Rutgers fans got some welcome news late last night. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Caleb McConnell, is returning to Rutgers for his fifth season on the banks. He is using his COVID extra season of eligibility. Along with that, he is the first Scarlet Knight to sign a major NIL deal with newly formed Rutgers collective Knights of the Raritan. So, what does Caleb returning to the banks mean for Rutgers?
Starting Five Set: Rutgers core is back and it’s a solid one. Developing superstar big man Cliff Omoruyi will man the paint, with Paul Mulcahy back to dish him the ball. McConnell at the wing. Newly arrived transfer Cam Spencer will probably start at two guard. There’s a question about who starts at the four, but I’d think Audre Hyatt would get the nod there. He played the most minutes of anyone who could play the position, though I imagine there’s a chance you could see Mawot Mag—or maybe even Dean Reiber—manning the spot. It’s a sold starting five, which—while missing the scoring punch of Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr—has some offensive options at all five positions.
How Does a Defensive Player of the Year Develop: We all saw what McConnell could do last season from game saving blocks, to a ton of steals, to shutting down Johnny Davis—one of the best scorers in the Big Ten. So, how does he follow that up? Well, in the NCAA Tournament, he stunned us all by dropping in 23 points and 11 rebounds, but that is very likely an outlier. The guess here is he will play as he always has, within himself and taking good shots. If a player who averaged about 7 points last year can up that to around 9, while still playing lockdown defense, we should all be happy campers.
Is the roster set? That’s a big questions. There are still two scholarships open. There aren’t any major holes on the team, but at the same time, it doesn’t look like Rutgers has been able to replace the scoring from Harper Jr. Last month, Rutgers pursued and thought they had a good chance to land St. Bonaventure transfer Kyle Lofton, so it’s clear that if the right fit comes along, coach Steve Pikiell will jump at it. There are still a few more players in the portal, but it’s not clear who fits right now. In his article about McConnell, Jerry Carino hinted there might be a developmental big man on the horizon. It will be fascinating to watch.
Steve Pikiell is Working Things His Way: This was going to always be an interesting offseason, with so many different pieces in and out of the program. So far, it looks like a win. No one entered the transfer portal, which is a minor miracle this day and age. He lost two seniors and Jaden Jones to life opportunities. But he retained his core, added a big time transfer and a big name freshman in Derek Simpson. Antwoine Woolfolk has potential and players that Pikiell has been touting for years seem to be on the precipice of breaking out. This is how Pikiell has always worked in his career and it has been successful for him. He doesn’t raid the transfer portal and he doesn’t add a ton of highly ranked guys no matter the spot and try to make them fit. He tries to build a team in his image. This roster is the same but different. We shall see how it all shakes out starting in, according to Jon Rothstein, 153 days.