense and the best way I know to describe him is as a winner.
What is your biggest reason for optimism?
Pete Winter: More than any other sport, college basketball is about the coaches, and the biggest reason to get excited about this team is Steve Pikiell. In the last two years, he’s faced a ton of in-season adversity, but in both cases, he managed to pull the team together and do what they needed to do to earn an at-large bid. And that doesn’t even factor in the mountains he had to climb to get Rutgers basketball out of the basement. Now he’s returning his two best players and fans will be back at Jersey Mike’s Arena (RAC). Some might be concerned about the transfer portal losses, but I trust Pike to develop talent and continue the program’s positive momentum.
Lawrence Krayn: I like the way this team is constructed on paper. Bringing in Aundre Hyatt was a good move that adds what I believe to be a critical piece as far as complimenting the lineup. Youth looks to be counter-balanced with experience. I believe the whole of this team will be greater than the sum of its parts. We have shooters, defenders, guards, and big men. This team is constructed the way I believe Pike wants it. If each player plays their role and displays their respective strengths as the season goes on, this team could be a well-oiled machine that delivers big time wins.
Dave White: Steve Pikiell. The man flat out knows how to coach. And watch, this team is going to start slowly this season. I’m not saying they are going to be upset by a mid or low major, but there are going to be scores that are closer than expected. But Pikiell, the mad scientist, is going to be tinkering with line-ups substitutions and giving the kids a chance to get playing time. By mid-December when conference season rolls around, Pikiell will have figured things out and getting this team ready to roll. He’s keen on chemistry and I’m confident that’s been fixed this off season. He’s got some secret weapons on the bench in, I hope, Aundre Hyatt and Jaden Jones. This is a veteran team and kind of the image he’s been building toward. I have no doubt he’s going to get this right.
Fred Gaudios: If you look closely at the Big Ten, there are 3-4 relatively clear top of the conference teams, Minnesota and maybe Penn State clearly at the bottom, and every other team has a fighting chance to finish 5th or 6th in the conference. I’m personally surprised at the lack of serious conversation this off-season surrounding Rutgers having a very real chance at being that 5th- or 6th-best team in the Big Ten this season. If I told you Team X was returning its two most impactful players (one with four years collegiate experience, the other with three), had a half-dozen experienced complementary pieces, all with length and the ability to defend, the ability to play positionless basketball at the 1 through 4, had demonstrated an elite defensive history, and had NCAA tournament experience, would you sell that team short? I wouldn’t. Also, in a close game, who else would you want with the ball besides Geo Baker? We know this, and opposing teams know this.
Art Stein: My biggest reason for optimism is Steve Pikiell. Rutgers struck gold when they made this hire. Pikiell is what us members of the tribe call a mensch. He is a fabulous gameday coach and has put together a staff that can flat out recruit. If Steve Pikiell is running the Rutgers program, I will always be optimistic.
B Vincent P: “The Band Is Back Together” for their final NCAA run, with the core of Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Paul Mulachy, Cliff Omoruyi, and a healthy Caleb McConnell. Let’s remember Caleb was not supposed to come back last year from his injury and played with heart and determination. How can we not be optimistic! We did lose a solid player in Myles Johnson, he will be missed, however, we added Agee, Hyatt and some young talent. Let’s also remember that this team should have won the second round game against Houston, a result of a rough second half shooting performance and of course foul trouble.
John Catapano: My biggest reason for optimism is what appears to be a return to the team’s roots of rebounding and defense. When a Pike team does these two things well, wins follow. The athletic department as a whole is riding an all-time high and that bodes well for the team’s psyche going into the season. The RAC/Jersey Mike’s Arena will be packed, the coaching staff is absolutely fantastic, and this is as deep a team as RU has ever put on the court. The fanbase has now gotten a taste of winning a B1G championship thanks to the Women’s futbol and field hockey teams. Let’s continue that success and at least push for a men’s B1G championship. My goal is nothing less than a double bye entering the B1G tourney.
