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OTB Staff Round Table: 2023-24 Rutgers Men’s Basketball Season Preview

Can Rutgers return to the NCAA Tournament this season?!

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers will tipoff the 2023-24 season tonight as it heads to Trenton to take on in-state rival Princeton.

The Scarlet Knights enter another year with a new-look team that has plenty of expectations in the Big Ten — and for good reason. Rutgers will look to return to the NCAA Tournament after being left out on the bubble last season.

As fans prepare for the first game of the season on Monday night, check out some big-ticket questions and answers entering the season.

Who is the most important player for this team?

Greg Patuto: Cliff Omoruyi is going to be a popular answer here, and for good reason as an elite enter in the Big Ten, but it is the backcourt as a whole. Derek Simpson and Noah Fernandes. This is not to say that they are going to be the best players on the team or the most effective. Again, Omoruyi should be in this role, along with Gavin Griffiths and Aundre Hyatt at times. Instead, the new-look backcourt needs to step up and produce despite some big losses.

The Scarlet Knights lost both Paul Mulcahy and Cam Spencer from last year’s team. Now, Simpson and Fernandes step into that role. As a true freshman, Simpson showed great potential. He improved game-by-game and was one of the most-important players on the team down the stretch. He will improve as a ball handler and scorer in year two. As for Fernandes, he provides speed and can get in the lane to score. Rutgers will play a different style this season and it will be because of its backcourt.

Jack Schocket: The popular pick is Cliff, but Mawot Mag is the key to Rutgers’ success this season. Rutgers was 3-7 after he went down and missed the tournament because of it. Mag isn’t the flashiest player, but his importance cannot be overstated. With McConnell gone, he’ll likely be counted on to be the Scarlet Knight’s top defender, and they’ll need his contributions on offense as well.

John Catapano: Clifford Omoruyi. Having a consensus Top-10 center can mask a lot of deficiencies. When the B1G grind starts, the elbows flail, shots clang and teams struggle to hit the speed limit; having a steady rim protector on the defensive end and a finisher down low will help keep RU in games when it’s ugly.

Matt Forno: Derek Simpson. Last season was the first season in a couple years where fans didn’t who would be taking the final shot in a game. Fans quickly learned that player was Cam Spencer (now at UConn). Do I think Simpson is going to hit loads of buzzer beater threes? Probably not. But I do think the ball will be in his hands in crucial moments throughout the season. While Pike brought in several transfer guards, this is Simpson’s team. He the captain of New Jersey in my opinion, and has the opportunity to prove why he’s our most important plater.

John Dean: The obvious pick here but Cliff Omoruyi is going to be the most important player on the team. Cliff should be the leading scorer for this team, and his rim protection may be more important than ever with the smaller guards on the perimeter for Rutgers.

Francis Hearne: There are a lot of choices here. Cliff is the BEST player. Derek Simpson is the most dynamic player. But i am going to choose transfer Point Guard Noah Fernandes. Noah will bring a veteran presence, and I believe Pikiell will put a lot on his shoulder. He will be the man running the offense and setting up the defense. If he is able to faciliatate and create for his teammates, this team will be scary good.

Which player will have a breakout season?

Greg Patuto: It would be great to see Gavin Griffiths come in and make an immediate impact. The 6-foot-8 wing has all of the tools to be successful right away. He can shoot the ball from three or midrange, create his own shot, and has the size and athleticism. Griffiths will have to average double-digit points this season if Rutgers wants to make some noise. The Class of 2024 has garnered plenty of attention (and rightfully so) but let’s not forget that Griffiths is here and will be around the play with Ace Bailey and hopefully Dylan Harper.

Jack Schocket: There’s a lot of hype surrounding freshman Gavin Griffiths, but what about his classmate Jamichael Davis? The point guard has shined in practice and despite being largely unrecruited (Geo Baker anyone?), is going to be given a chance to make a difference this season. He’s fast and reminds me of exactly the type of players Pikiell loves. We very well may have a diamond in the rough in Davis.

