When Rutgers entered the Big Ten and played their inaugural season in 2014, expectations for conference title contention were seemingly nonexistent. With a young roster and the need to develop that inexperienced talent, the expectations remain low but optimism is slowly ascending in New Brunswick.
All of the hype about a Rutgers basketball rejuvenation rightfully surrounds the play of highlight reel generator Corey Sanders. The young point guard has stepped in beautifully as a true freshman by putting the team first and playing within the system. Sanders, known in high school as a bit of a showman, has played his role as a pass first guard who is willing to contribute significant minutes to help steer the Scarlet Knights towards victory - Sanders leads Rutgers in minutes per game (32.8).
Point guards are obviously important for team success and relevancy, but shot blockers and anchors on defense don't get enough credit in modern day basketball driven by guard play. Rutgers fans may not know or see it by watching the first five games of the 2015 season, but there is hope for redshirt freshman Ibrahima Diallo to turn into a significant post presence in the years to come.
Diallo entered Rutgers as a tall, skinny project with a promising defensive skill set and an offensive game that was a work-in-progress. The 6'10, 240-pound center is a graduate of Quality Education Academy in Winston Salem, North Carolina where he averaged an impressive 13.0 points, 15.0 rebounds and 5.0 blocks as a senior. Impressive length, athleticism and defensive prowess allowed Diallo to become the ninth-ranked prospect in the Tar Heel state and the 27th-ranked center in the 2014 class by ESPN. Those accolades were enough to warrant offers from the likes of Oklahoma, Georgia, Marquette, UMASS and Old Dominion.
The on-court results in the early goings of the season haven't been jaw dropping, but the stats have come from limited minutes. Diallo has appeared in all five games thus far and is averaging 3.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.2 assists per game on 13 minutes per game, per ESPN.
With the massive influx of underclassmen, the Scarlet Knights are leaning on senior big man Greg Lewis to anchor the defense. Having a Lewis in the lineup is a plus for Diallo's growth on the court, as it allows the youngster to see Lewis' positive tendencies on the court and apply them sparingly when called upon. Diallo redshirted last year, but with limited minutes so far this season, it should be looked upon as a chance to understand the mental aspect of the game with a steady senior serving as a mentor.
The clamoring for early results lingers in all sports, and with a redshirt year in the rear view mirror, there could be reason for skepticism with Diallo's lack of production. There should also be a glimmer of hope for Scarlet Knights fans.
For example, Amida Brimah, the defensive dynamo for the UCONN Huskies was nothing more than a potential defender his freshman season and has turned into one of the most highly regarded defensive anchors in college basketball. Brimah hasn't let a limited offensive repertoire prevent him from making an impact. Perhaps Rutgers fans will say the same one day about Diallo.
The nice thing about Rutgers is the expectations don't appear to be on a meteoric rise anytime soon, which means the opportunity for growth and mental development will be there for Diallo. With time, an impressive frame to work with and a senior mentor to lean on, Ibrahima Diallo has multiple chances to succeed at Rutgers.