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2016-’17 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2015-16 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 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 said team.

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Since joining the Big Ten, things have been a hot mess for Rutgers. For most who follow Big Ten basketball regularly, that’s not exactly going to come as a surprise, but putting into perspective just how much of a disaster the last two seasons were for the Scarlet Knights is a difficult task. On a game-by-game basis, it was like watching the basketball-version of the Hindenburg burning from the sky.

To nobody’s surprise, that two-year disaster led to the firing of head coach Eddie Jordan in what seemed like minutes after the team’s season-ending Big Ten Tournament loss to Nebraska. Ultimately, during his three seasons at the helm, Rutgers went 29-68 (.299) overall and lost an astounding 46 games by double-digits.

Naturally, the utter failure of those three seasons wasn’t limited to the team’s overall performance either. There was the mind boggling 92-31 loss to Louisville to end the 2013-’14 season, the 26 point performance against Virginia, and the 32-game (!!!) losing streak against Big Ten opponents from January of 2015 through March of 2016. Simply put, this was a run of epic proportions, but for all the wrong reasons.

But like Simba in the The Lion King, Rutgers fans got a proverbial smack to the head this spring when the program brought in Steve Pikiell to lead things.

Pikiell wasn’t the home run hire that many Scarlet Knight fans had hoped for, but he was a proven winner with a track record of success in the area. Notably, he built Stony Brook into a consistent winner (five straight 20-win seasons) and took the program to its first NCAA Tournament last March. Between his track record and regional connections, he appears to be a great fit for the program, or at least on paper.

Unfortunately, even if Pikiell does work out at Rutger, he will have his work cut out this season. Though the Scarlet Knights should bring back a deeper and more experienced team than during Jordan’s tenure, it’s hard to picture Rutgers doing too much in Big Ten play or being in serious postseason contention this season. The good news is that if all goes well, this could be a program shaping year to build for years ahead.

With that, let's take a look at what to expect from 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. 2015-’16 Season Performance

  • Record: 7-25 (1-17)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #291
  • RPI Rating: #293
  • Postseason Appearance: None

If Eddie Jordan’s tenure at Rutgers was a failure, then the 2015-’16 season was the crowning achievement of his ineptitude. That’s going to come off like a dig at Rutgers, but it’s just the truth. The Scarlet Knights finished dead last in the Big Ten (for the second straight year), went 1-17 in Big Ten play, lost 17 games against Big Ten opponents by double-digits, and were nowhere even close to an NIT bid.

Undoubtedly, what was so brutal about last season for Rutgers was the team’s complete inability to be competitive against quality teams. In fact, despite 19 total games against top 100 KenPom teams, Rutgers only avoided a double-digit loss against a top 100 team once. And in that lone game (a 79-72 loss to Indiana), it still took a frantic push at the end to keep it within 10 points.

In other words, when Rutgers faced a competent opponent, the team was far more likely to get blown out than to be competitive.

That’s, uh, not a recipe for success.

Now, one can speculate as to how much injuries, suspensions, and late season motivation played into those struggles, but from an overall perspective, it was a horrific performance. After all, even if some of the struggles can be explained contextually, going 7-25 as a Big Ten team is beyond excusing.

Highlights of the season included Rutgers' wins over Minnesota, Fairleigh Dickinson, and UMass Lowell. None of these teams were great, but at least the Minnesota win was over a conference opponent. Low points of the season included a loss to a bad St. John’s team, a blowout loss to Minnesota earlier in the year, and a double-digit loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament. As mentioned, the struggles for Rutgers went far beyond a game or two.

Individual statistical leaders were DJ Foreman, Greg Lewis, and Corey Sanders. Foreman led the team in rebounds. Lewis led the team in blocks. Sanders led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Rutgers lost a total of six players for a variety of reasons. These players were Bishop Daniels, DJ Foreman, Justin Goode, Omari Grier, Jalen Hyde, and Greg Lewis. Four of these players graduated and two transferred. Of these six players, the most significant losses come from Daniels, Foreman, Grier, and Lewis. In fact, Goode and Hyde both averaged less than 15 minutes per game last season.

When evaluating these six departures, it brings up the classic debate of whether teams can suffer “good” attrition. Maybe that sounds odd, but it’s a relevant point here. Rutgers is losing a lot of minutes, but none of these players were exactly elite. After all, if they had been great, Rutgers probably wouldn’t have gone 7-25. As such, these losses probably aren’t as big as their raw statistical measures might indicate.