John Catapano: Derek Simpson. Rutgers sports a new look with the backcourt transfers of starters Paul Mulcahy (Washington) and Cam Spencer (Uconn). Many are worried about this unit taking a big step back this season, but with grad transfer Noah Fernandes (Umass) running point, look for sophomore guard Derek Simpson to flourish.

As expected, the 6’3” 195 lb guard from Mount Laurel had his ups and downs as a Freshman. He showed early season flashes in the non-conference portion of the schedule, putting up double figures in points against Sacred Heart, Umass-Lowell, and Central Conn. Simpson scored 14 points in the big upset over a ranked Indiana squad in early December to open B1G play. Simpson would be held in single digits in the next 13 conference games before scoring 10 against Nebraska in mid-February.

Most impressive, Derek scored 12 or more points in 5 of the last 6 games when they mattered most, including a memorable 16-point outing at Penn State, where he put the team on his back and willed them to victory after trailing by 19 points in the second half. Simpson finished his freshman campaign averaging 7.1 points and 1.5 assists per game. Look for those numbers to significantly improve this season as he co-pilots the backcourt with talented Umass grad transfer Noah Fernandes.

Matt Forno: Gavin Griffiths. Prior to the commitment of Ace Bailey, fans were drooling at highlights of Griffiths. Hold up, he’s 6’8”, a sharp shooter, AND wears rec specs?! No thanks, I ain’t guarding him! Since Pikiell’s arrival on the banks, he has found ways to get impactful play from freshmen. Griffith’s will be the highest rated recruit to play under Pikiell (yes, I know this will change), so I truly believe the sky is the limit for what Griffith’s will be able to accomplish in year 1. If Gavin Griffiths puts up a three and makes it for his first shot as a Scarlet Knight, Trenton might EXPLODE!

John Dean: Antonio Chol. Going out on a bit of a limb here, but it is expected that Derek Simpson and Gavin Griffiths will be good this year if Rutgers wants to make the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers needs more three point shooting and by all reports Chol has the best shooting percentage in practice. If he could develop into a solid rotational player that can get hot from three, Rutgers offense could really turn a corner.

Francis Hearne: Derek Simpson is the popular media pick as the break out player for Rutgers and rightfully so. He showed an ability to create his own shot using his explosiveness and athletic ability we haven’t really seen since Corey Sanders. With a larger workload coming up, I believe he will take advantage and finish the season as the team’s leading scorer.

What is your biggest reason for optimism?

Greg Patuto: Depth, speed, improved shooting, talented big man — just take your pick.

The return of Omoruyi was such a big key for Rutgers but it might be underrated as well. The importance of having that big man in the middle cannot be overstated and Omoruyi is expecting to be one of the best in the Big Ten and make noise nationally. He is on pace to become the third Rutgers player in program history to grab 1,000 rebounds.

Rutgers is as deep as its been in Steve Pikiell’s tenure as well. Pair that with speed and Omoruyi’s presence down low, there should be plenty of reasons to feel good about this version of the Scarlet Knights.

Jack Schocket: Rutgers has struggled offensively during the Pikiell era, but this team offers a good chance to be Pike’s best offensive group. The trio of Simpson, Fernandes, and Jamichael Davis is the fastest backcourt the Scarlet Knights have had, and don’t forget, Cliff is back. He should dominate in the paint and be among the best players in the country this season. If Gavin Griffiths can shoot as well as Cam Spencer, this Rutgers team is as dangerous as any this century.

