This is it: The inflection point, the prove it year, whatever you want to call it.
The Rutgers University Men’s Basketball program has an opportunity to use this upcoming season as a stepping stone to becoming a certified blue blood. The vision is clear, given what would have been three consecutive trips to the big dance if it hadn’t been for COVID interrupting 2020, and New Jersey, as it often does, followed the results adoringly. Following this success at the birth of the decade, a tumultuous season full of injuries, poorly called games, and an offense whose speed, creativity, and execution often resembled that of I-95 on Labor Day weekend, all gave Scarlet Knights a mixed bag of projections by both the public and a handful of analysts for the upcoming season.
Despite this hesitancy, and how understandable it is, head coach Steve Pikiell has played an instrumental role in pivoting the roster, in both personnel and play-style, in a tactical gamble that will not only benefit the future of the program, especially in what is likely the most hyped recruitment class in program history, but also the results of the current squad in any postseason setting they find themselves in.
There are two vital goals to fulfill in setting the program on the path to being one of the next Northeastern powerhouses. They are changing the offensive identity of the team while maintaining defensive ability in order to make a mark on the last season of this era of the Big Ten basketball before realignment, and to figure out which players will play important roles alongside the subsequent year of highly touted recruits.
A criticism both of Rutgers in the past couple years and the style of Big Ten Basketball has been an over reliance on size, lackluster 3pt shooting, low pace, and lack of speed at the guard positions. This has resulted in the domination of the NCAA tournament by the teams from the SEC and BIG 12 conferences in their ability to consistently reach the later stages of the competition in recent years. Realistically, for Rutgers to be able to contend for a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 1976 when their 2024 class arrives, they must alter their offensive identity without comprising their defensive prowess.
The early signs of this are shown with the transfer of former UMass guard Noah Fernandes, whose 3pt efficiency, playmaking skills, and speed, at 5’11” might I add, are all a welcome change from last year’s starting point guard. The big question that Pikiell and his squad will have to answer is whether he’ll be able to maintain his team’s defensive efficiency while losing size and raising the pace. While the starting point guard spot will likely be held by Fernandes for the whole year, the emergence of true freshmen Derek Simpson at the tail-end of last year, shows Pikiell’s commitment to using a smaller shifty guard who can increase offensive pace and create shots both for himself and teammates. Simpson, due to the sparks of brilliance he showed against Penn State and Purdue, will likely slot into the starting shooting guard spot, at the beginning of the season.
In addition to the commitment Pikiell and his staff have shown for changing the offense, they’re attempting to actively improve the defense as well. Since losing 2x Big Ten DPOY Caleb McConnell for good and stalwart Mawot Mag for the beginning of the season, they will need to rely on Cliff Omoruyi, who placed second in the conference in blocks per game, as well as, veteran Aundre Hyatt and recent transfer Austin Williams to keep the Pikiell’s “speed limit” intact. If the team is consistently able to have a modern and potent offense with their signature stifling defense, their wing presence will be their deciding factor. Incoming 4-star recruit Gavin Griffiths looks to be the best freshmen shooter on the Banks in recent memory. If Pikiell and his staff are able to indoctrinate Griffiths with their defensive knowledge, he will surely be a valuable contributor through BIG Ten play and will likely be a shoe-in for the BIG Ten All-Freshmen team. While true freshmen rarely get opportunities at the beginning of the season, Mag’s injury and McConnell’s departure to the NBA G-League, leaves the 3 and 4 spots open to competition. While the options are likely to be some combination of Aundre Hyatt, Oskar Palmquist, Anthony Chol, and the aforementioned Griffiths, it appears that Hyatt’s presence of the bench is vital to Pikiell. Furthermore, while Chol showed glimpses of a nice handle and shot in shoot-around and has been rumored to have developed more in the offseason, it seems likely for the wings on this lineup to be Griffiths and Palmquist for at least the first couple weeks of the season.
This would give a starting lineup of PG Noah Fernandes, SG Derek Simpson, SF Gavin Griffiths, PF Oskar Palmquist, and C Cliff Omoruyi until Mag recovers and potentially younger players seize opportunities. As for the bench, I’d expect lots of minutes and touches for Austin Williams, Jamichael Davis, Aundre Hyatt, Anthony Chol, and Antoine Woolfolk until Mag, Emmanuel Ogbole, and Jeremiah Williams recover from injuries(although the latter may not play regardless due to currently not having a transfer waiver).