With that said, these are still significant departures statistically. Not only did five of these six players see action in 30 games last season, but four averaged over 20 minutes a game. In particular, the losses of Daniels, Grier, and Lewis will be felt as all ventured into the starting lineup. Along with that, Foreman led the team in total rebounds and Daniels, Foreman, and Grier were all top five scorers for Rutgers last season.

The good news is that the losses of Goode and Hyde aren’t all that notable. Goode did average 14.4 minutes per game, but he was never a major scoring threat and saw little action in real games. Similarly, while Hyde did get on the floor in 16 games, he never even managed 10 minutes in a game last year. Consequently, replacing these two should be relatively easy for Rutgers this year.

Overall, these offseason losses do look pretty significant. Not only is the team losing two of its top four players in total minutes, but it’s also losing arguably its most reliable option upfront in Lewis and one of its best perimeter shooters in Grier. Essentially, Rutgers is losing a good hunk of its major contributors and its most productive guys in key areas like three-point shooting, rebounding, and shot blocking.

The major solace in these losses as discussed above, is that these are coming from a really, really bad team. This isn’t like a team losing three starters from a Final Four team. These are guys departing one of the worst Big Ten teams in recent memory. In theory, that should make them easier to replace. However, my preview said that the same thing last year and we all know how that went.

3. New Additions

This season, the Scarlet Knights will be adding four new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Matt Bullock, Eugene Omoruyi, Candido Sa, and Issa Thiam. According to 247Sports, Bullock and Thiam are listed as three-star prospects, while Omoruyi and Sa are unrated. Bullock is listed as a shooting guard, Omoruyi is listed as a small forward, and both Sa and Thiam are listed as power forwards.

While Thiam is rated as the best prospect in the class, both he and Bullock have been receiving a good share of the attention. Neither is expected to be great this year, but each has received some hype. Although Bullock might not have the raw athleticism and speed to make a major impact at the next level, he is a proven winner and should add some toughness to the roster.

Along with those two, both Omoruyi and Sa are intriguing additions. Both were relatively late additions for Pikiell and his staff and as such, haven’t received a ton of attention. However, Omoruyi put up some impressive numbers as a prep star (16.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game) and Sa could add another depth option to a pretty thin frontcourt as a JUCO addition.

Along with the recruiting additions, the Scarlet Knights are set to add two transfer additions to the roster. These come in the form of CJ Gettys from UNC Wilmington and Nigel Johnson from Kansas State. Though Johnson had to sit out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, both will be eligible to play this season.

Undoubtedly, Gettys is an addition that can make a huge difference for Rutgers. As I detailed in an article for Today’s U earlier this summer, he might not be perfect, but he still could be a difference maker.

Naturally, there will be concerns about Gettys and his readiness to play in the Big Ten. He played limited minutes for a team in a one-bid conference. Going from that to a seven-bid Big Ten isn’t exactly a small jump. UNC Wilmington might have been good, but this will be a different world for Gettys.

Even with these concerns, it’s hard not to like what Gettys can offer Rutgers heading into next season. Though he may not be the clear-cut front-runner to start next year (he likely will), he should still upgrade the position for the Scarlet Knights. That’s all Pikiell can ask for in chapter one of his rebuild at Rutgers.

In particular, with the loss of Lewis and Foreman, Rutgers needed help upfront and Gettys should be able to offer a boost there. His limited playing time at UNC Wilmington will be a concern, but considering that his 111.4 offensive rating last season was higher than any Rutgers player, it’s easy to see his potential.

Johnson doesn’t have quite the same potential as Gettys, but he put up respectable numbers at Kansas State and should be a versatile option in the backcourt. Although he’s not an elite shooter or offensive creator, he’s adequate in those areas and was a nice passer (21.5 assist rate) during his final season with the Wildcats. If anything, he should at least give Corey Sanders someone to play with this year.

All told, Rutgers probably isn’t going to get much production from its recruiting class this year, but if Gettys and Johnson can make a splash and even one recruit can be decent off the bench, it would be a big boost. Realistically, Pikiell will probably have to look to the 2017 recruiting cycle and beyond for difference makers.

