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Pursuit of a big man indicates a potential shift for Rutgers men’s basketball

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Steve Pikiell’s top priority in restocking the roster is telling about the plan for next season’s roster.

Houston v Rutgers Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Over the course of Steve Pikiell’s five year tenure as head coach of Rutgers men’s basketball, his teams possessed two traits above all else from an identity standpoint. Defense and rebounding. While this past season’s team ended the program’s 30 year NCAA Tournament drought and won its first NCAA Tournament game in 38 years, it was also suffered from some frustrating and inconsistent play. A key factor in both of those descriptions being true was that this Rutgers team was not a good rebounding team.

On the defensive end, although inconsistent at times, the Scarlet Knights still finished 16th nationally in defensive efficiency. With a rating of 90.6, they just missed the previous season’s rating of 90.2, which was the sixth best in the country. Rutgers led the Big Ten in blocked shots and were ninth nationally, while also leading the league in steals and were 31st nationally. While Rutgers had more subpar defensive games then in the previous season when they won 20 games and were positioned to go dancing in March, they also were 9-2 when holding opponents under 65 points. Overall, Rutgers was one of the best defensive teams in the country for a second straight season.

It was the rebounding that was so disappointing compared to previous teams for Rutgers under Steve Pikiell. Despite the issues, the Scarlet Knights were very reliant on its performance on the glass in regard to the outcome, as they were 12-1 when outrebounding an opponent and 3-10 when they didn’t. Comparing offensive rebounding rate through the years, RU’s national ranks during Pikiell’s tenure were 7th in his first season, 43rd in his second season, 34th in his third season, 53rd in his fourth season and 176th this past season. On the flip side, opponents offensive rebounding rates against Rutgers the past five seasons had rankings of 217th, 200th, 118th, 68th and 245th. In Big Ten play, Rutgers went 4th the season before to 13th this past season. Even though this team made program history in the NCAA Tournament, it was statistically the worst rebounding team of the Pikiell era at Rutgers.

(Editor’s note: This has been widely written in recent years, but rebounding rate is a much more telling measurement than rebounding totals as it indicates success rate of opportunities instead of raw totals with no context.)

A direct correlation to a decline in rebounding can be made with the production or lack there of that Rutgers received from the power forward position this past season. Nationally, RU’s production at the four was 339th in percentage of points, 296th in percentage of offensive rebounds and 320th in percentage of defensive rebounds for the team. While these rankings could be weighted differently per team in regard to their style of play, there is no denying that Rutgers hasn’t had a true four or power forward since Eugene Omoruyi transferred two years ago. His last season in 2018-2019, Rutgers ranked 100th in percentage of points, 32nd in percentage of offensive rebounds and 93rd in percentage of defensive rebounds at the four spot.

To make matters worse for the future, Rutgers is losing Myles Johnson, who from an advanced statistics perspective is the best transfer option available in college basketball. Johnson was a highly efficient player this past season, ranking in top 50 nationally in block rate (19th), effective field goal percentage (41st), offensive rebounding, rate (44th) and defensive rebounding rate (46th).

On top of needing to greatly improve production and efficiency at the four, Pikiell needs to do try and replace the highly efficient Johnson at the five at the same time. This fact was something Jerry Carino confirmed in his recent Q&A with our own Dave White in stating that finding a quality big man is the top priority in restocking the roster for next season.

It’s clear that former top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi is going to be relied on heavily moving forward and that his development this offseason is crucial to the team’s success next season. While he missed time with an injury and was inconsistent as a freshman, Omoruyi showed flashes at times with his athleticism and raw talent. His potential is immense. It should be noted that his defensive rebounding rate of 23.1% was higher than Johnson had in his first two seasons (20.4% and 20.5%) and Cliff’s block rate of 5.0% was slightly better than Myles’ first season (4.8%). There should be legitimate hope that with a true offseason to work on his development after the pandemic made that impossible last year, the 6’11” Omoruyi could emerge as a capable and efficient replacement for Johnson.

The key spot to upgrade is at the four. Ron Harper Jr. has been the default at the power forward spot the past two seasons but the truth is his natural position is at the three on the wing. He is an undersized four at his listed height of 6’6” and his preferred style of play has always been along the perimeter instead of in the low post. While he is a very efficient two-point shooter, making 54.3% of his shots from the field this past season and 53.3% for his career, Harper Jr. posted up with his back to the basket even less this season than the year before. His natural ability to drive to the rim and his incredible body control in traffic makes him a much better fit at the three. He was also not active enough on the boards as a four needs to be, but would be solid as a rebounder from the three spot.

To be clear this is not a criticism of Harper Jr. He has been model citizen within the program and developed into the best scorer on the team. When he played near or at his best this past season, Rutgers was extremely hard to beat. But when your starter at the four is a finalist for the Julius Erving award for the nation’s top small forward, it’s clear a shift is needed.

With Harper Jr. officially going through the NBA Draft process this offseason it seems likely the feedback he receives will recommend that playing the three his best path forward professionally.

The point is if Harper Jr. does withdraw his name from the NBA Draft by July 19 and return to Rutgers for next season, it makes the most sense for both the team and him to play primarily at the three.

It seems likely this will be the plan based on the two top targets that Pikiell and the coaching staff are currently pursuing to add to next season’s roster. They are a pair of big men in Penn State transfer John Harrar and DePaul transfer Pauly Paulicap.

Neither player were major recruits out of high school, but both have developed physically and worked to become legitimate impact starters at the high major level.