David Anderson: Defensive depth, length, and Pikiell knowing how to use it. Rutgers will struggle to score at times, but so will their opponents with all the tall bodies taking up space and clogging passing lanes on the defensive side. The risk here is that teams with two fast guards can give them trouble and it doesn’t help to lose Mathis plus the best on ball defensive guard I’ve seen the last decade in Jacob Young. Pikiell and his staff understand how to teach defensive angles even if they lack quickness. This team is a quicker version of Pike’s first RU squad and and that extra step will also be needed to secure defensive rebounds.
Patrick Mella: All the word from the off-season was that this is the best Pikiell team he has had since arriving at Piscataway. That of course will not mean anything if they have a down year. But you know why I believe him? I trust Pikiell. He sees more of this roster than any of us, he’s developed talent over the years (see Eugene Omoruyi), he’s taken underrecruited guys in Baker and Harper Jr. and turned them into some of the best Big Ten players. Pikiell has earned my trust. They’re still returning the core of the team, a full year to develop Omoruyi, brought in talented transfers but most of all? They were picked to be a middle of the pack Big Ten team. And the only thing I love more than Caleb McConnell is a fired up, underrated, hungry Rutgers team finally playing in front of the fans. The Jersey Mike’s Arena is going to be shaking so much that shredded lettuce will be falling from the ceiling!? Let’s go!!
Greg Patuto: Coaching and experience. Look at recent NCAA Tournament champions. They are not the flashy, one-and-done players. Baylor, Virginia, Villanova — these are teams with experience that have topped all others. This is not to say that the Scarlet Knights are a championship team but the return of Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. has to give the team a feeling that they can return to the tournament. Steve Pikiell has completely changed the tune around the program since coming to town. He is a legitimate coach and that is not up for debate. With both aspects back on display, Rutgers has a chance to repeat the success of last season.
Aaron Breitman: Paul Mulcahy having the ball in his hands more than anyone other Geo this season. I’m honestly shocked how many fans vocally doubt his ability to make this team better on the offensive end. I’ve always felt the offense flowed better when he had the ball and was directing things. His development as the best three-point shooter on the team will be highlighted even more this season. However, it’s his unselfishness and wanting to find his teammates for good looks to score that is the key to the offense this season. Seeing him practice and speaking to him this offseason, Mulcahy just looks and sounds different. He’s a true veteran that’s been through his fair share of on the court battles. He carries himself with more confidence and I think he is embracing the opportunity to take more control of the offense. He might not be an explosive ballhandler, but his passing ability, court vision, basketball IQ and usual toughness will allow him to flourish in a larger role this season. He will also allow Geo Baker to play off the ball more and make him harder to defend. This will be Rutgers’ best offensive team in a long time and Mulcahy will be a big reason why.
What is your biggest reason for concern?
Pete Winter: Foul trouble, especially with the bigs. The Big Ten features several elite big men who are going to put up their numbers (Hunter Dickinson, Kofi Cockburn, Trevion Williams, etc). The key for Rutgers will be restraint, finding a way to play solid interior defense without racking up unnecessary fouls. Cliff Omoruyi and Ralph Agee may not provide the shot-blocking that Myles Johnson did, but if they are fundamentally sound and rebound their position well, Rutgers will have a chance to win a lot of games.
Lawrence Krayn: Losing two huge pieces. The contributions of Myles Johnson and Jacob Young to our tournament team really cannot be overstated. Johnson was a pivotal defensive force in the paint, and Young could take over games on both sides of the ball no matter how the rest of the team was playing. Notice that my answer here is in direct contrast to my answer on the previous question. I’m acutely cognizant of that, it’s by design. The idea and hope is that despite losing two critical difference makers, the team overall will be more consistent and not reliant on standout performances or at the mercy of slumps. Either that will be true, and my optimism will have been justified, or the loss of these two star players will be too much to overcome, and my concerns will have been vindicated. Lets hope it’s the former.
