clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Men’s Basketball: Ready for Takeoff

A rebuilt, speedy backcourt brings optimism as the season approaches

Jamichael Davis of Rutgers scores against St. Johns during a charity exhibition game for the Dick Vitale Pediatric Cancer Research Fund at the V Foundation | October 21st, 2023 Queens, NY
Rutgers Athletics

On April 25th, 2023, Rutgers reached into the portal and landed a commit from dynamic guard Noah Fernandes out of Umass. Paired with graduate students Cam Spencer and Paul Mulcahy and rising sophomore Derek Simpson, the backcourt unit looked primed to lead the Scarlet Knights in 2023-24.

Flash forward to May 19th, 2023, when senior Cam Spencer dropped a bomb, announcing he would enter the transfer portal, this a week after participating in a charity event for the University. This caught everyone who covered the program by surprise and left the fanbase in an uproar. Spencer ultimately decided to suit up in Storrs for the Uconn Huskies. Now jump to June 9th when senior Paul Mulcahy announced he was entering the portal. While Mulcahy’s return was more up in the air than Spencer’s, once Cam left, retaining Paul became priority No. 1. Mulcahy eventually decided to move on from the program and head west to sign with the University of Washington Huskies in Seattle (Note: Reports indicated Mulcahy eventually tried to return but the coaching staff was no longer interested). No team this past offseason was impacted more by the lack of a portal entry deadline for grad transfers than Rutgers. Fortunately for head coach Steve Pikiell, the newly updated portal transfer rules now also apply to grad students.

Panic set in quickly among the Rutgers faithful. Spencer started 34 games and Mulcahy 30 last season, combining for a healthy 21 points per game. It was daunting, if not impossible, to replace that type of production so late in the transfer portal period for coach Pike and staff. Rutgers would have to hit the portal hard for some depth, hope Fernandes was fully recovered from his ankle injury last season, and explosive guard Simpson would take the next step forward into the mosh pit known as B1G conference basketball.

One must remember, especially when discussing Rutgers sports, that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Sure enough, on June 20th, the sun would rise at 5:27 am on the banks of the Raritan, and later that day, incoming freshman guard Jamichael Davis’ commitment became official, and news started to turn for the better. The Georgia native’s commitment was significant, as he’s closely tied to the current No. 3 commit in the 2024 class, fellow Peach State star Ace Bailey.

Then, on July 27th, Rutgers landed a commitment from former Temple Owl guard Jeremiah Williams, who transferred to Iowa State last season. However, like the common theme with other Rutgers transfers this offseason, he sat out the 2022-23 season with an injury. Williams averaged 9.5 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.5 rebounds for Temple as a sophomore during the 2021-2022 season. He can defend, rebound, has a pass-first mentality, and can get to the free throw line - all skill sets that coach Pike likes to employ during crunch time in games. Since he’s a two-time transfer, the NCAA requires he sit out this season, but he has asked for a medical waiver due to missing all of last season due to an Achilles injury, so we’ll have to wait and see if he can escape NCAA purgatory and have an impact this season.

On August 5th, more good news as the staff landed a commit from guard Austin Williams. The two-time America East all-conference star at Hartford sat out last season at FIU due to injury. He adds a big frame at 6’4”, 205, and, while not known for his scoring, is precisely the type of ferocious rebounder and passer coach Pike likes to sub in when it’s time to lock it down on defense. The Roseland, NJ native looks forward to making his final season impactful as Rutgers tries to get back to the NCAA tournament.

The Projected 2024 Backcourt

G Derek Simpson (So.)

G Noah Fernandes (Gr.)

G Austin Williams (Gr.)

G Jamichael Davis (Fr.)

G Jeremiah Williams (Jr.) *Pending NCAA Waiver

From No-Tempo to Uptempo

I won’t lie - Spencer’s unexpected departure hit me hard. Rutgers has had an awful time finding pure shooters. Those guys that the Iowas of the world always have an abundance of off the bench. Spencer shot over 43% from deep last season, which any long-suffering RU fan knows is incredible. He also was more than willing to play D, hustle after loose balls, and come up with steals. That said, as the Big Ten grind wore on, one could see Cam’s difficulty in driving downhill toward the basket and getting to the rim when the team desperately needed offense. By season’s end, I felt he was relegated to a spot-up three-point shooter, not good enough to put the team on his back and will them to another NCAA tourney birth.

