Key Departures: Jacob Young (–>Oregon); Myles Johnson (–>UCLA); Montez Mathis (–>St. John’s)
New In Town: Aundre Hyatt (<–LSU); Ralph Agee (<–San Jose St); Jaden Jones (#154); Jalen Miller (#185)
State of the Program:
What Steve Pikiell has done with this Rutgers program is nothing short of a miracle, as he has turned a program that was the laughing stock of multiple conference over the last 30+ years into a consistently competitive team. Last year they won their first tournament game since 1983, and have turned in back to back .500 or better conference records for the first time since 1991, which was also their most recent tournament appearance prior to last season. Pikiell is the best coach nobody knows in the country, and if I was a major program hiring a HC I would be doing everything I could to bring him in. He has turned this Rutgers program into a nightmare opponent as they have boasted a top-20 defense the previous 2 seasons. The offense has lagged behind, but the talent level is increasing year over year. He will continue to build and push this program in the right direction, and despite a few key losses he welcomes back a solid group from last year’s squad. That group is led by 3rd Team All-Conference Ron Harper Jr (SR), who returns as the unquestioned go-to option offensively. He’s joined by returning starters Geo Baker (SR) and Paul Mulcahy (JR), and key reserves Caleb McConnell (SR) and Clifford Omoruyi (SO). These 5 will likely be the starting group, with the bench roles likely coming from transfers and Freshmen.
Headlining the incoming group is LSU transfer wing Aundre Hyatt (SO). Hyatt is an athletic wing that can attack the basket and could develop an efficient jump shot as well. He should fit right in on the defensive side with his quickness and length, and serve as a quality backup wing this season. San Jose St transfer C Ralph Agee (SR) joins as an incredible athlete that excels at finishing above the rim and blocking shots. He also has ability off the bounce to beat his defender and finish inside. He will handle the 5 spot along with Omoruyi and help anchor this stingy Rutgers D. 6’7” F wing Jaden Jones (#154) came to the program early last spring and will look to join Hyatt and returner Mawot Mag (SO) in the wing rotation. He went viral as a 5th grader showing off his game, and enters this Rutgers program with a DeMar DeRozan style offensive style, excelling at attacking the basket and using his craftiness to get open mid-range looks. He should earn a few minutes this year and could develop into a really nice player down the road. Lastly is 6’3” PG Jalen Miller (#185), who is a springy athlete that can attack the basket and finish acrobatically and he has great vision as a playmaker as well. He enters a pretty thin backcourt so he actually could get some time this season as a backup guard, albeit pretty limited as Harper and Baker figure to get play as much as possible.
Prediction: 8th Big Ten (NR)
The outlook for this Rutgers group is ultimately pretty similar to last season. The losses of Young and Mathis present a challenge to an already struggling offense, as more pressure will be put on Harper and Baker to score at a high clip. The defense should remain at an elite level, with Omoruyi and Agee as shot blockers inside allowing these athletic wings and guards to put a lot of pressure on opposing teams. This style that Pikiell has implemented has been essential in terms of the rise of the program, however it is also what limits the program’s ceiling at this point. Because he recruits strong, athletic guys who can excel defensively, they all enter the program with offensive limitations. There are no 3-point marksmen or high volume scorers coming in, so an offense ranked 82nd a year ago will undoubtedly continue to struggle to score consistently. Their hard-nose defensive style will keep them competitive though, and they should grind out wins against quality opponents, especially at home. I think Harper can elevate his game some, as well as Baker, but a lot of shooting punch was lost with the exit of Young and Mathis. I expect Rutgers to continue to make program history by making yet another NCAA tournament as a low seed once again, but I don’t think they take a step forward in terms of competing with the top of the Conference. If Pikiell can start reeling in some higher level scorers that’s when Rutgers can really elevate itself as a true challenger for a Conference Championship and deeper March runs, and based on what I’ve seen from him thus far, I’m not ruling that out.