Dave White: Losing Myles Johnson. There’s been a bit of a funny thing going on on the message boards and social media—and that’s trying to talk down the impact Johnson had last season. Reading this roundtable, it’s clear that’s not happening here, but I feel like it needs to be addressed. Fans are only remembering a hobbled Johnson against Houston missing the alley-oop. But Johnson impacted the game in many ways, particularly on the defensive and rebounding end. Omoruyi is probably ready to step in—I’m going to guess the staff was not blindsided by Johnson’s transfer—but there are going to be some moments of necessary growth. Having Johnson there would have been able to counteract that.
Fred Gaudios: Lack of depth at the five. A few big guys (e.g., Luka Garza) are gone, but it’s not like the other teams in the B1G don’t constantly reload at the center position, and I’m not sure how much physicality Rutgers will be able to endure relative to past years. For better or for worse, the conference plays a specific style of play, and Rutgers for the first time maybe ever is going to try this season to win playing a different sort of ball. Will it work? Maybe, but until I see it happen, I’m concerned about it. I wrote about this in my KenPom season preview article, but the defensive concerns about this team are legitimate, until proven otherwise. Pikiell has a long history of coaching up players to the best of their potential, but we’ll have to see how it shakes out this season.
Art Stein: The biggest concern is always injuries because that is the one area that is beyond the team’s control. Fortunately, the Scarlet Knights depth is the best to date of the Steve Pikiel era. The other concern is team chemistry as there are a couple of new key contributors in Aundre Hyatt and Ralph Agee along with Omoruyi starting for the first time. And of course, the schedule, which as a member of the best basketball conference in the country is brutal.
B Vincent P: Team field and free throw percentage not improving and not making the NCAA tournament field. Ummmm, Next question...
John Catapano: As folks have said above: The injury bug. Coach Pike’s style of basketball is not easy on joints, as we have seen. I’m very hopeful that Cliff can stay healthy and the big men behind him can also stay healthy and contribute at a high level. This bodes well for the success or lack of during the B1G gauntlet. I’m gathering we’ll see a lot of mixed personnel early in the season to not only get the young’ins playing time but to also prepare a deep bench for the nail-biters in conference play.
David Anderson: Stubborn offensive thinking. This team is on the way to Pike’s ideal roster construction, but not there yet. The last two years they ran into trouble when shooting went cold because there was not enough willingness to adapt and try different wrinkles on offense to generate ball movement. What ended up happening was just give the ball to usually Jacob Young while everyone else stands around (minimal cutting) with their hand up as if they will knock down contested three-pointers assuming a perfect pass arrives. We know modifications can work though because we saw it when Rutgers faced injuries to their rotation and was forced to play short-handed. For example, posting up guards when playing small or most notably, when they played Cliff and Johnson against Maryland side by side. Other than one run by the Terps, RU absolutely demolished them in the best game I saw Rutgers play in 17 years. Then Rutgers played possibly their worst offensive game of the year at home against the Turtles, at no point going back to the recipe that won them the first matchup. It was mind boggling.
Patrick Mella: After toweling off from the excitement of my optimism, I will tell you there are some legitimate concerns. But the low post presence at both ends of the court is my biggest cause of concern. Our own Aaron Breitman brought up a great point during this off season. How will this team respond should Cliff collect two quick fouls? For as great as Myles Johnson was, he struggled staying out of foul trouble albeit some horrendous fouls. Cliff is going to have to learn how to balance his physicality in a manner that is not reckless. Should he exit the game in the first five minutes, how will Rutgers respond to handling a guy like Kofi Cockburn? In my opinion, how this teams handles adversity will be a determining factor of whether the season is a success or not.