That brings us to the curious case of Paul Mulcahy. All at once, beloved and hated by fans, myself included, Mulcahy has at times shown the ability to take over games, his big frame able to back down small guards and bully his way to the basket for easy finishes at the rim. His pass-first mentality and ability to make a crucial three-pointer were clutch during his first three seasons on the banks. In 2022-23, something changed. Mulcahy was battling a shoulder injury throughout the season, but his demeanor also seemed to change. “Head Case” is a poor choice of words, but something was off last season, from poor plays to boneheaded decisions - like the attempted trip on Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis. The body language was off too. No longer the field general rallying everyone together, Mulcahy seemed to be sulking more often during the Big Ten stretch run last season when things did not go his way, and like Spencer, was unable to put the team on his back when they needed him the most.

Unlike Spencer, Mulcahy entering the portal and ultimately leaving didn’t affect me. I saw this as mutually beneficial to the program and himself. He could use a fresh start. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this team would not only survive without Spencer and Mulcahy but potentially be better. My take was called “the height of absurdity” by one prominent NJ basketball writer who shall not be named. I stand by my statement that this season’s backcourt will be better and electrify JMA, a.k.a., the RAC.

Anyone who watched the 2023 tournament and teams like Miami, FDU, and FAU, saw how guard-driven tournament play has become. Little-known teams with quick guards, deep rotations, and fresh legs gave the behemoths all they could handle. Just ask Purdue. Sure, Rutgers could continue assembling a roster to clang, bang, and throw elbows in the black-and-blue Big Ten, or they could evolve into a more uptempo squad. In Spencer and Mulcahy, the Knights had a shooting guard who couldn’t get to the basket and a point guard who lacked the speed to drive by his defenders and create inside opportunities. That’s a stark difference from rising sophomore Derek Simpson, who looked like the fastest man on the court for either side late last season, and All-Big Ten center Clifford Omoruyi, who can fly up and down the court. Backup center Antwone Woolfolk has also shown baseline-to-baseline speed, forwards Mawot Mag (who should be fully recovered by opening night), and Aundre Hyatt are capable of running with any opponent.

Add incoming 4-star freshman wing Gavin Griffiths, shifty grad transfer Noah Fernandes and speedy incoming freshmen Jamichael Davis, and the days of plodding, back-down half-court offenses praying for a lob into Cliff are over. Will this translate to wins? We’ll know in a few weeks. One thing is for sure, though - this team should be fun to watch, and they won’t have to hold the other team under 55 to have a shot to win.

Early Indications

Fans and media got their first look at this season’s squad when they squared off against St. Johns and head coach Rick Pitino in a charity scrimmage this past Saturday, October 21st. Proceeds went to the Dick Vitale Pediatric Cancer Research Fund at the Jimmy V Foundation, and in classic RU fashion, they would battle back from 20 points down and ultimately fall 89-78 in double-overtime. While the result is meaningless as both coaches subbed lineups not likely during the regular season, some individual performances are promising.

Head coaches Rick Pitino of St. Johns and Steve Pikiell of Rutgers share a laugh during a basketball exhibition game on October 21st at Carnesceca Arena in Queens, NY
Rutgers Athletics

Potential impact freshman guard Jamichael Davis came off the bench, scored 16 points, and had six rebounds and two assists. He’s the type of guard who can rack up buckets quickly and looks like he’ll give teams fits while running the floor with Derek Simpson and Noah Fernandes. Speedy sophomore Derek Simpson had 9 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals. Grad transfer Noah Fernandes added 7 points, 3 rebounds 2 assists, and 2 steals.

Floor general Noah Fernandes was asked about the team’s tempo of play against the Red Storm.

“We play full court man and when we play in a different arena with opposing fans it’s really a different vibe. There is a different type of energy, so as the game went on, we felt the pressure and decided to use their pace. We controlled the game well in the second half with our pace both offensively and defensively. This was our first game, so as the season goes on, we can adjust to these types of things.”

Noah Fernandes

The benefits of having a backcourt that can easily get to the basket bodes well for big man Cliff Omoruyi, who got the better of St. Johns’ star center Joel Soriano, racking up 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots. The spot-up shooters like incoming freshman wing Gavin Griffiths, who tallied 14 points, will also likely find themselves with open looks against inferior opponents.

We’ll see how this team matches up against stout competition right off the first tip-off on November 6th in Trenton against local rival Princeton.