The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.
The last few seasons have undoubtedly been a dark period for Rutgers basketball and considering that the Scarlet Knights are far from a college hoops blueblood, that's a significant statement. Rutgers has had intermittent moments of success, but overall, since the Mike Rice scandal and his subsequent departure, those positive moments on the court have been few and far between. The program has gone just 113-171 (.398) over the last nine seasons and failed to have any season with more than 15 wins.
But as the saying goes, the past is the past. Even if the future is uncertain, that's a positive change compared to the performances Rutgers is coming off of over the last few seasons. It's a chance for fans and the program to (hopefully) start the transition away from the bottom of the conference and to start challenging opponents more consistently.
Showing progress is also essential to having a successful season. Since Eddie Jordan became the head coach for the program, he has amassed just a 22-43 (.338) record over two seasons. Outside of a few upsets, the Scarlet Knights have yet to show any sustainable success under Jordan and ended last season on a 15 game skid.
On paper, the pieces are there for a more talented and exciting team, but if Jordan is going to continue recruiting well and putting positive energy into the program, showing something on the court this year will be a big first step.
More significantly, this year's Rutgers team also looks deeper, more talented, and ultimately, most interesting than last year's Scarlet Knights. This is hardly a unit that can realistically contend in the top 25 or for an NCAA Tournament berth, but it is one that has talented newcomers, an adequate returning base, and should be set for a more exciting, uptempo style of basketball.
Everything appears to be set for a building season and let's take a look at what that will mean for Rutgers.
BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast
Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Scarlet Knights, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and On The Banks Contributor Dave White breaking down Rutgers' roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.
1. 2014-15 Season Performance
- Record: 10-22 (2-16)
- KenPom Team Rating: #215
- RPI Rating: #179
- Postseason Appearance: None
It's hard to characterize last season for Rutgers as another other than a failure. The team finished dead last in the Big Ten, lost its final 15 games of the season, and never threatened for even an NIT bid. There were certainly some nice upset wins including a massive one over Wisconsin in conference play, but all told, it was an underwhelming season for a team that already had low expectations entering the year.
In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Rutgers:
There is no way to judge the 2014-15 season for Rutgers other than as a failure. The team did have a few key players like Myles Mack and Mike Williams put together nice years and did upset Wisconsin at home, but a 10-22 record accompanied by a 2-16 Big Ten record is not exactly grounds to get a fanbase excited.
Oddly enough, perhaps the most frustrating part of last season for Rutgers was the team's inability to do anything in winnable games late in the season. There isn't much debating that the Scarlet Knights were the worst team in the Big Ten last season, but being the worst doesn't mean that it's impossible to pull off some upsets here and there. In fact, during the team's final 15 games, Rutgers had eight games against teams outside the top 50 on KenPom, but was unable to record even a single win. None of those games were gimmes, but it doesn't seem to be that unreasonable to think Rutgers should have won at least one of those games.
Highlights of the season included Rutgers' wins over Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin. All three programs finished in the top 80 on KenPom and the Badgers ultimately made the national championship game. Low points of the season included home losses to St. Francis PA and Saint Peter's, and a loss against Virginia where Rutgers only scored 26 points. Rutgers also had a 15 game losing streak and nine losses by 10 points to end the season.
Individual statistical leaders were Junior Etou, Kadeem Jack, Greg Lewis, and Myles Mack. Etou led the team in rebounds. Jack led the team in usage. Lewis led the team in blocks. Mack led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, and total win shares.
2. Offseason Exits
During the offseason, Rutgers lost a total of seven players for a variety of reasons. These players were Kalil Batie, Junior Etou, Kadeem Jack, Ryan Johnson, Malick Kone, Myles Mack, and Kerwin Okoro. Three of these players graduated and three of these players transferred. Of these six players, the most significant losses come from Etou, Jack, and Mack. In fact, Batie, Johnson, Kone, and Okoro all averaged less than 15 minutes per game last season and only Kone saw more than 50 total minutes over the course of the season.
Some of these departures may not have a massive impact on Rutgers next season, but it's hard to overlook the departures of Etou, Jack, and Mack. These three players led the team in minutes and were in the top four in field goal attempts, rebounding, and total win shares. On top of this, Etou led the team in rebounds, Jack led the team in usage while on the floor, and Mack led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, and total win shares.
By virtually any statistical measure, Etou, Jack, and Mack were some of the biggest contributors for Rutgers last season and arguably, the three biggest contributors on the entire roster. Even though the Scarlet Knights were not a great team, asking any team to replace three of its best players in a single offseason is difficult and considering how little was around these players last year, it could be even more difficult.