Greg Patuto: Injuries, free throw shooting, consistency — there are always similar concerns that all teams worry about. For Rutgers, it has to be the frontcourt. Johnson is gone and Omoruyi now has a lot of pressure on him. Ralph Agee will be relied on off the bench and this is a cause for concern as well. Omoruyi got into foul trouble frequently as a freshman so this is where maturity will have to come into play. Not to mention, the Big Ten has some elite big men. Hunter Dickinson and Kofi Cockburn are just a couple names. The Scarlet Knights can compete in the backcourt but their depth and overall ability down low will have to take a huge step this season.
Aaron Breitman: The 5 spot with Cliff is crucial no doubt but I actually look at it as Ralph Agee being just as important to the overall play of the frontcourt. Of course, Omoruyi needs to make a leap to legitimate Big Ten center and hold his own in league play. But so does Agee backing him up. If Cliff does meet expectations but Agee isn’t an efficient backup on both ends, then Rutgers will have to make a big adjustment. The transfer from San Jose State has the potential to provide scoring punch off the bench. The real question is whether he can defend the way Pikiell expects and needs him to this season. If he can’t, Pikiell will need to tap into a smaller lineup which could cause certain Big Ten teams fits and against others put RU in a difficult spot.
One note about the potential of smaller lineups, I pointed out this offseason how successful Ohio State was last year without even playing a true center at all. Maryland was an example as well. So while frontcourt depth is a major concern, I also think Pikiell has a clear backup plan or even plan 1B depending on the matchup and status of Cliff and Agee. Having a positionless lineup with ten players standing at 6’6” or taller is by design and not a coincidence.
What is your bold prediction for this season?
Pete Winter: Rutgers will shoot 70% from the free throw line as a team this season. Hear me out on this one. Last season in the Big Ten, there were 47 players who took enough free throws to qualify on KenPom. Myles Johnson and Montez Mathis were both in the bottom 5. Those two are gone now. Geo Baker, who is a career 76% FT shooter, only shot 32 last season. He’ll have a lot more opportunities this season with Jacob Young out of the mix (JY was a 67% FT shooter at RU, though to be fair, he showed major improvement last season). Aundre Hyatt and Jaden Jones should also have big roles. Hyatt shot 78% over two seasons at LSU and Jones is known for his shooting touch. Ralph Agee even shot 62% during his time at San Jose State. Cliff is really the wildcard here and I’m worried about his free throw stroke, but I still think the team can get to 70% overall, which would put them solidly in the middle of the pack for that category.
Lawrence Krayn: My bold prediction is that this team will surprise many on the outside when they look and play better than expected. I expect them to make the tournament again, and I expect young players to make a name for themselves around the conference. I really do believe that this team fits what Head Coach Steve Pikiell has envisioned, and I expect them to perform like it.
Dave White: That there is a moment where you worry. A losing streak or a bad injury or both. But there will be a moment where this team’s back is against the wall and they’re going to need to win a big game to get back on track. It’s college basketball—teams always win a game they shouldn’t, lose a game they shouldn’t, blow someone out and get blown out. But I have a feeling this team gets punched in the mouth early, the schedule entering the Big Ten is just too tough, and we will be wondering if they can fight their way out of it.
Art Stein: We are going to see a quantum leap in free throw shooting percentage, and I think the combination of Hyatt, Agee and Omoruyi are going to allow Rutgers to bang inside with the Wisconsin’s and Illinois of the world. My truly bold prediction is we make the Sweet 16 this season. Barring injuries, it is going to be a season to remember.
Fred Gaudios: Rutgers will take down not one, but two, top-five ranked opponents this season. They should have plenty of top-five opportunities (maybe as many as eight) and two of them will fall Rutgers’ way. Maybe this is more tepid than bold, but on slow news weekdays in January and February, those types of wins get national sports media attention, which is always cool.
B Vincent P: Jersey Mike’s considers a promotion to do a sub fan giveaway night, if RU scores 100 points or a major victory! Or RU is 90% from the charity stripe (safe bet Jersey Mike’s don’t you think?). One can only hope they are really considering this one. :-)
John Catapano: RU has a shot at a double bye in the B1G tourney going into the final week of the season.