4. Team Strengths

Admittedly, this is a pretty tough section to write for this preview. Every year brings change and new hope, but when a team comes in at No. 291 on KenPom’s ratings with the No. 316 offense and the No. 223 defense, it’s hard to find many strengths. Again, this isn’t meant as a dig against Rutgers, it’s just the reality facing the Scarlet Knights.

Given this conundrum, I’m going to focus more upon where I think Rutgers should improve this year. Notably, some areas that appear primed for improvement are in the team’s ball control, its interior scoring, and in its defensive rebounding. Realistically, none of these areas will be great, but they could take some tangible steps forward.

To start, it’s not hard to conclude that Rutgers is going to improve from its No. 236 ranking in turnover rate and its No. 290 ranking in defensive turnover rate last season. Not only will the return of Corey Sanders and Mike Williams help here, but the addition of Nigel Johnson should also be a big boost. All three were pretty solid in this area and with them managing most of the backcourt minutes, it’s not hard to see progression coming in that spot.

The interior scoring could also be set for improvement. Rutgers ranked a putrid No. 311 in two-point shooting last season, but with Sanders, Diallo, and Williams back and the addition of Gettys, there could be some sizable growth here.

Obviously, it’s tough to make a reasonable argument as to how Rutgers will be even decent with its interior game this season, but if Sanders and Williams can improvement their ability to get inside and both Diallo and Gettys can show more in the paint, there are reasons to believe. Again, there’s only so much improvement to realistically anticipate, but it’s something that should get at least a tad better.

Perhaps the most interesting area to watch for Rutgers will be on the boards. The loss of leading rebounder DJ Foreman will be felt, but with a key rebounder in Jonathan Laurent returning and Gettys joining, there are some reasons to believe the team will improve here. Notably, Gettys’ defensive rebounding rate (23.0) would have led Rutgers’ entire roster last season. If he brings any of that, it could have a huge impact.

As mentioned, it’s really tough to find areas on this roster that project as “strengths” for Rutgers, but if the team can maximize its possessions, improve its efficiency inside, and improve its rebounding, it would certainly have a major impact on its competitiveness this year.

5. Team Weaknesses

As discussed above, Rutgers had more than its share of issues last year. Whether it was offensive ineptitude or lackluster defense, the struggles were very prevalent. As such, it’s not worthwhile to go through every issue the team had over the last few years. Instead, here’s a look at some of the team’s rankings during Big Ten play last year.

Rutgers In 2015-’16 Big Ten Play:

  • #14 in offensive efficiency
  • #12 in scoring
  • #13 in effective field goal percentage
  • #12 in field goal percentage
  • #12 in turnover rate
  • #14 in 2PT percentage
  • #13 in 3PT percentage
  • #12 in free throw percentage

So, yeah. That’s, uh . . . something. Not only was Rutgers horrible overall offensively, but it was also a wreck in virtually every significant statistic. And if not for its brutally fast tempo (No. 1 in the Big Ten), many of those raw numbers like scoring could have been much, much worse. Simply put, the team couldn’t shoot, it couldn’t score inside, and it couldn’t even convert free throws when it got to the line.

Woof.

But as I mentioned, the past is in the past.

How does that impact things this year?

Well, obviously, a team’s not going to go from dreadful across the board to exceptional. Even if it does improve in some areas (discussed above), not everything’s going to come together at once. In particular, perimeter shooting and the team’s overall depth will remain massive concerns.

At the outset, outside shooting looks like it could be a major issue for Rutgers this season. Returning Corey Sanders (led the team in made three-pointers) is a huge boost, but with Omari Grier departing, the team is losing its most efficient outside guy. Plus, none of the additions look like elite shooters and guys like Sanders and Mike Williams weren’t much above 30 percent from downtown. Unless someone surprises, this could be a real hindrance for the offense.

Along with the shooting, the team’s depth remains a major red flag. Realistically, Rutgers can probably put together a competent starting lineup this year between the returners and additions, but the bench could be a complete disaster. After all, many of those 2016 additions are figured to be in backup roles and none are coming in with much regard from the recruiting services. Obviously, that’s not exactly a great sign.

