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Roster management biggest key to offseason for Rutgers

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Who will stay, who will go and who could be targeted are important questions that need to be answered.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 20 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Less than 48 hours after Sunday night’s heartbreaking exit from the NCAA Tournament and it still hurts. The truth is it always will. That being said, it’s time to carry on. We’ll have plenty of analysis on this past season in the near future, but I wanted to reset things by focusing on the biggest priority for the program this offseason.

Roster management is the major focus for Rutgers now and there are plenty of questions to be answered.

Jacob Young made it clear right after Sunday’s game that he was moving on. It was expected that the fifth-year player will have professional opportunities ahead of him so his departure shouldn’t be a surprise.

The biggest questions that remain are whether Geo Baker and Myles Johnson return? Their situations are different.

Baker has an one year of eligibility remaining due to this past season being a free year based on the NCAA ruling due to COVID-19. The key part regarding scholarships is that Baker and Young’s decisions don’t count towards the scholarship limit of 13. So Young leaving doesn’t open up a scholarship and Baker’s decision doesn’t impact it either. While the NCAA will allow schools next season to go over the scholarship limit with “super seniors”, it’s up to the individual schools to decide if they want to do that and incur that additional cost.

Let me be clear, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell is on the record saying he hoped every senior returned. Cost won’t be an issue for Rutgers and I’m pretty sure they would throw a socially distanced party if Baker decided to return. It’s just something to note about the college basketball landscape in general and it’s a factor that puts small to mid-majors in a more difficult position financially.

As for Baker, Jerry Carino reported on Tuesday that “Although no one knows for sure — Baker made it clear he hasn’t decided yet — belief within the program is rising that he’ll return for a fifth season.”

After the game I asked Baker if he took any comfort with how far he has taken the program and he said, “Not really, to be honest. Felt we could have gone farther. Came down to one possession. Felt we could have done something more. So I don’t know, I mean, I just — as a competitor, you just never really are satisfied. You kind of always just want more. I felt like I let that slip away on the last play.”

Later he was asked if he had made a decision on next season and what he wanted his legacy to be. Baker said, “No, honestly I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t know if any of the guys have thought about that. I’ve always wanted my legacy to be a winner. I don’t really know where that stands right now, to be honest with you.”

How much those comments were based on the immediate emotions that came after such a difficult loss and how much those are thoughts that he is seriously mulling over in regards to his potential return remain to be seen. Obviously, if Baker returned it would be a huge win for Pikiell this offseason. His potential pro options as a player will be a factor. Baker has previously mentioned he wants to become a coach one day, so perhaps how he maps out that plan will help him make a decision as well.

As for Johnson, his circumstances are a bit different. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining since this was his redshirt junior season but was a free year. Johnson has publicly stated he has applied to graduate schools for engineering and Rutgers is among that group. It seems plausible he actually would play two more seasons due to being in grad school. Whether that’s at Rutgers or not we will have to wait and see. One school that has always worried me IF they came into the picture was Stanford, as Johnson is from Southern California and could opt to get closer to home (6 hour drive). It was a school he was originally interested in as a recruit out of high school but an offer never came during his injury riddled senior season.

One factor with Johnson could certainly be Baker’s decision, as the two players have been roommates all four years they’ve been at Rutgers. Having the chance to have one more go round with each other could be a major factor in their decisions. Johnson’s value as a rim defender and rebounder are massive.

Update: Myles Johnson entered the transfer portal on Thursday and spoke about his decision here.

If Pikiell gets both players to return, Rutgers will be expected to finish in the top half of the Big Ten for a second consecutive season. They could even if they do leave, but that will depend on how the roster is ultimately filled out.

As for the current the roster, here is a breakdown with years of eligibility remaining listed next to each player:

Frontcourt: Myles Johnson (2), Ron Harper Jr. (2), Mamadou Doucoure (2), Cliff Omoruyi (4), Dean Reiber (4)

Backcourt/Wings: Montez Mathis (2), Caleb McConnell (2), Paul Mulcahy (3), Oskar Palmquist (4), Mawot Mag (4), Jaden Jones (4), Jalen Miller (4)

Eligible to Return: Geo Baker (1)

As of now there are 12 scholarship players accounted for with one open spot available. As previously mentioned, Baker wouldn’t count against the max 13 scholarship players, so I accounted for him separately.

With the NCAA set to pass a new rule that student-athletes in all sports can transfer without having to sit out a year moving forward, this offseason will result in plenty of turnover across college basketball. Transfer candidates need to be in good academic standing to avoid the sit out rule and schools can no longer block other schools that players want to transfer to.

While it’s unfair for me to speculate as to who from Rutgers could end up transferring, it wouldn’t be surprising for at least one player to leave based on the current climate in college basketball. There are already over 500 players currently in the transfer portal.

It’s important to note that transfer candidates that are “super seniors” would count under the 13 scholarship limit if they went to another school. That means those players could be more limited in their options.

How Steve Pikiell addresses the roster is the biggest piece of the puzzle for Rutgers in preparation for next season. If Baker ultimately stays, it does make the management of the roster more challenging. However, it would be a nice problem to have. You can’t replace the leadership and clutch gene that Baker has very easily. Distribution of minutes is always a challenge with a high major program and it will only be harder for coaches next season that carry 14-15 scholarship players due to the exception from this past season.

With one open scholarship as of now, expect Rutgers to target a transfer candidate to fill the spot. The fact that Big Ten players can now transfer within the conference makes this offseason even more intriguing.

Replacing someone to attempt to fill a role similar to Jacob Young who can be a strong on the ball defender with the ability to create offense off the bounce would be a big positive but certainly not an easy task. They’ve reportedly contacted Northeastern’s Tyson Walker, a 6-foot guard from Westbury, NY who averaged 18.8 points and 4.8 assists this past season.

Adding another post player who can play the four and give Pikiell more lineup flexibility in being able to have Ron Harper Jr. play the three would be desirable as well. Rutgers has also reportedly reached out to Penn State’s big man John Harrar who led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding this past season, but few other names have been linked so far.

Both Walker and Harrar will have many top programs to consider as options, which leads me to a key difference for Rutgers this offseason.

Pikiell should aim high on the transfer market after ending the program’s 30 year NCAA drought and producing a winning record in Big Ten play over the past two years combined. After being successful in bringing in transfers Akwasi Yeboah and Jacob Young the past few years, Rutgers could lure players with even better resumes to join the program based on the team’s recent success and the market potentially having better talent available due to the sit out transfer rule changing.

Whoever they pursue could ultimately change based on decisions made with the current roster. If a player leaves the program, it could change the priority of the role to fill but it’s also possible that Rutgers opts to leave an open scholarship available if Baker and Johnson stay. Adding a transfer or two with a roster that included Baker and Johnson would increase expectations even more for next season.

There are a ton of moving parts to consider. After the most successful and exciting season in decades, despite the gut punch ending, it’s time for fans to regroup and get ready for an offseason that seems certain to be intriguing and very busy at the same time. The road back to the NCAA Tournament and hopefully even more success next season begins now.