David Anderson: Somebody will become a knock down outside shooter, but since I can’t say who for sure (though Cliff showed surprising promise in garbage time last year), I’ll give a second answer. Jalen Miller becomes one of the team’s top three players when you look at impact. By the end of the season, the fans in close games will be saying, you have to get him in the game in crunch time.
Patrick Mella: Rutgers will go undefeated in non-conference play. Ok I don’t know if this qualifies for a bold prediction because the their out of conference schedule really isn’t that difficult. But they have dropped games to lesser teams to start the season in previous years under Pikiell. But I believe this year they’ll get through it cleanly.
Greg Patuto: Harper Jr. will shoot 40% from three-point range. As a junior, he got off to a roaring start but slowed down significantly once conference play began. Harper Jr. does a lot of excellent things on the floor such as getting to the basket and rebounding on both ends. This year, he will continue to improve as a shooter and have that consistency that has become expected.
Aaron Breitman: Jaden Jones will be named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen team this season. He can score in all three phases, can defend multiple positions, is confident but humble and plays in a smooth and steady manner. I’ve been vocal about his long term potential this offseason, but patience in his development is needed. That being said, I think his impact will only grow as the season progresses and he will be a matchup nightmare for a lot of Big Ten opponents. He will add another dimension to this team.
What is your season prediction for this team?
NOTE: Include record for overall, big ten, and any other thoughts you want to add on the season or postseason potential.
Pete Winter: I expect this year’s team to be right about where they’ve been for the past two seasons. I think there were some chemistry issues last season that set them back a bit, but the Knights deserve credit for righting the ship and earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The non-conference schedule is light, and should help them rack up early wins, at least until the end of November when things really get rolling. The Big Ten is a small step below where it was last season, but it’s still probably the best conference in America, top to bottom. A winning record in the league would be a very solid outcome, and I think that Rutgers ends up as an 8 or 9 seed in the Big Dance. 20-11 overall; 11-9 Big Ten
Lawrence Krayn: This team looks to be on par with last season’s team. The Knights will either fall a bit below last year’s mark, or rise a bit above it. I don’t see any extreme let down or unexpected dominance. I think Jersey Mike’s Arena (endearingly still to be referred to by many as the RAC) will be a big advantage for Rutgers again, and I think certain road environments will be challenging. There will be the usual peaks and valleys. I expect Rutgers to show well out of conference, and I expect them to have their share of victories and heartbreak throughout the rigors of the Big Ten. 20-11 overall; 10-10 Big Ten
Dave White: Aaron, my superstitious self hates you for putting me on the spot like that. No other thoughts necessary. 21-10 overall; 11-9 Big Ten
B Vincent P: The Big Ten is the best basketball conference top to bottom, period! I would be far more aggressive in my win expectation for the overall season and within the conference if RU did not have to play 20 games in the B1G meat grinding machine! For the Scarlet and White to excel, they need to dominate the out of conference schedule to beef up their total record. Overall 21-10 overall; 11-9 Big Ten
Fred Gaudios: Here’s how I sketched it out on a Post-It next to my computer:
- Non-conference cupcakes (7 games, defined as 200+ in KenPom): 6-1, because Rutgers always loses a game they have no business losing in the early going.
- Non-conference, non-cupcakes (DePaul, UMass, Clemson, Seton Hall): I like Rutgers beating DePaul and UMass, straight up. Clemson’s a home game, I have to give that to the RAC. And you’ll never see me predicting a loss to Seton Hall in this space. 4-0.
- Conference slate (20 games): KenPom has a point here. Though I’m not prepared to say Rutgers will struggle like the model predicts, it’s hard for me to see Rutgers cobble together more than ten wins as the season wears on. To my response above, I’m just worried about bodies wearing down. 19-12 overall; 9-11 Big Ten
Art Stein: Unlike most seasons where the Scarlet Knights inexplicably lose one or two games to teams, they have no business losing to, I see Rutgers winning all the games that they should win. Rutgers does have three formidable out-of-conference opponents in DePaul, Clemson, and Seton Hall, I am chalking up DePaul and Seton Hall as losses but Clemson as a win so 10-1 in non-conference opponents.