None of the other three offseason departures should be major hits to the roster. To start, neither Batie or Johnson played any significant time and were extremely unlikely to see much time going forward. Along with this, even though Kone and Okoro did see some time, both were clearly bench options at best. In fact, Kone averaged just 5.3 minutes per game over the final eight games of last season and Okoro averaged just 7.3 minutes per game. Rutgers will have to find some depth options, especially to replace Kone, but these four players should not be offseason departures that bear a large impact on the season for Rutgers
Overall, the offseason losses for Rutgers are pretty significant. Not only do the Scarlet Knights lose Mack - very likely the team's best player last season - but the team also loses major contributors in Etou and Jack and a handful of depth options. Even if some of these departures by themselves are not significant, added together, it will leave a rather large void in the roster for Rutgers next season.
The only solace that might be taken from these losses is that these players are leaving a team that finished last in the Big Ten. In short, it's not like any Wooden Award winners are walking out the door. Of course, on the flip side, it also begs the question of which players were on the bench if the team only went 10-22. Regardless of the true significance of the losses, if the Scarlet Knights are going to have a successful season, finding quality replacements for these players will have to be the first step.
3. New Additions
This season, the Scarlet Knights will be adding three new recruits and three new transfers. The recruits are Justin Goode, Jonathan Laurent, and Corey Sanders. Goode and Laurent are rated as 3-star prospects and Sanders is a 4-star prospect according to 247Sports. Goode is a shooting guard, Laurent is a small forward, and Sanders is a point guard.
By far, the prospect that is getting the most attention is Sanders. Not only because he is rated as a top 100 recruit in the 2015 recruiting class, but also because he has the potential to immediately become the key piece in the lineup for years to come. Sanders is incredibly athletic, has an exciting style of play, and is going to be a major part of the offense almost immediately.
Though Goode and Laurent are certainly not getting the attention that Sanders has received, both are still players that could contribute this year and beyond. Admittedly, it will likely take a year or two before these two players will receive serious time in the lineup, but both Goode and Laurent are contributors that could see some time off the bench and provide the depth that Rutgers lacked last season.
Along with the recruiting additions, the Scarlet Knights are set to add quite a bit in the form of transfers. Rutgers adds three transfers in JUCO prospect Deshawn Freeman, Omari Grier, and Nigel Johnson. Though Johnson will be forced to sit out the upcoming season due to NCAA transfer rules, both Freeman and Grier could be set to make a significant impact this season.
Freeman may not be considered to be an elite prospect and likely will have to work on his shooting stroke this season, but he is a physical scorer that has an opportunity to take the power forward spot for Rutgers this season. Along with that, though Grier had mixed numbers during his time in Bradley, he is considered to be a great shooter and should help improve Rutgers' 3PT shooting, which ranked #344 nationally last season. If Grier brings those skills, he will see time whether in the lineup or off the bench.
These are not the type of additions that are immediately going to turn Rutgers into a contender, but the additions do add quality depth, fill needs in the lineup, and add a potential future star in Sanders. For a program coming off a 10-22 season, it's hard to argue that these additions are anything other than amazing. Eddie Jordan has found a way to fill out his roster with a lot of quality options despite an underwhelming record with the Scarlet Knights and it could go a long way toward building the roster this year and beyond.
4. Team Strengths
It's particularly difficult to project the strengths and weaknesses for Rutgers this season given the massive amount of transition on the roster this offseason, but there are a few things that do shed some light. Last season, the Scarlet Knights were a horrid offensive team, but a respectable defensive team and were pretty solid around the hoop.
In fact, here's what I wrote in my team retrospective for Rutgers:
The big area where Rutgers was strongest as a team was on the defensive end. In terms of defensive efficiency, Rutgers came in at #112 overall. Although that number is not anything to write home about, it was the strong side of the floor for Rutgers last season. This was largely driven by a few solid shot blockers inside, a decent rebounding game, and keeping their free throws to field goal margin down.
Though many are going to slot the defense in where it finished last year, realistically, that probably won't be the case this season. It's not unreasonable to think Rutgers will have similar defensive numbers next season, but this is going to be a much younger team that loses one of its best interior players in Kadeem Jack. Typically, those are just not good signs of a great defense.