John Catapano: The depth. For the first time during coach Pikiell’s tenure, he can legitimately go 10 deep per game, and we saw how important that was last March as upstart teams like FAU were fresher and better prepared to finish tournament games. We no longer have to panic when Cliff sits in early foul trouble as big men Antwone Woolfolk and Emmanuel Ogbole provide capable size and ability. Freshman Jamichael Davis allows coach Pikiell to give guards Fernandes and Simpson breathers. J-Mike brings his own speed and ability to get to the rim, giving slower teams fits when he is running the floor with Simpson. Grad transfer guard Austin Williams (Hartford), like Fernandes, brings experience and composure. Freshman guard Gavin Griffiths brings sharpshooting potential the Knights haven’t seen in years and should have ample open looks on the perimeter, with defenses collapsing on Fernandes and Simpson and trying to contain Big Cliff. Athletic sophomore forward Antonio Chol is one of the team’s most improved shooters, according to Pikiell. And beloved senior Oskar Palmquist brings experience and the ability to sub into multiple positions - and knock down the occasional three.

Matt Forno: Offensive tempo. All offseason I’ve read about how this team is ready to “go” on offense. If this team is able to move up and down the court quickly and score on the majority of fast break opportunities, we could be in for some exciting offense this season. Keeping the defense on their toes could help open up passing lanes for Cliff down close to the rim. I also believe a faster paced offseason benefits players like sophomore forward Antwone Woolfolk, who will be relied on during the heart of big ten play. Playing fast should also help true freshmen Jamichael Davis demonstrate his athleticism and ability to attack the rim.

John Dean: The biggest reason for optimism is the return of Cliff Omoruyi and the increased offensive tempo. How many times around the country have we seen the best player leave his team for a huge NIL package elsewhere? I would imagine Cliff could have cashed in on a transfer or started his pro career somewhere. However he chose to return for his senior year, and Rutgers has the consensus 2nd team all big ten center in their lineup. That is huge for a team in transition.

I also like the teams stated intention to run more on offense. By running more and pushing the tempo, the offensive efficiency of this team should see a significant jump. Rutgers guards also fit this style very well. Simpson, Davis, and Fernandes are all quick attacking guards and have the ability to thrive in this offense.

Francis Hearne: As a whole I am very optimistic for this upcoming season. It’s no secret there is a lot of production lost from last year following the departure of several key players, but there is plenty of production returning and Pikiell did an excellent job in the portal and recruiting. The potential depth on this team is very exciting. Cliff is obviously a beast and will make plenty of opponents look small, scared, and soft. If he does get in foul trouble Antwone Woolfolk and Ogbole should be able to fill in well. The back court combination of Fernandes, Simpson, and freshman Jamichael Davis is easily the most explosive backcourt we’ll see in the Pikiell era. The wings will be the X factor. Aundre Hyatt has shown flashes of borderline elite play. Mawot Mag is rumored to be ready to go against Princeton, but whenever he comes back we know he is the ULTIMATE Glue Guy. The wild cars within the X factore are Antonio Chol and Oskar Palmquist; if they are the legitshooting threats they are rumored to be, it will give this team an offensive element they have been searching for. Maybe saving the best for last is super freshman Gavin Griffiths, the highest rated recruit of the Pikiell era.

What is your biggest reason for concern?

Greg Patuto: Can the defense live up to Pikiell’s expectations? This is something he has has expressed some early concerns about but the good news is, he is the perfect coach to take care of the job. While this might be an early concern, fans should feel good about Pikiell and his ability to improve the team over the course of the season.

Jack Schocket: No one really knows what Rutgers has in this team yet, and that’s my biggest concern. Yes, Cliff is a veteran at this point and should turn in a great season, but the rest of the team is largely unproven. Derek Simpson is going to need to take a step up as the team’s best guard, and it remains to be seen whether or not the Scarlet Knights can replace McConnell, Spencer, and Mulcahy. It may be the elephant in the room, but I’m concerned about Rutgers’ ability to replace their former captains.

John Catapano: I have two main concerns - first, injuries. That goes without saying. Second, a poor start in non-conference play. 10-10 in conference, and 20 wins is pretty much a lock to go dancing. Rutgers needs to take care of business and dominate their non-conference slate to ease the pressure once conference play begins.

