It’s been a little more than a week and a half since the second round loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament and Rutgers is in full offseason mode. After going farther in March since the program has in 38 years, head coach Steve Pikiell is entering a transition phase of his tenure. After leading RU to its most successful back to back seasons in over four decades, the program is entering a critical period. Will Pikiell be able to capitalize on the recent success and elevate expectations long term? Or will this past season be looked back on as an outlier or irregular occurrence as a regression settles in?
Jacob Young, Myles Johnson and Mamadou Doucoure are all in the transfer portal and expected to leave. Young is likely to play professional basketball somewhere next season. Johnson is likely to be enrolled at a top 15 engineering grad school next fall, most likely in the PAC-12. Doucoure would be best served going to play in a smaller conference.
That leaves Rutgers with three available scholarships for next season. As for the current the roster, here is a breakdown with years of eligibility remaining listed next to each player:
Frontcourt: Ron Harper Jr. (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)
Note that if Baker does return, he could do so while not counting towards the 13 scholarship limit per season. Players going into a bonus year of eligibility after their normal four years is exhausted can remain on their respective team without taking away from the scholarship limit. However, it’s the schools decision if they are willing to take on an additional scholarship that wasn’t budgeted for. It’s possible Pikiell could opt to leave a scholarship open if Baker returns so they would not go over the typical limit of 13.
As to what’s next, Rutgers has holes to fill.
The biggest question right now is how will they get filled and will anyone else leave this offseason? Geo Baker’s decision is still up in the air but after taking part in a meeting with NCAA President Mark Emmert on Thursday, it seems like he could be motivated to stay and continue to fight for NIL right with the #NotNCAAAProperty movement. Jerry Carino gave indication on Thursday that the growing sentiment within the program is Baker could stay. That would be huge for Rutgers, as replacing Baker’s leadership, basketball IQ and big shot capability would be hard to replace.
Whether Baker stays or move on, something to consider is which players on the current roster have the potential to step up and fill larger roles next season. There should be optimism that Pikiell and the staff will be able to find some answers with players that already frequent the APC.
First, let’s discuss roster needs.
With Johnson’s departure, the need for a rim defender and rebounder is a priority. Now that Doucoure is gone as well, Rutgers is officially thin in the frontcourt.
With Young leaving, Rutgers needs another strong perimeter defender to replace him. As much attention as Young received on the offensive end, his defense was consistently strong and was key to him creating easy baskets the transition game.
In addition, better outside shooting, low post scoring and an additional ball handler who can create offense are needs as well.
Can any of those needs be filled with players currently on the roster? The short answer....let’s hope so.
Former Top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi was a key rotation player this past season but was slowed mid-season after missing five games due to a knee injury. Rutgers went 1-4 in those contests and although his stats were not overly impressive, Omoruyi made strides down the stretch of his freshman season. He will have every opportunity to be the starting center next season and will a full offseason of development time, Omoruyi should be expected to improve. He has the potential to be an elite rim defender but will need to make progress on that end of the floor for next season. His rates for offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding and blocks were second on the team behind Johnson. It’s a tall task replacing Johnson, who was the cornerstone of the defense, but Omoruyi has the talent capable of doing so.
Although Omoruyi led Rutgers with 63.6% shooting from the floor, his offensive game is still a work in progress. Adding a true low post scorer and rebounder would be huge, but at a minimum it’s likely Pikiell will prioritize a big man who can backup Omoruyi with the potential to play in tandem in spots as well. This is especially true with Doucoure leaving.
Playing a big lineup is something Pikiell said he wanted to do with Johnson this past season, but never implemented after Omoruyi’s injury. Dean Reiber could provide some minutes, but I think he would need to make significant strides this offseason to be counted on for consistent production next season.
Two other freshman that could make an impact next season are Mawot Mag and Oskar Palmquist.
Mag made the eight man rotation to start the season but the combination of suffering an injury and the return of Caleb McConnell kept him on the bench other than mop up duty. The 6’7” wing is not a replacement for Young but could emerge as a key rotation guy that can defend multiple positions and be a weapon in transition. He could be a able replacement for Montez Mathis, who entered the transfer portal on Sunday.
Rutgers needs shooters and Palmquist will have an opportunity to break into the rotation for next season due to that being his strength. He didn’t play many significant minutes this past season except for a run or two against Syracuse and Purdue this past season. Getting stronger and improving his defense will be key to getting the opportunity to shine as a shooter. Expect Pikiell and staff to look for another shooter who can be a strong on the ball defender as well via the transfer portal or JUCO ranks.
Of all the players on the current roster, I truly believe that Jaden Jones has the highest ceiling by far. He has the best chance to crack the starting lineup or play significant minutes next season of any of the younger players on the roster that were not part of the rotation last season. After enrolling early this past January, the former top 150 national recruit from Missouri could emerge as the next star for the program. His shooting stroke, ability to get to the rim while being able to defend multiple positions should make him a valuable rotational player next season. If his development goes as expected, he could fill Ron Harper Jr.’s shoes as leading scorer after next season.
An area that Rutgers could get both internal and external help with is at the lead guard position. Former 3-star recruit Jalen Miller is the most natural point guard that Pikiell has ever had at Rutgers. He is an intriguing player who will bring a pass first mindset to an offense that has plenty of weapons looking for shots.
In addition, Pikiell may decide to put the rock in the capable hands of Paul Mulcahy more so next season. He certainly has had his moments and seems like he is ready for more responsibility. That being said, don’t be surprised if the coaching staff finds a transfer or JUCO player to step in right away to help and give Pikiell even more lineup versatility.
On Friday, Ron Harper Jr. entered his name into the NBA Draft but will not hire an agent and is eligible to return to Rutgers. It makes sense for him to take the opportunity to be evaluated and he has until July 19 to take his name out of consideration to return. That should be the expectation as of now.
With over 1,110 college basketball players in the portal as the calendar has now turned to April, it’s possible other players on the roster could make a move in the near future. However, Rutgers is in a good position in bringing back a core group that will likely include Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell, Mulcahy and Omoruyi, as well as possibly Baker. All played significant minutes this past season, so RU has the luxury of being patient and finding the right fit versus taking a gamble on a high profile transfer.
To find out more about recruits that Rutgers is targeting for next season and beyond, you can listen to episode no. 93 of the On The Banks podcast featuring 247 Sports college basketball recruiting analyst Matt Agnoli right here.