Still, even if the defense does drop off a tad, there are a few other areas where Rutgers could show strength. The first is increased balance. As mentioned, the Scarlet Knights had a decent defense last year, but had a horrible offense to go along with it. This year, the offense should be set to improve due to upgraded talent, improved shooting, and a faster tempo.
The key part to any offensive progress will be freshman guard Corey Sanders. He's incredibly athletic and is going to push the pace. A big reason why Rutgers will likely move to a smaller lineup is to put Sanders in better positions to make plays. If Sanders can push the pace, get solid opportunities for himself, and find teammates in good scoring positions, it's going to dramatically improve Rutgers' offense.
Of course, with that pace, it could also weaken the defense. By pushing the pace, especially with a young point guard, it could raise the turnovers and give opponents easier opportunities to score. Nonetheless, if Rutgers can lift itself out of the offensive cellar, it should still mean a more balanced team and in theory, a more competitive one.
One other area that should see improvement is the team's shooting. Last season, Rutgers ranked #334 nationally in 3PT percentage and was 13th during conference play. It was a major issue and was a huge factor in the team's inept offensive play. However, with the addition of Omari Grier and several of the incoming freshmen, it's not hard to imagine these numbers at least becoming more respectable. If so, it would be huge for the offense.
It seems odd to say, but the balance of the Scarlet Knights this season will likely be the team's primary strength. This should no longer be a team that relies so heavily on one side of the ball for success. By avoiding that, it could ultimately lead to more consistency and success on the court.
5. Team Weaknesses
For the most part, this is largely a similar discussion as the one above in the strengths section. The Scarlet Knights had a lot of major issues as a team last year and though some of them are still expected to be present this season, most of the issues should be reduced significantly. The biggest reductions should come offensively. To put last year's offensive issues into perspective, just take a look at where Rutgers finished offensively in the Big Ten last year.
Rutgers In 2014-15 Big Ten:
- #14 in offensive efficiency
- #13 in scoring
- #14 in effective field goal percentage
- #14 in field goal percentage
- #13 in turnover rate
- #13 in 2PT percentage
- #13 in 3PT percentage
- #13 in free throw percentage
With all due respect to Rutgers, that is a complete trainwreck of a performance. That doesn't even include the rough performance in non-conference play that featured a 26(!!!) point scoring performance against Virginia. The unfortunate thing was that it was more than just a problem in one area. The team couldn't shoot, couldn't get inside, and couldn't even convert at the free throw line.
Of course, the roster is going to look differently this season. The shooting should improve and the uptempo offense should get Rutgers into better scoring positions on a consistent basis. The offense is still not likely to be that strong, but it should be less of a weakness.
However, two areas that could be bigger issues are on the defensive end and in turnovers. Rutgers lost its primary ball handler in Myles Mack this offseason and a key interior player in Kadeem Jack. With Rutgers likely starting a freshman point guard, it's going to be hard to push the ball consistently without turning it over. On top of that, a younger and less experienced lineup is going to pose defensive issues.
This likely will not be a team that has glaring weaknesses on one side of the ball anymore, but Rutgers should still be an underwhelming offensive team and could experience defensive regression. On top of that, keeping up the team's interior defensive numbers and avoiding turnovers could prove to be large challenges for next season.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, the Scarlet Knights had two frontrunners in Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack for the team's best player. Both were considered to be solid players that could potentially get some type of All-Big Ten honors and in the NBA Draft discussion if things went well. Outside of those two players, there were a lot of question marks. By season's end, these two players had pulled away in the advanced stats as well.
However, this season, there is no clear frontrunner as the team's best player. With so many newcomers, it's hard to get a feel on who will lead the team. There are a few key returners in Bishop Daniels, Greg Lewis, and Mike Williams who could make a run if things go well, but none are proven. It seems unlikely any of the returners will ultimately become the best player for the Scarlet Knights, but it's certainly not unreasonable.
There are also a few newcomers who could make noise. Corey Sanders is a major recruiting addition that could very well step in and lead the team, Omari Grier was a solid player at Bradley, and JUCO prospect Deshawn Freeman could hold an intriguing spot in the lineup. However, none of these players have played a minute at Rutgers. Sanders likely has the highest ceiling on the team, but speculating on a true freshman is always risky.
