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Rutgers men’s basketball roster perception vs. reality

An interesting offseason has been met with doubts, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism with who remains.

Rutgers v Houston Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

A little more than a month into the offseason and Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell isn’t flinching. Fans have mostly leaned somewhere between concerned to flat out panic mode with all of the roster turnover since the season ended. Myles Johnson transferred to UCLA, Montez Mathis transferred to St. John’s and Jacob Young left to pursue pro opportunities while keeping options open by entering the transfer portal. Their past contributions were significant and all three were major factors in the success Rutgers has had over the previous two seasons. Replacing their production is paramount and the question now is who will fill these holes and where will they come from?

While there has been a flurry of activity with players coming and going through the transfer portal within college basketball this offseason, it wasn’t until Sunday night that we learned the Scarlet Knights made a new addition to the program. LSU transfer Aundre Hyatt brings plenty of high major experience and versatility with him to the banks. He was originally a priority recruit for Pikiell back in the 2018 class and much has changed since then. Hyatt redshirted his first year in Baton Rouge after a serious knee injury and it wasn’t until his second season of playing for the Tigers that he began making an impact. On the other hand, the Scarlet Knights produced back to back winning seasons for the first time in decades. While Hyatt’s stats aren’t eye popping, his ability to fit into the culture and fill a legitimate need for Rutgers makes him a quality addition.

How does Hyatt fit into the roster and what are the additional needs for this team ahead of next season? Let’s start with what Rutgers has returning and how needs can be filled with existing players already within the program.

While Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker have entered their names into the NBA Draft, there should be hope that they will both return for next season. Nothing is guaranteed and it’s certainly possible either player could see their stock rise if they are invited to the NBA combine, but as of now neither is projected as a likely selection in July’s draft. If they do return, Rutgers will return its best two way scorer in Harper Jr., as well as its unquestioned leader and big shot maker in Baker back in the fold. The fact that Pikiell hasn’t added multiple players through the portal should give faith to the idea there is a strong belief they will be back.

Paul Mulcahy led RU in three-point shooting percentage last season at 39.3% on two attempts per game. He also is ready to be the primary ball handler even if Baker returns, although they could split duties as well. Mulcahy might not have the ability to break defenses down off the dribble the way Young did, but his passing ability, vision, unselfishness and basketball IQ make everyone around him better. My biggest issue with the offense last season was that Mulcahy didn’t run the show more than he did. At 6’6” and the ability to run the offense at multiple spots including point forward, he would make Rutgers a lot less predictable to defend and they would share the basketball more than last season. Less isolation plays and more ball movement would be a welcomed development to the Rutgers offense and it would start with Mulcahy running things.

Caleb McConnell is the ultimate glue guy and brings a certain edge on the court that Rutgers desperately needs. He is also an unselfish player, a strong rebounder and is tremendous on the defensive end. His double-double performance in the NCAA Tournament win over Clemson showed how important he can be to this team. McConnell is simply a player that makes winning plays and another offseason of development will only benefit his overall game.

The biggest misconception about next season’s roster is the idea that Rutgers must find an outside replacement for Johnson, who was the backbone of the defense and an extremely reliable rebounder. While Rutgers pursued John Harrar and Pauly Paulicap in the transfer portal and either would have been great additions, the intent was for them to compliment what this team already has with Cliff Omoruyi slotted in as the starting five. It seems like Omoruyi has gone from top 50 prospect to underappreciated, all in a year’s time. We’ve gone from a sold out RAC chanting his name to posters on message boards and Facebook wondering when the upgrade at center will come.

Cliff’s athletic ability and potential are off the charts. He came to Rutgers a bit raw and inexperienced, but his upside is sky high. Despite not having a true offseason to develop and missing almost a month during the season due to a knee injury, Omoruyi still improved down the stretch in February and March. He looked lost on the defensive end at times last season, but it was obvious things were slowing down for him at the end of the year. He gained valuable experience and that should help his confidence next season. In addition, having a full offseason to work on his game and get stronger in the weight room should result in a much more developed player when the ball tips off at the RAC in the winter. There is no reason to not let him loose next season.

