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Ask a Beat Reporter: Q&A With Jerry Carino

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Rutgers at Houston Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tradition unlike any other.

No, not the Masters. It’s our end-of-season interview with Jerry Carino. We’ve been doing this for years, and it’s finally paying off with Jerry answering questions about an NCAA appearance! So sit back, relax and check out some insight into the Rutgers basketball program.

On the Banks: Rutgers finally makes the NCAAs. They won a game and then lost a heartbreaker to Houston. Clearly, the season was a success, but what are the ramifications going forward? Was this a one time thing or a stepping stone to brighter days ahead?

Jerry Carino: It certainly removes the biggest obstacle Rutgers has faced on the recruiting trail: The negative recruiting tactic that you’ll never sniff the Big Dance there. That’s an albatross that dogged every Rutgers coach since Bob Wenzel and it got worse as the years rolled on. This season also reflects really well on Steve Pikiell as a coach who can do this job well at the highest levels.

But in this era of player free agency, getting back to the NCAAs is far from automatic. Rutgers has to reload and Pikiell won’t have three years to develop a nucleus anymore. Teams that reach the NCAA Tournament will be part-developed, part-acquired.

So we’ll have to see how Rutgers adjusts to this landscape. The best news for Rutgers fans is you have a coach in place long-term and won’t have to deal with the constant turnover that kneecapped this program for so long.

OTB: One of the things that stuck out with this team was the up and down, streaky nature of the season. Any idea what changed from the hot start to losing 6 of 7 in the middle of the year?

JC: The quality of the Big Ten did that to a lot of teams, and I also got the sense that the unusually hard mental-health grind of this season, the isolation, the constant testing and fear of shutdown, the lack of a campus life and college experience---that exacerbated the typical rough patches you get in the ebb and flow of a long season. Outsiders didn’t get a true sense of just how grueling it was to play college basketball through a pandemic.

So when guys who started out shooting well went into slumps, which happens, slumps became confidence crises with everything else weighing on these young guys’ minds. We saw it with Seton Hall, too, as the Pirates went from an offensively efficient team to one that couldn’t hit the side of a barn down the stretch. Everything got exacerbated and most teams went through a version of this.

OTB: What, in your estimation, were the key moments of the season?

JC: The win at Indiana that stopped the losing streak was crucial because things could have spiraled out of control. The Hoosiers played well in that game – they didn’t do their usual fold-up-the-tents routine — and Rutgers had answers. The senior-night win vs. Indiana was a memorable feel-good moment, the overtime win at Minnesota took the weight off everyone’s shoulders. They were important, but the win at Indiana was the biggest pivot point.

Then, winning an NCAA Tournament game was an enormously big deal. As I said to anyone who would listen beforehand, “happy to be there” is not an acceptable mindset once you reach the Big Dance. The difference between checking out in the opener and advancing at least one round – proving you belong – is enormous. Rutgers proved they belonged, and they gave fans a “moment.” It would have been disappointing if the “moment” from their season was beating Illinois in December or sneaking past a bad Minnesota team or watching a bracket on Selection Sunday. Beating Clemson was a galvanizing moment for everyone in Rutgers Nation.

And let’s be honest: Rutgers opened the season ranked 24th in the preseason 25. That means it was supposed to reach the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. By doing that, you can fairly say this team realized its potential.

OTB: It’s the off-season, and it’s clearly free agency with the transfer portal. What do you make of the transition on Rutgers roster? Has anything surprised you?

JC:There’s going to be turnover everywhere. Douc, Mathis and Harper (declaring) were expected. We all thought Jacob Young was going to turn pro’ I’ll be stunned if he actually transfers and plays another year of college ball. I thought it was 50/50 that Myles Johnson would leave, so I can’t say I’m surprised but I also didn’t expect it. I also don’t blame him (and I know fans don’t either) for wanting to take a grad year back home at a place that can help him further his life goals.

Before the season ended I thought Geo would move on and began the next phase of his life, possibly as a coach or grad assistant. Then, right after the Houston game, I was hearing that he’s coming back for sure. I didn’t think he would enter the NBA Draft process because, let’s face it, as much as I think the world of Geo as a collegian, he’s a longshot to make the NBA or even the G League. But maybe he’s got to scratch that itch.

Collectively, these moves aren’t indicative of any issues within RU’s program. They’re individual decisions influenced by a changing NCAA climate and probably some of the general, aforementioned hardships players everywhere experienced this past season.