Overall, it's tough to pick a freshman to be a team's best player in year one, but when push comes to shove, it seems likely that the Scarlet Knights are going to have to ride with Sanders. He has the most talent of anyone on the roster, should control the offense, and looks ready to contribute immediately. Maybe Daniels or Freeman can develop a large role in the lineup, but until things show otherwise, it seems like Sanders will be the best player on the roster.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/13 - Rutgers-Newark
- 11/15 - Howard
- 11/19 - at St. John's
- 11/21 - Central Arkansas
- 11/23 - Creighton (Las Vegas, Nevada)
- 11/25 - Clemson/UMass (Las Vegas, Nevada)
- 11/30 - Wake Forest
- 12/5 - Seton Hall
- 12/8 - Central Connecticut
- 12/12 - at George Washington
- 12/20 - Monmouth NJ
- 12/23 - Fairleigh Dickinson
- 12/28 - UMass-Lowell
- 12/30 - Indiana
- 1/2 - at Wisconsin
- 1/6 - at Maryland
- 1/9 - Nebraska
- 1/13 - at Ohio State
- 1/18 - Purdue
- 1/21 - Iowa
- 1/27 - at Michigan
- 1/31 - at Michigan State
- 2/3 - Illinois
- 2/6 - at Nebraska
- 2/13 - Ohio State
- 2/16 - at Illinois
- 2/20 - Penn State
- 2/23 - at Minnesota
- 2/27 - at Northwestern
- 3/2 - Michigan State
- 3/5 - Minnesota
Rutgers has about what fans should expect in a schedule for a team coming off a 10-22 season. The non-conference slate does have some challenges here and there, but for the most part, it is largely composed of winnable games. Even with the struggles of the Scarlet Knights last season, every game on its non-conference slate has to be considered winnable, especially if some of the newcomers can contribute early.
Outside of the traditional filler non-conference games, the intriguing games here are the road games at George Washington and St. John's, the home games against Seton Hall and Wake Forest, and the two matchups in Las Vegas. Even though sweeping those games is probably unrealistic, none of those games should be immediately slotted into the loss category. In fact, it's not unreasonable to see Rutgers winning most of the games.
To start, the Red Storm lose a massive amount from last season and though Seton Hall has a decent amount of returning talent, the program has gotten to 20 wins just once in Kevin Willard's five seasons. Perhaps one of the teams in Las Vegas can put together a good team, but from a bird's eye view, the only game where Rutgers should be a clear underdog is on the road against George Washington and it's not like the Colonials are world beaters.
Of course, just because there aren't any games on the slate for Rutgers that are sure "losses," that doesn't mean that the Scarlet Knights will run the table in non-conference play. In fact, considering that Rutgers is going to be playing four games away from home, including the road game against George Washington, it's probably likely that Rutgers will drop a few here. Expect an improvement on last year's 9-5 non-conference record, but projecting somewhere around three losses in non-conference play seems likely.
Unfortunately for Rutgers, things will get much, much more difficult in conference play. Just consider this, in the team's first nine conference games, the Scarlet Knights will play five road games and and face seven teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season. The other two teams are Michigan and Nebraska, who both made the big dance in 2014. In short, the opening stretch is absolutely brutal.
Things do get a tad easier in the second half of Big Ten play with double-plays against Illinois and Minnesota and games against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State, but it's still a tough slate. At least a few of those teams should be in NIT contention and the final nine games still includes home games against Michigan State and Ohio State. Even when things get easier, they still look tough on paper.
Projecting a Big Ten record for Rutgers is pretty difficult. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts for all the various teams in the conference, but given the fact that the Scarlet Knights will likely be playing spoiler in a lot of the team's conference games, it makes things even tougher. Expect a conference season that starts very rough due to the schedule difficulty, but improves over the back nine. However, a four to five win conference performance looks to be the top end given the amount of difficult games for Rutgers.
Overall, this is about as good of a schedule as fans could hope to see for a team coming off a 10-22 season that plays in perhaps the premier basketball conference in the country. Every non-conference game is at least relatively manageable and though the conference slate looks absolutely brutal, especially to start, there are some winnable games and opportunities for success.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Corey Sanders (Fr.) - 95%
SG: Bishop Daniels (Sr.) - 55%
SF: Omari Grier (Sr.) - 51%
PF: Deshawn Freeman (Jr) - 70%
C: Greg Lewis (Sr.) - 80%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
The backcourt is set to to look particularly interesting this season. Star incoming freshmen Corey Sanders is a virtual lock for the starting point guard position. It's hard to go "all in" on any recruit who has never played a minute at the college level, but if there's one that should have confidence, it's Sanders. Not only is he immensely talented, but his athleticism alone should make him a starter. Plus, the Scarlet Knights have virtually no depth at the position outside of Sanders, making him a near lock for the starting lineup.