Out Of Conference:
Under Pikiell, Rutgers has often had an out-of-conference schedule of “gimmes”. This has resulted in blowouts, upsets, and eventually criticism from the NCAA tournament committee that, the OOC schedule was so weak that it diminished the team’s early in-conference success. This, combined with a season-ending injury to Mawot Mag, led the committee to deem the squad and its resume unfit for the tournament. While there isn’t much to prevent freak injuries like Mag’s ACL tear, there are things to do about the schedule. The usual suspects remain with bottom feeders like Stonehill, Long Island, and more. However, respectable opponents such as Mississippi State, Wake Forest, along with in-state rivals Princeton and Seton Hall, will benefit Rutgers’ strength of schedule and prepare them for perennially tough conference play. Furthermore, it’s important to note that all four of those games will be played away from the RAC, further increasing our NET rankings given the Knights come out with a few wins.
Despite my optimism about new players as well as the remaining core, both Mississippi State and Wake Forest have experienced squads that return most of their starters and significant statistical contributors. Due to this fact, I see it highly likely that Rutgers loses those two games, but thankfully for our Jersey Pride, I find it highly likely due to shear roster quality that they will come away with wins against the Tigers and Pirates. A loss to any of the other teams than the aforementioned four would likely have similar effects on the teams’ Tournament resume as losses to low quality opponents in recent years, such as Temple in 2022, or UMass, DePaul, and Lafayette in 2021.
Big Ten Play:
Last year, the Scarlet Knights showed out in some big games in conference play. The wins at Purdue and at Northwestern as well as home wins over Indiana and Penn State were memorable and showed strong signs of a squad seemingly capable of beating anyone on their day. The defense was monstrous, the shot making was sublime, and the energy was contagious. But with these wins will always come losses—the Big Ten is often considered the hardest and most internally competitive conference in the nation.
Some losses are hard to complain about due to the quality of the opposition, like Iowa and their 3pt magic, Michigan State with their strong fundamentals, and Northwestern with their overwhelming defensive energy. Yet others are harder to take on the chin. Losses to teams like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Michigan, occurred at the tail end of the year, when it felt like the team couldn’t buy a win. While each of those teams played well, Rutgers had matchup advantages coming in to nearly every of those games. Despite this, the offense was slow and sloppy with Mulcahy in charge of ball handling duties, and the team’s shot making efficiency also dwindled. This led to wasted possessions, easy buckets transition buckets for the opposition and nothing but misery for the fans at the final buzzer.
This picture is important to understand when considering the offensive pivot that Pikiell is undertaking. In games where the opposition has a comparatively stronger offense, it would be wiser to slow the pace and rely on the defense to make stops rather than simply outscore the opposition. In games with a comparatively weaker offense however, Rutgers now has an offense which can rely on its pace and shot-making. This gives the team a more achievable blueprint for avoiding ruts like last year—losing 8 of our last 11 games including the postseason—where many of those losses were brought on by a sputtering offense with subpar shooting splits and a palpable lack of cohesion.
Barring injury, I see the squad being able to have a top-25 efficiency in both offense and defense once Mag returns, given the versatility on both side of the ball that he offers. By slotting him into the power forward slot, the team would get a productive scorer and reasonable replacement for McConnell’s defensive presence. A healthy Mag would truly be the final piece to the puzzle in creating a contender for the regular season title of the Big Ten. Taking this all into account, I see Rutgers finishing Big Ten play with a record of 15 wins and 5 losses. At the moment, without an exact schedule of when the games occur, it is difficult to predict them with precision, but without that knowledge, predictions can still be made based on previous head-to-head records, the opposition’s offensive and defensive, as well as roster changes and composition. This record would include wins against Indiana, Northwestern, and Penn State at home, a win at Iowa and at Minnesota, in addition to a loss at Michigan state. As for the home and home games, I see the team winning out against Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, while having a home and home split with Ohio State, Purdue, and Maryland, as well as an away and away split with Illinois.
Combining the OOC and Big Ten predictions, Rutgers would be left with an impressive 26-7 record. It is important to caveat this prediction with the conditions that the starting five stay relatively healthy. Comparing this record to previous years, it would surely be enough to secure a spot in March Madness. Furthermore, depending on the relative strength of their opponents, it might be sufficient to garner votes in the AP poll. Additionally, recent tournament history has shown that teams with versatile and athletic defenses and a high-paced, ball-sharing offense that shoots the 3pt well, often have success in getting to the second weekend. While clearly this would be close to, if not the best-case scenario for the program’s development, it’s hard to determine whether there have been any years, prior to last, where Pikiell was unable to deliver reasonable progress and enjoyable results. Given that, I believe that it’s more than within reason to be optimistic when returning to The RAC this November.