It is a tradition, which at this point has spanned a decade. The season wraps up and we talk to someone who has covered the team the longest. Jerry Carino writes for the Gannett New Jersey and has some of the best Rutgers basketball insights around.
So here we go:
OTB; This was an up and down season, most of the way, but with the fans back, it was arguably one of the most fun. How would you, professor, grade this season? Explain your work, please.
JC: If we’re just grading entertainment value, the season was an A. So many nail-biter games and memorable moments. After the rocky start, the team was fun to watch. Tough defense and unselfish offense. A breakthrough fourth-place finish in the Big Ten. And it was deeply satisfying watching three guys who put a combined 13 seasons into the program---Geo Baker, Ron Harper and Caleb McConnell---lead the way. True Rutgers men, great representatives of the university. You may not see that kind of loyalty again.
But for an overall grade, B+. Steve Pikiell said this was his best team and it went 0-2 in the postseason, getting whacked by Iowa in the B1G Tourney and then exiting in the First Four after squeezing into the Dance. Thrilling ride, but this team was capable of more. That said, the bar for success at Rutgers is making the NCAA Tournament. When you lose sight of that, you risk becoming Pitt.
OTB: What were the keys to the turnaround from—even late January—where it looked like this was going to be a good, but disappointing to Rutgers fans, team to going on the run they did?
JC: Paul Mulcahy came into his own as a floor general. It made everyone better and eased the burden off Geo Baker, whose play in other areas picked up as a result. Now, what happens when you play in a league with elite coaching like the Big Ten is this: Once Paul got rolling the other coaches went to school on him, so he fell back to earth a bit. But you saw extended glimpses of his potential. I expect another step forward next season.
OTB: Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker are gone. What will their impact be on the program going forward?
JC: Obviously replacing their scoring and clutch playmaking will be a challenge. But beyond that, their leadership, the tone they set, should leave a long-lasting mark. They entered a program that expected to lose and left one that expects to win. That’s a sea change, and they’re the biggest reasons for it. And they’re still giving back. If Harper makes it in the NBA, that will be the best possible advertisement for Rutgers basketball.
On the flip side, when you lose the two faces of the program’s only successful era in modern times, there’s going to be a hole. Those guys could take a punch, metaphorically speaking. Whether it was rebounding from a brutal loss or overcoming the onslaught of social-media negativity or saying the right words to a teammate or instinctively channeling what Pikiell wanted, those intangibles are not easily or automatically replaced. You saw Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi lose their composure in big games last year in ways that Baker and Harper never did. It’s up to them to step up and grab that mantle.
OTB: With Caleb McConnell back, how do you expect him to impact the roster. We know he’s the reigning DPOY, but can he add offense to his arsenal as well?
JC: I expect him to be the best overall player on the team. There’s a lot that he didn’t show offensively because he deferred to Harper and Baker and embraced his role as a junkyard dog. Last summer and fall he was the program’s most efficient offensive player in the practice stats the staff charted. So yes, I believe there is room for him to grow offensively. From a leadership standpoint, he’s invaluable.
OTB: What can fans expect from transfer Cam Spencer?
JC: I really don’t know. I’ll be watching him closely when I see the team work out this summer and fall. Obviously they’re counting on him to score from the perimeter and stretch defenses, so he’ll be important. Pikiell also feels like Mawot Mag and Audre Hyatt are ready to take the next step—I’ve heard him mention that a couple of times since the season ended.
OTB: What have you heard about the two other newcomers, Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk?
JC: I’ve seen Simpson play a couple of times. He’s going to be really good. He attended his public high school for four years, he played AAU ball for one team, he’s been coached by his father who was a terrific New Jersey college player, has a high basketball IQ. So like Ron Harper (who had a similar background), I expect his loyalty and coachability will be off the charts. Like Geo Baker, he’s a sneaky-good athlete who can shoot, get to the rim and get in the passing lanes. And he’s a prolific winner. Rutgers is deep in the backcourt so my guess is he plays a rotational role this year and really starts to make an impact as a sophomore.
The staff sees Woolfolk as raw and moldable after he played multiple sports in high school. They like his physicality. He’ll need some time to develop.
OTB: With the ball likely running through Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi next season, how will Rutgers look different?
JC: Rutgers should run its offense through the post. It should be pick-and-roll heaven with Paul and Cliff. Cliff was nearly unstoppable around the rim by the end of last season and in practice, you could see a mid-range game developing. I do think he has work to do defensively, which is why I said Caleb will be the team’s best all-around player, but Rutgers has a force in the paint on offense and, as he did with Jameel Warney at Stony Brook, I expect Pikiell to ride that hard.
OTB: What is your early take on the Big Ten next season?
JC: The league is losing a ton of talent. I get why Indiana is considered the favorite because everyone else is losing so much, but I’d like to see the Hoosiers navigate a season as the hunted before I believe they can do it. You could make a case things are wide open enough for Rutgers, which is still on the experienced side, to remain in the upper half. But you can also make a case that the league’s run of getting 8-plus teams in the Dance is likely over. RU may need its non-conference resume to be a net-plus to return to the NCAAs.
OTB: Rutgers landed a commitment from a top player in Gavin Griffiths. Now that the Baker-Harper-McConnell era is reaching it’s conclusion, has the Pikiell era gone as you expected? What is the ceiling for Steve Pikiell going forward?
JC: Yes, this is what I foresaw when Steve was hired. He built a winning program by finding the right mix of guys and coaching them up. Recruiting rankings and stars are overrated. Mamadou Doucoure, Montez Mathis and Jaden Jones were four-star prospects. People celebrated when they committed. Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell, Ron Harper and Myles Johnson were three stars or less. With the exception of Harper (because he’s local and we all knew he was better than his rating), people shrugged when they committed.
Pikiell is going to recruit based on relationships and his own evaluations, not some national recruiting analyst’s. He’s going to consider factors that no fan can see, like the prospect’s family and outside influences (and learn from recent mistakes in that area). And he’s going to be somewhat limited by the NIL, because the Knights of the Raritan have rightly decided to put their resources toward returning Rutgers athletes and not recruits. It worked out that nobody had to break the bank for an NIL to get Griffiths. Moving forward, that will be a rarity for a player ranked that high.
My point is, Pikiell will continue to do what he’s been doing. Which brings us back to my earlier point: The fairest way to evaluate him is by NCAA Tournament appearances (and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he runs a program that alums can be proud of). His ceiling is whatever the vagaries of March will bring. That’s how most non-blueblood programs live, and it’s a lot better than the alternative. Ask Pitt fans.
And in other cool news, in case anyone was wondering, I got a great Father’s Day and former Rutgers player Geo Baker is just a very good person. Check out his tweet for more: