17-18 Season Preview: Rutgers

I'm ready for it to be over.

When Rutgers was brought into the Big Ten, not one learned person believed it could be about anything other than money. Jim Delany did not cite Rutgers' longstanding commitment to fielding championship-level teams in revenue sports. The average football and men's basketball fan would be hard pressed to name 10 current or former players from either of those teams. No, Rutgers is in the Big Ten because 400 years ago, beaver hats were fashionable in Europe and because Henry Hudson saw a bunch while looking for a route to India.

And that's why this year's Big Ten basketball tournament will be a week early and a long trip for nearly every member of the conference.

To Delany's credit, the deal has paid off. And money is always nice:
But aren't you ready for the day when the singular answer to Why Is Rutgers Here Again? is not being rubbed into your eyeballs every time the team plays? I know I am.

It's happening with football. After bottoming out in a 1-16 stretch (Big Ten play) amidst scandals with former coach Kyle Flood, the team stands at 3-4 as of this writing, with bowl eligibility still in play the team is a respectable 3-5 in Big Ten play (oh well). The CFP won't be calling anytime soon, but this is not the worst team in the Big Ten by any definition. I dare say, they're downright mediocre!

Lest you think that's an insult, it's important to note that mediocrity arrives before greatness. And we're still waiting for mediocrity at the RAC. Since entering the Big Ten conference, Rutgers has won just 6 games in conference play, losing an astounding 48 times over that same stretch. "Your team lost to Rutgers" is an insult lobbed at another Big Ten team roughly twice per season, and everyone has a nice laugh and it serves as fodder to coaches looking to motivate lackadaisical players on Rutgers Week. Losing to Rutgers might have cost John Groce his shot at coaching a Power Five program ever again. It could have easily led to Tim Miles' dismissal. Scientists are still pondering over how Wisconsin lost to them a couple years ago, Kaminsky's absence be damned.

The good news is that Rutgers at least appears to be, finally, on its way. Head coach Steve Pikiell massively improved the team over Eddie Jordan's final season, more than doubling the overall win total. And, maybe more importantly, the team looked mostly competent. In Jordan's final season, the Scarlet Knights lost ten Big Ten games by 20 points or more. Last year, just four, and that includes three losses by exactly 20 points.

That said, now comes the harder part. It should be easy to lift a major conference program out of the lower 200s in kenpom, it's harder to make the climb into the top-75 (and, dare to dream, higher still). While that could happen this season, the numbers suggest more of a "slight improvement" type season for Rutgers. The team returns a little over two-thirds of last year's minutes, but the loss of senior guard Nigel Johnson (now at his third school) to transfer limits the upside.

The offense will be spearheaded once again by Corey Sanders, of course, but Sanders' crushing workload has undoubtedly taken away from his efficiency. Last year the Floridian attempted 422 shots, which seems like perhaps 100 too many (consider that Caleb Swanigan, the best player in the Big Ten, attempted 421 shots despite playing 136 more minutes.

This is not happening because Sanders is a ballhog—it's because Rutgers needs more players that can make shots. One of the Knights' better offensive players last year was Mike Williams, who posted a 40.9 effective field goal percentage in conference play. Literally no one on Purdue shot that poorly. Or, heck, Minnesota.

Rutgers has four new faces this season, including JUCO transfer Soug Mensah. But none stick out as the kind of impact player that Pikiell desperately needs to upgrade the talent on the roster. It would take some rare late-career jumps from midgrade recruits like Deshawn Freeman or Williams, or sophomore jumps from the likes of Eugene Omoruyi or Issa Thiam for Rutgers to make some noise in the Big Ten this year.

Odds are, that's not happening. But, baby steps. Mediocrity is within reach, and for now, that's the goal.