All told, the depth for Rutgers can probably hold its own if there aren’t any major injuries, but if anybody significant (cough, cough Gettys or Sanders) goes down, look out. And between that and the unimpressive outside shooting, there are some major concerns for Rutgers heading into this season.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding who would end up as the team’s best player. In last year’s preview, I said the following:

It wasn’t a very confident selection given Sanders’ inexperience, but one that did seem to prove true. Sanders did momentarily give some consideration to entering the 2016 NBA Draft this summer, but with his return, he undeniably returns as Rutgers’ best player. After all, when a freshman leads his team in minutes, scoring, assists, and steals, it’s usually a pretty good sign for his sophomore campaign.

Naturally, I would be remiss not to mention at least a few other guys who could make a run here. Again, nobody is likely to pass Sanders, but if all goes right, CJ Gettys, Nigel Johnson, or Jonathan Laurent could make some noise. Notably, if Gettys can maximize his numbers at UNC Wilmington with more minutes, he could actually push Sanders. However, that’s probably not realistic.

Overall, Sanders probably got a little overrated (by some) last year given that he was one of the only scoring options on a bad team, but he’s primed for another breakout season this fall for Rutgers. If he can even build on his freshman performance slightly, he should easily be Rutgers’ best player this season.

7. 2016-’17 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/11 - Molloy
  • 11/13 - Drexel
  • 11/17 - at DePaul
  • 11/20 - Niagara
  • 11/23 - North Texas
  • 11/25 - Hartford
  • 11/30 - at Miami (FL)
  • 12/3 - Morgan State
  • 12/6 - Central Connecticut
  • 12/10 - at Stony Brook
  • 12/14 - Fairleigh Dickinson
  • 12/18 - Fordham (New York City, New York)
  • 12/23 - at Seton Hall
  • 12/27 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/1 - Penn State
  • 1/4 - at Michigan State
  • 1/8 - at Iowa
  • 1/12 - Northwestern
  • 1/15 - at Indiana
  • 1/21 - Nebraska
  • 1/24 - at Maryland
  • 1/28 - Wisconsin (New York City, New York)
  • 1/31 - Iowa
  • 2/4 - at Penn State
  • 2/8 - at Ohio State
  • 2/11 - Minnesota
  • 2/14 - at Purdue
  • 2/18 - at Northwestern
  • 2/22 - Michigan
  • 2/28 - Maryland
  • 3/4 - Illinois

As one might expect for a team that struggled so much last season, the athletic department made a concerted effort to create a manageable non-conference slate. Notably, just two opponents (Miami and Seton Hall) were rated in the top 150 on KenPom last year and just three (Fordham) landed in the top 200. In other words, this is an attempt to secure as many non-conference wins as possible.

Given this weak schedule (which is a good ecision, by the way), the games that really pop out are the road matchups with DePaul, Miami, Stony Brook, and Seton Hall and the neutral game against Fordham. Realistically, Rutgers is going to be a significant underdog in four of these five games, but if the team can somehow find a way to steal one or even two, it could really help to build momentum for this year and beyond.

Given that Rutgers has built itself a pretty manageable slate, the team should have a decent shot at going 8-5 on this year’s non-conference schedule. Fans will certainly be hoping for more and an upset or two along the way, but given that some of these matchups are against really tough competition, it’s tough to expect much more.

Conversely, Big Ten play is going to be an absolute buzzsaw for the Scarlet Knights. That might sound like an exaggeration, but Rutgers could legitimately be an underdog in every single conference game this year. Add that on top of a slew of challenging road games at places like Indiana, MIchigan State, and Wisconsin and it’s easy to see why Rutgers is going to have more than its work cut out this year.

The tricky thing about the Big Ten is that it projects for a down year, but Rutgers probably won’t benefit from the weaker opponents. This is because much of the anticipated Big Ten regression projects to the top of the conference and not the bottom, where teams might be vulnerable against the Scarlet Knights. In other words, teams might be worse, but still not weak enough for Rutgers to take advantage.

Given this cold reality, it’s pretty difficult to project a conference record for Rutgers. The potential for upsets in games against teams like Illinois, Minnesota, and Penn State is there, but when a team will be an underdog in basically every game, how can you project how it will finish? Obviously, it’s not an easy task.

