Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell is officially returning to Rutgers men’s basketball! The program announced it Instagram on Wednesday night. McConnell withdrew his name from consideration for the NBA Draft and is returning to utilize his one remaining year of eligibility. He waited until the last day of the deadline for early entrants to withdraw from the NBA Draft.
Rutgers also released a statement announcing McConnell’s return that included quotes from him and head coach Steve Pikiell.
“I’m excited to return for one last ride with the Scarlet Knights in 2022-23,” McConnell said. “I learned a lot going through the process of training for the 2022 NBA Draft. I want to give a shout out to my coaches, my teammates, and my family for helping me make this decision about my future. We’ve built so much over the last four seasons at RU, and I can’t wait to see what we achieve next year. I can’t wait to see RU Nation at Jersey Mike’s Arena!”
“We are excited to welcome Caleb McConnell back for one more season,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Caleb has been the ultimate ambassador for our program on and off the court. He is an unbelievable person and has been one of our best all-around players on both sides of the floor. The 2022 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best players in the conference is back. I’m excited to see what he will achieve for the Scarlet Knights in 2022-23.”
Knights of The Raritan (KTR), the recently formed Rutgers collective, has also announced a 10 month NIL deal with Caleb McConnell. The partnership includes “in-person appearances, social media posts and other activations” per press release. Retention of Rutgers student-athletes is a main priority that President Jon Newman spoke about during their launch last month.
McConnell tweeted that he worked out with the Orlando Magic last week and posted an Instagram story on Wednesday of a picture from the Brooklyn Nets practice facility. While there was some interest from those teams, he wasn’t invited to the Portsmouth Invitational, G League combine or NBA combine in the lead up to NBA Draft later this month. He likely weighed options in other pro leagues overseas versus returning to Rutgers for one more season. Fortunately, decided to roam the RAC for one last run.
During the 2021-2022 season, McConnell led the Big Ten in total steals (43) and steals per game (2.2) during the 20 game conference regular season. In addition, he finished 15th in total defensive rebounds (86) and defensive rebounds per game (4.3). He also finished tied for 24th in league play with 11 blocked shots and tied for 22nd with 0.6 blocks per game.
In regard to analytics, McConnell had the 2nd best steal rate (4.3%) and was 24th in both defensive rebounding rate (16.9%) and block rate (2.2%) in Big Ten play.
Overall, McConnell averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.1 assists in 29.9 minutes per game over 32 games last season.
He scored in double digits in eight games with his best offensive performance coming in the loss to Notre Dame in the First Four game of the NCAA Tournament. In 48 minutes, he scored 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting, including 2 of 3 from three-point range along with 11 rebounds, 2 assists, a block and a steal.
McConnell’s dominant defensive stretch in February in five straight games coincided with Rutgers’ historic four game winning streak against ranked foes. He had at least three steals in each game and his total of 21 steals over that stretch was the second most in the Big Ten in the last 20 years. It coincided with Rutgers becoming the first unranked team in college basketball history to defeat ranked teams in four consecutive games. McConnell had 4 steals each in wins over No. 12 Illinois, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 16 Ohio State, as well as 6 steals in the road victory at No. 16 Wisconsin.
The most iconic moment during that historic stretch was McConnell’s miraculous block in transition late against the Buckeyes that turned the game and arguably the season around.
In two head to head matchups against Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, McConnell held the fourth leading scorer, who averaged 19.9 points per game in conference play, to just 13.0 points per game on just 37.9% shooting from the floor. That included just 1 of 6 from three-point range, as well as only on offensive rebound and one assist in both meetings.
This is obviously huge news and means Rutgers now has three returning starters from last season’s NCAA Tournament team that finished a program best fourth place in the Big Ten. There is no denying the loss of the top two scorers and also two iconic players in program history, Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., is a big gap to fill. However, with McConnell, Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy back, a very solid core returns. Add in the Patriot League’s leading scorer, Cam Spencer, as well as the return of the top three rotational players off the bench last season in Aundre Hyatt, Mawot Mag and Dean Reiber and it makes Rutgers one of the more veteran teams in the Big Ten next season.
How much McConnell can develop offensively is an intriguing question that will certainly have an impact on this team next season. It’s unfair to expect him to perform at the level he did against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament all the time. However, the principles he focused on in that game should be his offensive plan moving forward. Attacking the rim off the bounce ad posting up defenders that are a mismatch size wise could be an effective long term approach. He was also a career 79% free throw shooter before last season, so prioritizing getting to the line and eliminating the iso portion of his game along the perimeter could really benefit his production and efficiency.
No matter how you assess the situation, it’s a huge development for Rutgers that Caleb McConnell is back for next season. He is not only going to be a huge factor on the court with his play, but he is a returning captain who will be even more of an important leader this coming winter. His experience, toughness and talent make him a valuable member of the program and Rutgers fans should celebrate his return.