Matt Forno: Defensive Identity. I certainly think any team coached under Steve Pikiell will play fundamentally sound defense. However, losing the two time conference defensive player of the year is not something that is easier replaced. Additionally, as good of a shooter as he was, Cam Spencer was fantastic on defense. I trust Pikiell will make whatever adjustments are needed to still play elite defense. However, with a shift in offensive strategy and loss of two key players, I think we may see scores in the 140s and 150s, which means you may want to bet the over in some games!

John Dean: The unproven nature of this team. While I believe in the players on the team and like the idea of the teams offensive evolution, this team has a lot of unknowns. Derek Simpson is expected to run the offense, but he has a small sample of games last year where he was a starting guard. Noah Fernandes was a standout player in the A10. Will that translate to the Big Ten? Gavin Griffiths and Jamichael Davis are both unproved true freshmen expected to contribute major minutes. Mawot Mag is coming off a serious knee injury. That is a lot of questions that need to be answered in a positive way for Rutgers to meet the heightened expectations of the program. Additionally the teams identity for years was rockfights. They wanted to slow you down and play lockdown defense, and the first team to 60 wins. Will they be able to rediscover their identity in a season and have success?

Francis Hearne: The only thing that makes me nervous is all of the new pieces. I could see a potential slow start as the chemistry may need to build and Pikiell tweaks the lineups. That could spell disaster come Selection Sunday as the strength of schedule is once again relatively weak.

What is your bold prediction for this season?

Greg Patuto: Three-point shooting improves significantly. This has been something that Rutgers has lacked. The Scarlet Knights shot 31.8% as a team last season. Will they make it to 40% this year?

Jack Schocket: This season is finally the one where Rutgers comes out of East Lansing with a win. It’s tough to beat Izzo on his home court, but the Scarlet Knights win a close one.

John Catapano: Rutgers will be back in the NCAA tourney and will not be on the bubble this time around for Selection Sunday.

Matt Forno: Cliff Omoruyi finishes the season as an All-American. He knows what he needs to work on to find a spot on an NBA roster next year, but in order to that, he will need to put it all together at Rutgers this season.

John Dean: Rutgers wins at Seton Hall for the first time since 2013. Rutgers hasn’t won a road game in this series in a long time, but Cliff Omoruyi carries the Scarlet Knights to a victory at the Prudential Center

Francis Hearne: Rutgers finishes in the top 5 of the Big Ten and earns a 10 seed in the NCAA tournament.

What is your season prediction for this team?

Greg Patuto: The goal will be to establish identity on both ends of the floor before Big Ten play and be ready to go from there. The Scarlet Knights will be fighting for yet another NCAA Tournament bid. The same total of 10 wins in conference seems like the checkpoint once again. Rutgers finishes 19-12 and 10-10 in the Big Ten.

Jack Schocket: It’s a bit optimistic, but Rutgers finished 21-10 and 11-9 in the conference. Everyone is counting the Scarlet Knights out, and that’s exactly how Pike likes it. More than the record though, I think this team will be extremely fun to watch.

John Catapano: 20-11 overall. 10-10 Big Ten. NCAA tournament bid.

I see Purdue and Michigan State perched on top of the conference, and then there’s everyone else. Rutgers was picked 10th in the preseason coach’s poll. That’s precisely the way Coach Pikiell likes it. Chip meets the shoulder. Enjoy the season, folks.

Matt Forno: 21-10. 12-8 Big Ten. NCAA tournament bid. Dylan Harper commits to RU.


John Dean: 19-12 10-10 in the Big Ten. Rutgers puts itself squarely on the bubble and we are sweating out whether we make it the first four or an NIT.

Francis Hearne: 21-10 overall 11-9 in the B1G. NCAA Tournament bid with at least 1 win. Make some noise and usher in the #2 recruiting class in the country next year

NOTE: Include record for overall, Big Ten, and any other thoughts you want to add on the season or postseason potential.