Harrar was a former tight end commit to Army in high school before deciding to focus on basketball and ending up at Penn State. He went on to start 65 of 115 games for the Nittany Lions over four seasons, including all 25 contests this past season. What’s intriguing about Harrar is that while his production increased with playing more minutes, he also became a more efficient player.

This past season, the 6’8” Harrar had the 9th best offensive rebounding rate and 47th best defensive rebounding rate in the country. He was also 4th nationally in free throw rate, something that would also greatly help Rutgers. Harrar shot a respectable 68.9% from the foul line for a big man. His offensive rating of 119.4 was 117th nationally and was 6.2 points higher than Myles Johnson’s, who had the highest rating of any player for Rutgers this past season. In Big Ten play, Harrar was 1st in offensive rebounding rate and free throw rate, 3rd in defensive rebounding rate, 8th in offensive rating and 16th in effective field goal percentage.

Overall, Harrar averaged 8.8 points on 54.9% shooting, 8.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 24.8 minutes per game this past season. The Daily Collegian reported two weeks ago that Penn State’s new head coach Micah Shrewsberry is still trying to keep Harrar at Happy Valley and that he has “received offers from a number of Big Ten and ACC schools.” EvanMiya.com lists Harrar as the third best transfer option on the market based on advanced stats.

Pauly Paulicap played in 19 games, including 15 starts, for DePaul last season, averaging 7.2 points on 55.1% shooting, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 22.2 minutes per game. He led the Big East in offensive rebounding rate and was second with 2.6 offensive boards per game. Paulicap also had the 5th best block rate and 23rd highest defensive rebounding rate in the Big East, as well as 10th in two-point field goal percentage at 56.8%. Nationally, Paulicap had the 54th best offensive rebounding rate and 84th best block rate. Before transferring to DePaul, the 6’8” big man averaged 10.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in the last of his three seasons at Manhattan after earning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a freshman. As far as competition in recruiting him, West Virginia has met with Paulicap and appears to still be pursuing him.

While both players only have one year of eligibility remaining after this past season was a free year due to the NCAA ruling with COVID-19, they have the ability to step in and make an immediate impact starting at the four for Rutgers next season. Harrar is clearly the better offensive player, while Paulicap seems like a perfect fit for Steve Pikiell’s defensive system. They are both strong rebounders, with Harrar having the edge between the two. Both have reputations as hard workers and they play with a lot of energy and toughness. For a lack of better description, these are Pikiell’s kind of players and fit is more important than pedigree when adding someone from the transfer portal.

It’s possible that Ron Harper Jr. would stay at the four if he returns for next season, but based on Rutgers appearing to make Harrar and Paulicap the top priority in adding a player this offseason, it would seem likely he would shift to the three. Adding one of these two transfers would allow Harper Jr. to play in his natural position and continue to develop before going pro, while also giving Steve Pikiell greater lineup versatility. And if Harper Jr. didn’t return, Rutgers is prepared and has depth at the three as well.

The reality of this past season is that Rutgers became a perimeter oriented team with just Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi alternately playing inside. However, they only shot 31.2% from three-point range which ranked just 287th nationally. That’s a lot of misses without enough rebounders.

Now that’s Johnson is gone, they desperately need to add another quality big man. Rather than add a backup for Omoruyi, it seems like that’s a position 6’10” Dean Reiber could fill, who Pikiell called out in his recent podcast as a player who is he expects to step up next season. Instead, it appears they are targeting Harrar and Paulicap to fill the four spot and start alongside Omoruyi.

This would be an exciting shift. Building the roster this way will provide more versatility for Pikiell next season. He could go big with Omoruyi and either Harrar or Paulicap inside with multiple options at the wing between 6’6” and 6’8” with Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell, Jaden Jones, Mawot Mag and Oskar Palmquist. With potentially Geo Baker back (6’4”) and Paul Mulcahy (6’6”) likely handling the ball more so next season, Rutgers could have a legitimate size and length advantage at every position on the court. There would be plenty of flexibility with lineups in mixing and matching depending on the development during the offseason of those players mentioned.

A key difference inside is that with the only big men in Johnson and Omoruyi playing in the eight man rotation last season, they rarely ever played on the court together at the same time. Having two legitimate rebounders in the paint together by adding Harrar or Paulicap alongside Omoruyi will go a long way towards turning rebounding back into a strength. It should also give Rutgers significantly more production from the four spot since they’ve had since Eugene Omoruyi left two seasons ago.

Another benefit either big man target could bring to help counter the issue that Rutgers had this past season with spacing and movement in the half court offense along the perimeter. By having two natural post players on the floor at the same time, it would help create more space for shooters and make Rutgers less one dimensional for opponents to defend. In regard to the transition game, both Harrar and Paulicap can run the floor well on the break.

While it would be a luxury to add to both Harrar and Paulicap to the roster for next season, that doesn’t seem realistic. However, adding one of them seems like an absolute must right now. Perhaps other quality big man options will emerge? The coaching staff having patience with so many players available through the transfer portal would be wise. You never know who could become an option. That being said, Rutgers appears to be moving in on Harrar and Paulicap to fill a major need for next season’s roster. Either would be a major addition and a very good fit culturally within the program.

This past season ended with Houston dominating Rutgers on the glass down the stretch with the Sweet 16 on the line. The fact that it was rebounding that was the demise for Pikiell’s team made it even more frustrating and painful to watch. Attacking weaknesses and other issues are vital to the program’s success long term and to progress that needs to be made each offseason. If Pikiell can land Harrar or Paulicap, Rutgers would be getting bigger and would have a different dynamic on the court next season, while also potentially getting better.

Note: On Monday, JUCO guard Josh Baker included Rutgers in his final three and to read more about him, click here.