It's hard to believe 2016 is just days away, which means college basketball is transitioning into conference play. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights enter league play 6-7 with a home tilt against the Indiana Hoosiers Wednesday, December 30.
The Scarlet Knights have fallen victim of the injury bug lately - especially in the frontcourt. Junior forward Deshawn Freeman and Redshirt Freshman center Ibrahima Diallo have missed the last six and three games respectively, while sophomore center Shaquille Doorsen has yet to play this season.
With the non-conference schedule in the rearview mirror, and the conference season on the horizon, we discussed the state of the men's program through 13 games, recruiting needs, the outlook of the program in the Big Ten, and more.
BTP: What are your thoughts on the season so far?
Aaron Breitman: In a word, disappointed. I didn't expect a miracle turnaround this season, but I certainly thought this team would be better than they have performed so far. Depth was a concern coming into the season, with Nigel Johnson sitting out his transfer year and having one scholarship unfilled. Injuries have certainly played a factor in their losing record in non-conference play. Deshawn Freeman going down after seven games was a major loss. However, being without centers Shaq Doorson all season and Ibrahima Diallo the past few games, has reduced our frontcourt to a 2 man rotation. Seriously. They have now moved talented 6'6" freshman Jonathan Laurent into the 4 spot. With all that being said, there have been several issues that continue to prove Rutgers is not where they need to be as a team to make progress this season.
Their team defense, a strength last season, has taken a major step back. Their one saving grace has been defending the three-point arc, holding opponents to just 31% from long range. However, they have too often allowed opponents to penetrate the paint at will and are currently 12th in the conference in field goal % defense at 42.6%. Rutgers is also 13th in the conference for rebounding defense, as their lack of a defensive presence in the paint is killing them.
Another issue has been turnovers, as Rutgers averages 15 a game, the most in the Big Ten. Their turnover margin is 13th in the conference and assist to turnover ratio is the worst in the league. Too many times this season the offense has gone off the rails, turning possessions into a one on one game or quick shots that are not quality looks. This type of play directly resulted in one possession losses to St. John's and Wake Forest.
The most disappointing factor has been the lack of improvement as a team in regards to shooting the basketball. They are 11th in the conference in field goal percentage at 42.8%, 13th in three-point percentage at 33.5%, and 13th in free throw percentage at 66.5%.
Youth and depth were expected to be issues at times this season. The lack of progress with turnovers and shooting the basketball, coupled with significant regression on the defensive end, has made this season very disappointing. It is starting to make the fanbase wonder if Eddie Jordan is the right coach for the job after all.
BTP: The Big Ten Network pegged Rutgers 14th in the preseason. With an abundance of young talent, is that what you expected going into the season as well or did you have higher expectations?
AB: I expected them to be universally picked last in the conference but held hope that they would outperform expectations. I had hoped for close to a .500 record. They are a very young team that now only has eight active scholarship players. The goal this season was progress. Sadly, entering Big Ten play at 6-7, I think it will be very difficult for Rutgers to equal last season's win total of 10.
BTP: Freshman point guard Corey Sanders began his collegiate career with plenty of hype and expectations. How do you feel he has performed so far and where could he improve?
AB: He is getting better every game, with the exception of a poor performance against George Washington. I expected his effort, athleticism and unselfish play, which have been on full display. I didn't expect him to consistently lead the team in scoring and to shoot so well from three-point range. He is averaging 14 points per game while shooting 43.5% from the field and 38% from three-point range. Sanders is leading the team in scoring, assists, steals and minutes played.
The one area that he still needs to improve on is reducing turnovers and running the offense effectively on a consistent basis. He tried to do it all by himself and forced bad shots against GW, leading Eddie Jordan to sit him for large portions of that game. The message was received, as he has taken full control of the offense the past few games, getting more players involved and working for quality looks at the basket.
His potential is sky high and he is already looking like the best point guard at Rutgers in many years, possibly since Eddie Jordan during the late seventies. It will be interesting to see how he fares against Big Ten competition, as he is likely to be double teamed and pressured relentlessly, game after game. How he handles that and continues to develop as a player will have a major impact on the rest of this season and the program's future.
BTP: JUCO transfer Deshawn Freeman was really impressive before going down with a knee injury. Were you anticipating a quick transition from his JUCO days to division one level of play?
AB: Yes, expectations for Freeman were high based on his quality of play at JUCO powerhouse Hutchinson CC. He looked Big Ten ready from the opening tip of this season. He attacks the basket and is polished offensively, as he is able to score in multiple ways. His loss has been devastating to the frontcourt and his return is unknown. He is scheduled to be reevaluated in a couple of weeks and because he has only played in seven games, Freeman would be eligible for a medical redshirt.
BTP: The Scarlet Knights had a 2016 commitment in Kwe Parker, but rescinded his commitment leaving the 2016 class empty as of now. Where do you think head coach Eddie Jordan and his staff go from here? What are the most pressing needs going into next season?
AB: They have nine recruits they are currently targeting, which I cover in detail here. The wing and shooting guard spots are positions of need and the staff is targeting several prospects for each. Eddie Jordan has taken some heat recently for not actively recruiting such a deep group of recruits in New Jersey in the class of 2016. He and the staff are doing a better job with the class of 2017 and are in play on several top recruits, like Andre Rafus, Sidney Wilson and Isaiah Washington. But after Kwe decommitted and jumped ship to Tennessee, with both St. John's and Seton Hall nabbing top local recruits in Shamorie Ponds and Myles Powell, Rutgers looks to be far behind their rivals in the ongoing recruiting war.
The fanbase is growing restless as the losses mount and without a recruit committed for this class. Rutgers has four open scholarships for next season, and it's looking more likely they will not be all filled, or at least with quality talent needed for this program to take the next step. While the staff has done a good job finding talent all over the east coast and beyond, sometimes offering a top recruit early on, they have not been able to close.
Recently, they are starting to offer players who have multiple offers from mid to low majors, with Rutgers being the first high major to offer. It's concerning and something to watch for as the season progresses. With Rutgers unlikely to eclipse last season's 10-22 record, the longer the program goes without securing a commitment for next season, the hotter Eddie Jordan's seat will get.
BTP: What do you think the overall prospectus is for Rutgers in the Big Ten?
AB: To be blunt, not good. I have shed blood, sweat, and tears (okay no blood), for this program going on three decades. I will continue to do so and love some of the individual talent on this team. I think this team has shown some heart and guts in their past few games and it's been reassuring they haven't given up on the season.
But the reality is they enter Big Ten play with eight scholarship players and just two true frontcourt players. They just don't have the depth to compete successfully on a nightly basis in conference play. I am optimistic they can steal a few wins, but their first nine conference games are as tough as it gets. They open at home against Indiana, at Wisconsin and at Maryland. I hope they survive that stretch with some semblance of confidence and are healthy enough to play well down the stretch.
If no progress is made and another 15 game losing streak ensues, the fanbase will start demanding change. With a new athletic director in place in Patrick Hobbs, his thoughts on the state of the program and its future remain unclear. If anything, the next few months will provide an answer in some way on what Hobbs thinks. I hope for the best but it's tough to be too optimistic for now.