Most college basketball analysts would tell you to not get your hopes up about Rutgers' first season of Big Ten basketball. Expectations aren't very high after the team finished seventh out of 10 in the American Athletic Conference in 2014. More specifically, the Scarlet Knights were 5-13 in conference, 12-21 overall, and lost games to UCF, Temple, William & Mary, and Fairleigh Dickinson.
I'm not going to sit here and blog to you that Rutgers has a chance to finish in the top half of the Big Ten in 2015. What I can do is try to convince you that the Knights have a great chance to stay out of the conference basement. Here's three reasons why:
The AAC wasn't as bad as it seemed last year
"But any conference that has three teams worse than Rutgers must be horrible," you might say. Just look at the top of the conference, though. UConn won the national championship, and Louisville finished 2014 as the top ranked team in KenPom's adjusted efficiency rankings. Cincinnati didn't fare well in the postseason, but it recorded victories over UConn and Louisville during the regular season. Memphis is one of the best teams ever to never hit a free throw, and SMU proved that it should have been chosen for the NCAA Tournament by reaching the NIT final.
In a nut shell, the AAC was really close to being a five-bid league! Yes, Rutgers did get all five of its league victories over the bottom-feeders, but that's why we have two more arguments!
Second-year coach Eddie Jordan is adding some impact freshmen
Jordan, the former head coach of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards, and Philadelphia 76ers, was brought on to coach his alma mater after the Mike Rice scandal. Since he was officially hired in April of last year, Jordan has really just gotten started with recruiting, and he should be able to make an impact with his NBA pedigree. Three-star forward Junior Etou stuck with Rutgers despite the coaching change, and he already looks like a solid contributor with 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a freshman.
This season, for his first full class, Jordan is bringing in five players, including the 6'10" Ibrahima Diallo and elite high school scorer Ryan Johnson. Another name to keep an eye on is junior college transfer Bishop Daniels. All three players have the potential to make an impact right away for the Knights.
Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack are two really good players
A good class of freshmen won't amount to many wins without some returning experienced players to support it. The rising senior pair of Mack and Jack has the potential to keep Rutgers competitive against the stiffest of Big Ten competition. Mack is asked to handle the ball a lot as the point guard, but he also has great shooting range, hitting 36 percent of his shorts from beyond the arc last year. He is also a terrific distributor and finished 68th in the nation in assist rate in 2014.
Many of those assists go to Jack, who is 6'9" and loves to show off his athleticism. Jack is most efficiently used as a finisher off of Mack's or backup point guard Jerome Seagears' penetration, but he can also put the ball on the floor and create his own opportunities. With just a year left of eligibility each, Mack and Jack won't be a part of Rutgers' future, but they combined for 29 points per game last year and could provide even more excitement in the coming season.
See? There are some reasons for hope on the banks of the old Raritan! Rutgers doesn't come into the Big Ten ready for prime time like Maryland does, but it has enough talent to be a spunky underdog until Eddie Jordan ramps up recruiting.