This year will mean some very big transitions for Rutgers. Not only will the Scarlet Knights be transitioning to a new conference with new opponents, but they will also be continuing to transition on the court away from former coach Mike Rice's players to the players recruited by current head coach Eddie Jordan. Most Rutgers fans are optimistic about the future both on the court and in the Big Ten, but there are some real concerns about competing in Year 1 in the nation's best basketball conference.
Last season, Rutgers faced some major struggles on the court. They finished the year at 12-21 overall and 5-13 in the AAC. On top of that, they failed to make the postseason and finished a subpar #166 in KenPom - 35 spots below any Big Ten team. To put things bluntly, it was not a banner year in Piscataway.
However, there is hope for this season. Most are predicting Rutgers to finish near or at the bottom of the Big Ten, but there is potential. Not only do they bring back Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack, but they have several other pieces that could take a big step up this season. Still, despite these returners, Rutgers will need a few players to jump out and surprise fans this season or the team could continue to struggle. This brings us to the question of which player could be the x-factor for Rutgers next season.
My guess for Rutgers' x-factor next season is Junior Etou. The first thing to establish is that Rutgers fans have a pretty good understanding of what they will be seeing out of Jack and Mack this season. Sure, both can improve in a few areas and diversify their skillsets, but at this point, it's pretty hard to see too many substantial changes for those two players, especially considering that they're both seniors this season. If you're expecting somebody to take a step forward, it's not usually a senior. Typically, you already know what you've got by then - for better or worse.
After you look at Jack and Mack, it leaves you with 3 starting positions left and the bench. Etou seems like the logical choice here because he showed potential last season, but still has a high enough ceiling to take the next step. If Etou takes the next step, it doesn't mean that Rutgers will suddenly be a team competing on the national level, but it could be enough to pull off an upset or two and maybe even slide them into a postseason bid.
Last season, Etou played in 27 games and averaged 23 minutes, 5.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, and 0.2 steals per game. The big thing that should jump out there is the 5.3 points per game. If Etou is going to make a bigger impact, one would think that it has to start there. Arguably, the biggest way that Etou could take the next step in scoring is to improve his shooting. He had a 41.9% field goal percentage, but his mediorce 25.6% from outside the arch and his 63.9% from the free throw line are concerning. If Rutgers wants to play at a faster pace and try to spread some teams out, Etou is going to be good enough to make defenses respect his shot and if he gets to the line. If he can do that, it's not really that hard to see him raising those numbers and making a much bigger impact. Obviously, easier said than done, but if you're going to make that shooting improvement, now's the time for Etou to do it.
The other thing worth considering here is that Etou moved positions last year. Eddie Jordan needed someone to play at the 3 and, eventually, he put Etou there to fill the gap. Having a full offseason to deal with the change can only be good for his production next season. You can see this in his minute totals, which went up in the conference play. In fact, if you take out the first 12 games of the season, where Etou sat out 6 games and had 8 games with 15 minutes or less, he was right there with almost anybody on the team in minutes. This year, he knows his position and is going to be able to come in right away and fill that role. This should go a long way toward taking the next step.
The final point to consider here is that Etou has shown promising signs as well. Yes, he was not as good as some of the exciting freshmen out there, but he had a few games that showed some solid potential. For instance, in January, he put up back-to-back games with double digits against UConn and Temple. In fact, he scored in double digits in 3 out of 5 games during that stretch. However, the issue for Etou last year was consistency as he followed those double digit games with only 9 points in 3 games, despite playing a total of 73 minutes. If he's going to be the guy to help lift the team up next year, he will have to show a lot more consistency.
Overall, Etou isn't going to be the guy that defenses game plan around when they face Rutgers, but if he can become a more reliable offensive threat and continue to progress on the boards and defensive end, he could be an interesting piece that helps the Scarlet Knights take the next step forward this season. If he does take this step, Rutgers won't necessarily be a great team, but it would certainly make a postseason bid more likely and might even keep them out of the "cellar" of the Big Ten.