Since Steve Pikiell took the job in 2016, two things have remained constant—every year, Rutgers gets better, and every offseason, Rutgers loses one of its best players early. First it was Nigel Johnson, who transferred to Virginia. Then Corey Sanders turned pro. This past offseason, Eugene Omoruyi opted to sit out a year and then start playing at Oregon.
I mean, it's Rutgers, right? You don't play for conference championships at Rutgers, you don't even play NCAA Tournament games at Rutgers. It's a place to go say you played at "a Big Ten school" or "in a high major conference." I mean, yeah, technically...
But it really doesn't have to be this way. A starting lineup of Geo Baker, Sanders, Omaruyi, Ron Harper, and one of the Shaqs might have been pretty OK last season. Possibly OK enough to get to the bubble. I fear this year will be the same, with some hypotheticals being tossed around with the caveat "but what if Omoruyi stayed?"
And Rutgers will be good enough for those hypotheticals. Baker is back, and though I'd call last year a disappointment for him (two-point shooting and turnovers continue to be problem areas), he has the skills to take the next step. I think the biggest problem with Baker is that he's a shooting guard that's a little miscast as a point guard. This causes him to try and create shots for others a little too much. He's at his best when looking for his own points.
He's a good enough outside threat to punish teams for going under screens, and he should use that to set up his attacks.
The team also welcomes a plethora of sophomores, one or more of whom should improve substantially. Harper was pretty darn good as a freshman last year, while Montez Mathis was pretty darn confident. Myles Johnson is ready for full-time center duties, and I expect something like Mike Watkins Lite.
Pikiell also welcomes two upperclassmen transfers—Jacob Young from Texas, and Akwasi Yeboah from Stony Brook. Young got rotation minutes at Texas, and was mostly "fine" as a stand & shoot player. In his first two games at Rutgers, however, he's aggressively hunting shots. I'd say the results are...mixed. Yeboah was recruited by Pikiell when he was at Stony Brook, and he's a reliable if unremarkable outside shooter that probably was asked to do a tick too much for the Sea Wolves. If RU can keep his usage to 20 or so, I think he can be effective. The team also welcomes a top-150ish guard, Paul Mulcahy who is receiving a lot of floor time. He's listed as a combo, but truthfully I see a fair amount of "point" to his game.
The bad news? Although I think Rutgers has more talent than its given credit for, there's still a ways to go, particularly on defense. Yes, defense. That's the end of the floor that Pikiell gets the most credit for, but I don't know if it's been oversold.
Sure, good offenses are good and bad offenses are bad. But this still strikes me as a pretty significant split. From what I saw on film, part of the blame could like with the taller lineups that Pikiell liked to employ. Usually, Omoruyi was at the 4, and the lineup, while tall, did not feel out of place. But 20 percent of the time or so, Pikiell would deploy a twin towers look, and one of the centers would be tasked with chasing around a stretch 4:
One plus side of a tall lineup is rebounding, and sure, Rutgers grabbed a lot of misses last year. But I doubt we see that kind of size out of Rutgers this year. For one, the Knights simply have less depth in the frontcourt, so I doubt Pikiell burns two centers at once. Second, most of the incoming talent was in the backcourt, and those offensive contributions will be hard to keep off the floor.
This, of course, creates a different set of problems. Rutgers was solid on the glass last year (5th in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage in conference play), but not so good that the team can give boards away without much of a penalty. Even still, I think the tradeoff for getting smaller is worth it. The Scarlet Knights' outside shooting woes—it's been damn near 15 years since Rutgers was a decent outside shooting team, when considering volume and accuracy—have to come to an end if this offense is ever going to be any good. And that won't happen with two guys named Shaq on the court at once. And defensively, well, this team wasn't exactly stout on the inside last year, and the perimeter defense was awful as well. If the trees aren't helping protect the paint, then maybe the guards can at least chase shooters off the three-point line.
So, the team will probably shoot better, and maybe even defend a little better as well. But we're still a ways away from an NCAA Tournament berth. Ultimately, this roster needs to keep developing, and that means ending the practice of standout players leaving for greener pastures. Rutgers will be better this year, and I'm willing to bet the team will be better still next year. Steve Pikiell just needs to start convincing his best players of the same thing.