Rutgers Basketball season has tipped off but its never to late to look at the roster. I’m going to be going in-depth on all of the players that project to be difference-makers for the Scarlet Knights. This is going to be a multi-part series and you can read the previous articles about Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi.
The best defender in the Big Ten (and maybe the country?) is returning for a fifth season on the banks. Reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Caleb McConnell is back and looks to have a huge season for the Scarlet Knights.
Last year, McConnell averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.2 steals. Additionally, in almost every game, the veteran wing picked up the opposing team's best scorer—apart from centers. In four seasons at Rutgers, McConnell has never been much of a scorer, but last year he had his best output offensively setting career highs across the board. After a 2020-21 season where he was hampered with a back injury well into conference play, it was huge that McConnell was able to have so much success last year.
A fifth-year senior, McConnell is expected to have his best season yet. He was named to the Julius Erving Award watchlist last week and is also a serious contender for national DPOY. McConnell will look to develop the offensive side of his game while staying stout on the defensive end. With the loss of Geo and Ron, McConnell will have to take on a more significant role offensively, and the hope is that he will fill that role well.
We saw flashes of his offensive potential last season, such as in the NCAA tournament when he went for 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting against Notre Dame. McConnell took over in that game and was a huge reason that Rutgers almost pulled out the win. While McConnell doesn’t need to do that every game offensively, having him chip in 10-11 points a game at a higher clip from the field would go a long way.
McConnell also needs to continue to use his size to be strong on the glass and haul in plenty of rebounds. At 6’7, he has the length to grab rebounds that smaller guards who may be defending him cannot. This can lead to second-chance buckets for Rutgers and a more efficient offense as a whole.
Defensively, McConnell is a powerhouse. He held the best players in the conference to some of their worst outings of the season when he guarded them. Keegan Murray, who averaged 23.5 points per game last season, was held to 13 points on 14 shots when Iowa visited Rutgers. Likewise, when Johnny Davis played Rutgers, he was held to 11 points on 10 shots in the first matchup and 19 points on 19 shots in the second game. The latter may seem like poor defense, but Davis actually got 6 of those points at the charity stripe.
Additionally, McConnell has the ability to guard almost anyone on the floor. Being 6’7 the wing can often guard any opponent’s 1-4. This versatility is perhaps McConnell’s biggest strength on the defensive end. He is elite along the perimeter and inside the 3-point line.
As consistent as McConnell is defensively, he’s almost just as inconsistent on offense. He had just 4 Big Ten games where he scored in double figures and shot just 39.7% from the field and 27.1% from three. There were a lot of times last season where it seemed like McConnell was out of rhythm offensively and was taking ill-adviced shots.
McConnell needs to be smarter with his shot selection and take what the defense gives him, rather than force shots up. He can use his 6’7 frame to take the ball inside against smaller defenders, and needs to look to pass to the open man along the perimeter. I’d look for McConnell to try and shoot closer to 45% from the field and not take contested shots from outside the paint.
McConnell is a fifth year senior and needs to play like that. The veteran guard needs to use his experience to his advantage. He needs to make good decisions with the basketball and not force the action. McConnell is not one of the primary scorers on this team, so he needs to get the ball to the open man instead of taking bad shots.
At the end of the day McConnell is an integral part of this team, and Rutgers needs him to be more efficient offensively and just as good defensively as he was last year. The captain is going to be leaned on for his maturity, experience and defense, and he needs to step up to the challenge.
Season Predictions: 8.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.3 steals. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
Bold Prediction: National Defensive Player of the Year