As the summer moves closer, the desire for Rutgers men’s basketball to add another big man to the roster for next season remains strong. Although recent signee Aundre Hyatt will likely play the majority of his minutes at the four, there is a belief among fans that a center to replace the departed Myles Johnson is a must. It’s a traditional view that high major teams need to have multiple true centers on the roster, but it’s something that is less of a reality in college basketball today.
Rutgers was fortunate to have two rotational players last season at 6’11” in Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi. However, just because they lost one big man does not mean they have to fill the void with a player of a similar and skill set. As I wrote recently, head coach Steve Pikiell values lineup versatility. This will allow Rutgers to present different looks both offensively and defensively, making them less predictable. He covets players who can defend multiple positions. With that mindset, it should bring clarity as to why Pikiell doesn’t appear to be locked to only adding another true five that would be one dimensional from a rotational perspective.
Before you chastise Pikiell for radical thinking, let’s look at two Big Ten teams that took a similar approach last season and examine the results.
Ohio State is an interesting example because they didn’t play a true center among its nine key rotational players from last season. They did have lineup versatility though, as six players were between 6’6” and 6’8”, which was the maximum height in the rotation.
Another interesting thing to consider about the Buckeyes was they were severely underestimated before last season. They were picked seventh by the media in the Big Ten preseason poll. OSU began the season with an 18-4 record, sweeping Rutgers, and were ranked in the top five nationally in February. While they ended the regular season with a four game losing streak and were upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Oral Roberts, the Buckeyes did earn a no. 2 seed to the big dance after making it to the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
A big reason that Ohio State achieved more than expected was due to player development. First Team All-Big Ten selection E.J. Liddell saw his scoring average jump from 6.7 points as a freshman to 16.2 points as a sophomore. He also went from 3.8 rebounds to 6.7 boards last season. Starting point guard C.J. Walker improved his scoring average from 8.7 to 9.5 points and his assists from 3.5 to 4.4 per game. Little used sophomore Justin Ahrens averaged 2.9 points per game but became a key rotational player that averaged 5.7 points last season as a junior.
Ohio State was elite in finishing 4th nationally in offensive efficiency, but were only 81st nationally in defensive efficiency. However despite a lack of size, they finished middle of the pack in Big Ten play in offensive rebounding rate (8th) and were above average in defensive rebounding rate (5th). They weren’t good enough to win the Big Ten, but they finished in fifth place and had a KenPom ranking of 11th for the season. An above average season with an atypical lineup.
Maryland had seven players in its core rotation last season and six had heights ranging between 6’5” and 6’8”. The seventh player in terms of minutes and production was 6’9” Galin Smith. The Terps also experienced increased production from returning players as leading scorer Eric Ayala went from averaging 8.5 points as a sophomore to 15.1 points as a junior. Second leading scorer Aaron Wiggins went from 10.4 points as a sophomore to 14.5 points as a junior, while his rebounds and assists jumped one per game. Third leading scorer Donta Scott went from 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman to 11.0 points and 5.9 rebounds last season as a sophomore. Hakim Hart improved his scoring average from 1.6 points as a freshman to 7.1 points as a sophomore.
Player development, lineup versatility and defensive play, not an infusion of newcomers through the 2020 recruiting class or transfer portal, were the main reasons Maryland advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They were picked to finish in tenth place in the Big Ten preseason poll and while they only finished 8th, they steadily improved as the season progressed.
The Terps were balanced in having the 37th best offensive efficiency and 42nd best defensive efficiency nationally. They were a poor offensive rebounding team with a perimeter heavy team, finishing 330th in national rate and last in Big Ten play. However, they had the 5th best defensive efficiency in league action and held the 3rd best defensive rebounding rate in the Big Ten. A final KenPom ranking of 35 was three spots ahead of Rutgers.
While both Ohio State and Maryland are not perfect comparisons to RU, they are good examples of teams that had positional versatility and had winning seasons due to player developmental steps made.
For next season, Rutgers actually has a bigger and more versatile roster then either of these teams had this past year. There is no denying that Jacob Young and Myles Johnson were integral to the Scarlet Knights making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years. However, in losing its smallest player and most stationary player, Pikiell will have a harder team to predict from a game planning perspective next season.
While losing Young at 6’2” and Montez Mathis at 6’4”, Rutgers is projected to have seven players between 6’6” and 6’8” next season. In addition, they’ll also have two traditional bigs in Omoruyi at 6’11”, who is the most athletic player on the team, and Dean Reiber at 6’10”, whose potential development should not be dismissed. The only players under 6’6” on next season’s roster as of now will be freshman point guard Jalen Miller at 6’3” and Geo Baker at 6’4”, if he returns.
I understand the view that Rutgers still needs to add a traditional big man since that’s what fans are used to seeing, but I also think the overall size of the roster is being undervalued. Keep in mind the two transfer portal targets that Pikiell prioritized other than Hyatt were two players that were 6’8” in John Harrar and Pauly Paulicap. If another player is added to next season’s roster, it seems more likely they will be a versatile four rather than a traditional five.
There is an uneasiness about next season’s team because unproven or unknown players will be counted on to produce. A major area that Rutgers needs to improve on is three-point shooting, as they were just 31.1% from deep. That is a key difference from Ohio State and Maryland, who shot over 35% from behind the arc last season. Again, player development will be the ultimate factor in how the Scarlet Knights perform next season.
Rather than panic, consider that Jaden Jones, Oskar Palmquist and Aundre Hyatt are players who can potentially help from three next season. Paul Mulcahy will likely get more looks after shooting a team best 39.3% from three this past season and is a great example of someone who improved from deep after shooting only 33.3% on fewer attempts as a freshman.
The makeup of the rotation will likely still have a solid core if Ron Harper Jr. and Baker return, which is still expected to be the case. The players most likely to gain minutes from those who left will be bigger and more versatile players. That doesn’t guarantee they will be more productive, as Young, Johnson and Mathis were all key contributors. It does signal an evolution that Pikiell is strategically making. If this makes you nervous, just look at what Ohio State and Maryland did last season. Changing the dynamics of the rotation and having a more untraditional lineup doesn’t mean Rutgers will be worse, just different. Positionless basketball is where this team is headed and it is by design.