It’s hard to be too down on this schedule. Conference play is going to be a monster, but if Rutgers can take care of business in non-conference play and hold its own through January, there are wins to be had. As such, look for somewhere between 10 to 12 wins for Rutgers this season with three in Big Ten play. It won’t be pretty, but at least it will be progress after last year.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Corey Sanders (So.) - 95%
  • SG: Nigel Johnson (Rs. Jr.) - 80%
  • SF: Mike Williams (Jr.) - 60%
  • PF: Jonathan Laurent (So.) - 55%
  • C: CJ Gettys (Rs. Sr.) - 55%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Heading into this season, most expect the backcourt to be the strength of the team. Not only does Corey Sanders project as the team’s best player this season, but the addition of Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson should also be huge. Considering that Johnson has the ability to play either guard spot and that fellow projected starter Mike Williams can operate as a reserve at the two guard spot, the backcourt should have talent and depth.

Unfortunately, things don’t project nearly as well elsewhere in the lineup.

On the wing, there are a handful of interesting options, but nobody who projects as an obvious starter. Mike Williams and Jonathan Laurent currently look like the starters at the three and four spots respectively, but neither invokes a ton of confidence. Although both have shown flashes of quality play, when one player (Williams) has two years of inefficient play and the other (Laurent) barely played 50 percent of minutes on a terrible team, it’s not a great sign.

It’s also worth noting that there are a few others who could be factors on the wing. Former JUCO transfer Deshawn Freeman is back after missing most of last year with injury and incoming JUCO transfer Candido Sa and freshmen Eugene Omoruyi should see time. Freeman will surely get time, but if Sa or Omoruyi can make an early impact, it would be a huge break for the Scarlet Knights.

In the frontcourt, Rutgers boasts an interesting mix of raw size and mixed results. The team is returning two redshirt sophomores in Ibrahima Diallo and Shaquille Doorson and is added a huge (literally) transfer in CJ Gettys, but no player has demonstrated anything at Rutgers yet. After all, Diallo and Doorson haven’t played any significant minutes during their time with the program and Gettys just joined the roster this summer. Even Freeman (who’s capable of sliding over to center) only has limited time with the Scarlet Knights.

Although the backcourt looks like a relative strength for Rutgers heading into next season, there will be a lot of questions marks on the wing and upfront. What will be particularly interesting to watch will be whether some of the newcomers like Gettys, Omoruyi, or Sa can fight into the lineup. If so, perhaps Rutgers can take a significant step forward from last year’s nightmare.

9. Team Perspective From Dave White of On The Banks

"Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights can't be much worse, right? Look for Steve Pikiell to take an athletic, but lesser talented squad, and turn them into defensive gnats. My hope is this is a team willing to do what it takes on the defensive and rebounding end to keep them in games and be an absolute pain in the neck to the opposition. It's a team short on shooting, but that doesn't man this team doesn't have talent.

Corey Sanders is still here and he's a Big Ten stud. He and Nigel Johnson should be able to get to the rim and leave the perimeter open for easier shots. Who will that shooting come from? Maybe Mike Williams can find consistency in his junior year. Also, Rutgers now has the largest front court in the Big Ten, and adding CJ Gettys at center and Candido Sa at power forward will certainly help.

There are pieces here and the talented staff should be able to develop them over the course of the year. Is Rutgers going to make a big jump in wins? Probably not. But taking a team that lost a ton of games by 20 or more points, and turning them into gritty battlers should be something to give Rutgers fans hope for the future. Sprinkle in an upset or two and maybe the Big Ten begins to worry as well." - Dave White.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Anytime a new coach takes over a program, there’s a honeymoon phase. A coach’s reputation and a program’s standing certainly have an impact on the breadth of that honeymoon, but there’s no denying that it exists. Until a coach starts getting into a season and winning or losing, everything will at least seem alright.

When Steve PIkiell opted to step away from the known commodity he built at Stony Brook and take over at Rutgers, he inherited a program in ruins. That’s going to sound hyperbolic to some, but for those who read through the early portions of this preview, that statement’s just the truth for Rutgers.

The important part now will be taking that honeymoon and turning it into something tangible.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, that year probably isn’t this season. The backcourt should be intriguing with Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson and adding some depth on the wing and the frontcourt is nice, but this roster is still miles behind most of the Big Ten in experience, talent, and depth. To even pull off an upset here or there in league play, Rutgers is going to have to be nearly perfect on a given night.

The ship seems to be moving in the right direction for Rutgers, but until Pikiell gets a few years to overhaul the team’s roster, expect the Scarlet Knights to endure some rough waters for at least the foreseeable future.

Big Ten Prediction: 14th Place