The shooting guard and small forward positions should be much more competitive than the point guard position. To start, there are a few legitimate options in players like Bishop Daniels, Omari Grier, and Mike Williams. All three players have at least proven themselves as decent college players and should get on the floor. However, the other issue is that if Rutgers ends up playing big - this seems unlikely due to the wing depth and likely move to an uptempo style of play - these players are going to be pushed into one spot instead of two.
Nonetheless, assuming Rutgers goes small, it's seems the most likely that Daniels grabs the shooting guard spot and Grier at least takes the small forward role to begin. It should be noted that not only could Williams demand minutes off the bench, but incoming freshmen Justin Goode and Jonathan Laurent also have the potential to add depth as well. There should be some interesting lineups, but expert to see Daniels and Grier in money time.
In the frontcourt, it seems most likely that incoming JUCO prospect Deshawn Freeman will take the spot. He is one of the few players on the roster that can hold down the power forward position in a smaller lineup and should be able to get inside consistently. Along with this, it's very hard to imagine Greg Lewis not holding a starting spot. The only way Freeman does not grab a spot in the lineup is if the team goes big, pushes Lewis to power forward and brings someone like Ibrahima Diallo or Shaquille Doorson onto the floor. Both Diallo and Doorson have plenty of upside, but both are pretty unproven.
The Scarlet Knights have some big questions in their lineup for next season, but do look set to put a younger and more talented starting lineup on the floor than the team did last year. There are some questions considering that the team will likely depend on three newcomers in its starting lineup and has some depth issues, but the talent should override many of these issues. This looks like a roster that should go small, but there is some diversity in lineup selections that could help Rutgers matchup with some opponents over the course of the season.
9. Team Perspective From Dave White of On The Banks
"It's a new slate for the Scarlet Knights. Gone are the 4 year standbys Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack. Also gone are the players Eddie Jordan recruited to fill the holes left by the Mike Rice scandal. In Jordan's third year, he's brought in 7 new faces as he tries to turn the corner at Rutgers.
The most important of those 7 are Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman. Sanders, a freshman, is an electric point guard, top 100 talent, and highlight reel. He will be leaned on to run Jordan's offense and get as many players involved as possible. Freeman, a JUCO power forward, will be asked to shoulder the load scoring wise. Both are top talents, and are the type of recruits that get Rutgers fans' blood pumping.
Greg Lewis and Bishop Daniels are back to provide leadership. Also look for Mike Williams, Shaquille Doorson, and DJ Foreman to take steps forward in their development. Add intriguing prospects in forward Ibrahima Diallo, wing Jonathan Laurent, and guard Justin Goode, and Rutgers finally has some depth to play with. And the wild card could be graduate transfer Omari Grier, who is reportedly a dead eye three point shooter.
Year three is big for Eddie Jordan. He needs to start showing signs of moving forward and leaving the losing behind. If the length, energy and youth Jordan has infused in this program take hold, the 2015-16 Rutgers squad could be a running and pressing bunch that could be a dangerous out in the Big Ten. No one is predicting NCAA Tournament for Rutgers, but 15 wins and some shocking upsets could be on the table." - Dave White.
10. Overall Season Outlook
This is a year that should serve two purposes for the Rutgers program. The first is to get the terrible 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons in the rear view mirror. Before the Scarlet Knights can turn the page, the team needs to show that it has made some progress from two of the program's worst seasons in recent memory. The other purpose is to, hopefully, transition away from the last two years and toward a more talented and deeper roster.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to see much more for the Scarlet Knights this season. Rutgers is not a team devoid of talent, but it is one that appears to be a step behind most of the Big Ten. To start, the team looks like it is going to rely on three newcomers in its starting lineup and several more for the team's depth. That might be a good sign for the future, but not one for this season.
Players like Corey Sanders have a lot of talent, but expecting them to instantly be great players is probably unrealistic and that's what Rutgers would need to be near the top of the Big Ten. Remember, even though Rutgers struggled significantly last season, the team did still lose arguably its three best players and a few depth options this offseason. The new additions are going to need to replace those lost contributions before the Scarlet Knights can even think about moving itself to the contender status in the Big Ten, which could be difficult.
If Eddie Jordan is successful in Pitscataway, this will be the season that sets the base for that success. Unfortunately, this is not a season where fans can realistically expect the team to compete at the top level. Nonetheless, this should be a more exciting team that should grow over the course of the season even if the results aren't necessarily there.