In Big Ten play, I think the tendency to win at home and lose on the road will hold true. However, I see the Scarlet Knights stealing a few away games but losing a few at home. Overall, I see the m going 11-9 in Big Ten play. 21-10 overall; 11-9 Big Ten
John Catapano: As others have said, RU will have a head-scratching early season clunker, or two. RU also has the RAC and likely an upset or two on the road in conference play. 20-11 overall; 11-9 Big Ten
David Anderson: Everybody knows that Rutgers men’s basketball is the team that makes me get irrational for understandable reasons when you re-read why I love Rutgers so much. Without the incredible defense of Johnson, Young, and at times Mathis, the ceiling on this team is lower than last year’s and probably closer to that of the 2019-20 team. The floor on this team is higher than last year so we shouldn’t see as many head scratching losses, but I don’t see them beating the best teams on the schedule. I have much lower expectations than our other contributors because I think it will take this team time to find its identity in B1G play even after a hot start in the non-conference. I think they’ll make a run in the Big Ten tournament due to the team’s depth that will land them at the outer reaches of the NCAA tournament bubble. 18-13 overall; 8-12 Big Ten
Patrick Mella: 21-10 overall; 10-10 Big Ten
Greg Patuto: The season is a roller coaster. Fans saw that last year after a 6-0 start and a five-game losing streak midway through. This year will be no different. Rutgers will win a game or two that they shouldn't while losing a game or two they are expected to win. That’s just the overall flow of the season. With that being said, 20 wins and 10 conference wins should get the Scarlet Knights back in the tournament. They will have to assert dominance at home once again. 20-11 Overall; 10-10 Big Ten
Aaron Breitman: I think this team takes care of business in non-conference play and at worst, loses once. One opponent I’m sneaky concerned with as a trap game is at UMass two days after Thanksgiving and directly before a critical stretch of Clemson, Illinois, Purdue and Seton Hall. That being said, I think this is an experienced and determined team that won’t suffer puzzling letdowns like they did last season.
I think a sneaky positive factor not being given enough credence is this team will be playing without the burden of having to break a 30 year NCAA Tournament drought. I saw the strain of that on top of living in an isolated situation during a pandemic really take a toll on them last season. It made what they accomplished last year even more impressive. This team has legitimate weight off its shoulders. I also think with a better mix of proven veterans paired with hungry, talented younger players, the chemistry will be better and there will be more clearly defined roles. Steve Pikiell also embraces being the underdog and underappreciated, as his Rutgers teams always seem to play best with their backs against the walls. These intangible factors are a big reason I think this team will surprise the conference. I also think this team will cause everyone to remember that Jersey (R) Mike’s (A) Arena (C) is a nightmare for every Big Ten team to visit.
How do I see it all shake out?
I think they have the potential to run the table in the non-conference, but also start 1-2 in Big Ten play against the best three teams in the conference that brings panic within the fan base. Rutgers will then take advantage of the schedule and have a dominant January only to raise expectations through the roof and create even more panic and letdown in February when the schedule is extremely difficult. Social media and the OTB comment section will cause my last few hairs on my head to finally fall out for good.
A huge swing game for how Rutgers ultimately finishes in Big Ten play is at Indiana to begin the month of March. Are the Hoosiers, Michigan State and Maryland really better than Rutgers this season? I don’t think they are and the Scarlet Knights prove it with a program best fifth place finish in the Big Ten. Remember or FYI, depending on the reader, RU is just one of four teams to have won 10 regular season games in Big Ten play the past two seasons. Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin are the others. I think they’ll do it again. While the postseason will ultimately determine how this team is remembered and the draw being so important, this team has the makeup to dance deep into the March. I believe! 22-9 overall, 12-8 Big Ten
Let us know your thoughts in the comment section and thanks for reading!