OTB: Let’s assume that Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker come back. How does Rutgers fill the potential 4 open scholarships out there? Transfers? High School Players? JUCO?

JC: I do believe both players will be back. I’m fairly certain Rutgers will not bring in four new players. It’s impossible to keep 13 eligible scholarship players happy, even for a guy like Pikiell who prefers a 10-man rotation (obviously his was smaller this past season). The problem is that, in the age of no sit-out penalty, players unhappy with their role/playing time start looking for the exit midseason, and that can really foul up team chemistry. I’ve had this discussion with Pikiell and I would say RU will bring in two new players tops. One transfer and maybe a second transfer or a JUCO, with the priority being a power player (big forward or center, or a Shaq Carter-type combo).

OTB: Following up that question on the portal, how does someone like Pikiell—who prides himself on player development, adjust? Will this new challenge be a hindrance to the program?

JC: To a degree. Steve now assumes he rarely will get a chance to develop a player over four years anymore. That doesn’t mean you just give up on player development though. He’ll still develop guys in the time he has them, and do it better than most of his peers. But it does blunt one of his sharpest tools a bit. I’ll be watching the Reiber/Palmquist/Mag trio on this front. These are guys, like Caleb McConnell for example, who might take 2-3 years to fully contribute. They’ll be the first test cases. Do they stick around long enough to get developed? I do think Pikiell will give them a real chance to play next year, which didn’t happen this season for a variety of reasons.

OTB: One of the things you mentioned on your Jersey Jumpshot podcast is that now Pikiell could be swimming in a different pool in terms of recruits going forward. Do you expect Pikiell to change how he recruits and shoot for rankings or stick to recruiting his type of guys, even if they’re underrecruited players?

JC: I do not think he’ll change much in the kind of player he targets. If you look at two transfer-portal bigs they are targeting, Penn State’s John Harrar and DePaul’s Pauly Paulicap, these are Pikiell-style workhorse grinders. That said, more upper-level recruits will now consider Rutgers because of the success.. But it’s doubtful he’d take an upper-level recruit with a questionable attitude or who could be a bad fit team-wise. I just don’t see it. Other coaches do this a lot and hope for the best. To the extent that Pikiell’s done that in the past, which is not often, it’s reinforced his belief against it.

OTB: Now that basketball has finally found some success at Rutgers, do you have any sense of how the perception of the program and it’s hierarchy in the department has changed? Does basketball matter at Rutgers now?

JC: It’s mattered since Pat Hobbs became the AD, and Pikiell’s success has really helped Hobbs recover from the Ash/Schiano fiasco. To the extent that Greg Schiano 1.0 tilted the department’s resources in football’s favor and away from basketball his first time around---a fact, regardless of what spin anyone gives you---that’s not happening anymore. It’s a different era with more resources, Schiano by all accounts has embraced all of the other sports since he’s returned, his relationship with Pikiell is good, so the program is on great footing internally.

OTB: Will Rutgers vs. Seton Hall happen next season?

JC: I don’t know. It’s not scheduled yet; the focus is on the rosters right now. The contract is still in place, but each side interprets the key question differently: Whose turn is it to host? I’m hopeful cooler heads will prevail. To me this is a good test for Hobbs: He hired both coaches, he knows everyone in SHU’s hierarchy really well, he’s an attorney, and this game means a lot to him (as it does many others). Can he show some leadership and get everyone on the same page? I also intend to lobby both coaches to get this done – for the good of New Jersey college hoops fans. I’m just a reporter, but I try to be a voice for the fans and know both coaches will at least hear me out on the subject.

OTB: Are there any fun, underrated moments that stuck out to you from this year? Something the casual fan might not have known about, but really stuck out to you?

JC: One of the biggest drawbacks of covering the team through Zoom is we missed a lot of those poignant behind-the-scenes moments. I wish I had that anecdote for you. I will say that in the days leading up to the Clemson game, I got a bunch of heartfelt texts and emails from longtime fans of all ages, including one of my eighth-grade teachers whom I hadn’t heard from in 30 years, about how much this season has meant to them. I also got one from my next-door-neighbor’s son, a Rutgers graduate and highly successful professional who never really paid attention to college basketball before. This team got him to notice college hoops. No bigger compliment than that.

As always, thank you so much, Jerry!