Aside from likely returning five players with starting experience, another reason the transfer portal doesn’t need to be the stop gap option for Rutgers that it is for other teams is due to some intriguing young players that are already on the roster.

Jaden Jones is a 6’8” wing who can shoot, pass and dribble with the ability to play and defend multiple positions. Joining the team this past January will prove invaluable to his development going into next season. Simply put, I think Jones has the most talent of any Rutgers player on both last year’s team and next year’s team. His potential is unlimited and he is poised to be a key contributor next season as he continues to learn to play at the next level. Pikiell was careful not to rush him this past season and another year of learning behind Baker and Harper Jr. would be vital to his development as well.

It may be forgotten, but Jones’ former high school teammate, Mawot Mag, was slated to be in the eight man rotation at the start of last season before getting hurt and McConnell returning. The 6’7” freshman didn’t end up getting a lot of action last season, but that doesn’t mean his future is any less bright. He is a hard nosed player that can defend multiple positions and can run the floor well in transition. I’ve heard fans refer to Hyatt as a replacement for Mathis, but I’ve always looked at Mag as bigger version from a style standpoint.

Adding Hyatt to a rotation that includes the seven players just mentioned gives Rutgers a very solid core heading into next season. While adding Hyatt may seem not as important due to Rutgers already being well stocked at the wing, I see it differently. The role that RU missed the most last season was the one that Akwasi Yeboah played two seasons ago. The Stony Brook transfer had the ability to play inside out, rebounded well for his size at 6’6”, could hit the three on occasion, was a tough defender and didn’t make many mistakes. Rock steady.

While Hyatt’s overall stats weren’t impressive at LSU, his efficiency stats lend confidence that he can grow as a player with the right coaching. He had little opportunity to score in a isolation heavy offense at LSU and his presence will allow Harper Jr. to play more on the perimeter as well. Also at 6’6”, Hyatt is an efficient rebounder and can also defend multiple positions, including bigger players. He had the 19th best efficiency rating of transfer portal players available less than two weeks ago, so his potential to make a bigger impact with an expanded role is intriguing.

The other three scholarship players on the roster currently are Dean Reiber, Oskar Palmquist and true freshman Jalen Miller. All need time to develop, but that doesn’t mean they should be discounted either.

Pikiell has sung the praises of the 6’10” Reiber publicly multiple times over the past year and he could ultimately develop into a stretch four or five. If he can be a serviceable backup next season to Omoruyi, it would certainly make Rutgers a deeper team. We saw his ability to play extremely hard and he didn’t back down defending some of the best big men in the Big Ten in spot duty. There is a base to build off of and having his first offseason to work with the coaching staff could result in Reiber surprising people next season.

Palmquist didn’t play much this past season but giving up on probably the purest shooter on the team seems silly. If he can add some muscle to his 6’8” frame and improve defensively, he could end up being a useful bench player next season. Finding minutes in the rotation won’t be easy so he’ll need to capitalize on any time he gets during non-conference play, which was something the freshman didn’t have an opportunity to grow from this past season either.

Miller is the most natural point guard that Pikiell has had at Rutgers. While it seems likely he won’t be rushed into action, he is a player to be really excited about long term and could surprise sooner rather than later. His skill set is closer to Young than Mulcahy and Baker in that he can get to the rim off the bounce and should be a good on the ball defender at this level. The difference is that he is a pass first point guard. If he can be come a dependable backup to Mulcahy next season, the pair will give Rutgers consistency in how the offense is run and that will benefit the team.

The point is this about the current roster....the sky is not falling. I argue at worst the outlook is partly cloudy and if Rutgers can add a big man that can be a factor in the rotation, next season’s team should be sunny with clear skies. There will always be ups and downs, but there is no reason they shouldn’t be in line to once again compete for the top half of the Big Ten and make another NCAA Tournament run.

If I told you there was a team that was returning two all-conference players including its leading scorer and most proven playmaker, as well as the top three-point shooter and best passer, along with the quintessential glue guy, its best athlete and former top 50 recruit at center while adding a starter from another high major team that made the second round of the NCAA’s, as well as two young and versatile players that started on the no. 1 high school team in the country, how would you view that rotation’s outlook? That’s the rundown of the projected top eight players for the Scarlet Knights as of now.

While Rutgers likely won’t be a top 10 team next season, they can still be a very good team. And if the media doesn’t view them as a top 25 team and NCAA contender in the preseason, who cares? One NCAA Tournament appearance will not suddenly change perception overnight. Even so, it’s incredible think about how much things have changed in a positive way.

Pikiell has built a sustainable program that places culture and fit above all else. He already proven himself by building a roster that would have qualified for back to back NCAA Tournament bids faster than anyone could have hoped for if it wasn’t for COVID-19 cancelling the 2020 dance. The idea that the back to back Met Coach of the Year and most competent leader the program has had in decades doesn’t know what he’s doing with the roster is laughable. Even with several key departures, the cupboard is far from bare.

With two scholarships remaining open aside from a Baker return not counting as a super senior, I doubt both spots are filled through the transfer portal. Aside from Rutgers capable of filling its own needs within the current roster, there are far fewer players in the portal who would be locks to even crack the projected rotation other than a capable big man? And a lot of players wouldn’t want to transfer somewhere they’d have to fight for playing time, let alone coming off the bench.

The perception that Pikiell hasn’t recruited legitimate talent to Rutgers is simply false. Omoruyi and Jones are two of top three recruits he has landed during his tenure. Both came from the past two recruiting classes and both are big time players in the making. Another big man would certainly benefit this team from a depth and rebounding perspective, but if they don’t add a traditional four or five, there is no reason to panic. Pikiell deserves the benefit of the doubt with how he views the roster and how he plans to complete it in the offseason. He isn’t recruiting to win headlines in April, he is recruiting to win games in March.

While Young, Johnson and Mathis will be tough to replace like for like from a style perspective, their production can be replaced. Rutgers can evolve with its younger players developing and while they may be different, that shouldn’t be assumed to mean worse.

A societal problem is focusing on what you don’t have, rather than what you do have. Quick fixes are always attractive but more times than not, bring bigger issues with them. The transfer portal has brought chaos to college basketball this offseason, but Pikiell and the coaching staff have remained calm in the eye of the storm. They know what they have and they aren’t wavering in their faith. Neither should fans.

When Corey Sanders left, there was concern Rutgers would be worse the next season and instead they evolved and got better. When Eugene Omoruyi transferred seemingly out of nowhere, there was rightful concern but the team’s dynamics shifted and they got better. There is no doubt that the losses of Johnson, Young and Mathis are significant. However, what’s left behind is likely four key players with multiple seasons of starting experience, along with three young players ready to make a significant impact moving forward. Another versatile veteran has now been added to the group. Any contributions from the trio of Reiber, Palmquist and Miller next season will make Rutgers better, but it won’t sink them if they are slow in becoming factors.

Defense will always be the top priority for any Pikiell team. Lineup versatility and rotational flexibility is what Pikiell wants. The roster is projected to have nine out of eleven scholarship players that are 6’6” or taller. Rutgers will cause matchup problems for a lot of teams because of their overall size and make them harder to game plan against.

Adding Hyatt didn’t stuff one position full, it gave him more options and combinations to utilize. And it gives Pikiell’s legitimate option at the four in the mold of Yeboah. The staff will continue to focus on adding a true big, but Hyatt in the fold also allows for flexibility in considering the best available players in the portal as more and more roster spots are filled around the country. Pikiell has nabbed several transfers over the years that seemingly came out of nowhere. He has a plan, no doubt.

Program’s grow when there is vision and clear direction in place. The next phase of the Pikiell era is here and his team is evolving faster than it may appear because he’s made key moves over the past couple of years with next season in mind. He’s already added to that group a player who he is familiar with and can develop. The smart play seems adding another big man who can play the four or five and crash the glass, but Pikiell isn’t going to reach for any player that he doesn’t think they’re the right fit. However they do ultimately go about adding to the roster before next season, Rutgers is operating from a position of strength, not the other way around.