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What are the Three Biggest Questions for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights?

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Can Rutgers build off last season?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Northwestern vs Rutgers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I know this segment is called three questions, but it’s debatable if Rutgers has even found three answers since moving to the Big Ten before the 2014-’15 season.

Many people who were against the conference transition argued that Rutgers would immediately become the “doormat” of the conference. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, the way they have performed so far has not helped their case. At least when Rutgers was in the Big East, they could feel like a competitive team once or twice per season when they played a mirror image of themselves: the DePaul Blue Demons.

Since moving to the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have gone 32-65 overall and a brutal 6-48 in Big Ten play. Though the doubters of Rutgers have been right so far, and there is no way to deny that they have in fact been a “doormat”, the Scarlet Knights have slowly improved.

Last season was by far the most competitive for Rutgers since joining the Big Ten. They notched highs in overall wins (15) and conference wins (3) since joining the conference.

Yes, they were still a losing team. And, sure, they’ve only made baby steps. However, progression is better than regression. Considering the Scarlet Knights only finished three games under .500 last season and a little more progress can be expected, our first question arises.

Three Questions for Rutgers:

1. Can Rutgers Put Together a Winning Season?

The Scarlet Knights haven’t finished over .500 since the 2005-’06 season. Early last season, their chances actually looked promising. Rutgers won 11 of their 12 non-conference games. This set them up to only need win five conference games to put together a winning season.

But thanks to two ugly losing streaks, one of seven games and one of six, the Scarlet Knights finished 3-15 in conference play. The losing season streak continued.

As previously stated, Rutgers should be a little better than last season. Though they are losing their second highest scorer from last season (Nigel Johnson), the majority of their key contributors are returning.

Leading scorer and overall best player Corey Sanders will be back for his third collegiate season. Although Sanders regressed a little last season from a scoring perspective, he is still the leader of this team. And now the spotlight is all his.

Junior forward Deshawn Freeman is returning as well. Freeman led the team in rebounding last season, with 7.8 per game. He also was the third player on Rutgers to average double-digit points per game with 11.1.

In addition to losing Nigel Johnson, the Scarlet Knights are losing another key contributor in C.J. Gettys. The center finished fifth on Rutgers in scoring last season and was their second best rebounder.

However, the Scarlet Knights are adding two freshman centers to compensate for the absence of Gettys in the lineup. One is Mamadou Doucoure, a four-star, 6-foot-8 center. The other is Myles Johnson, a three-star player from Long Beach, CA. These were crucial additions for Rutgers’ size and rebounding abilities.

Besides returning more than they are losing next season, the main factor that could help the Scarlet Knights put together a winning season is the strength of their schedule. Specifically, their non-conference schedule. Rutgers’ non-conference slate could be the easiest in the country. And this had to be on purpose.

Besides playing Florida State and Seton Hall, the 11 teams Rutgers plays outside of the Big Ten are either non-D1 schools or small, mid-major programs. Not counting the City College of New York (a DIII program), the 10 mid-major programs the Scarlet Knights play next season had an average RPI of 272.4 last season.

Essentially, the Scarlet Knights non-conference slate is setting them up to enter the thick of Big Ten play with at least 11 victories, as they did last season.

Rutgers plays 31 total regular season games next season. This means that if they win their 11 “cakewalk” type games, they will once again need five conference wins to finish over .500. They were close last year. It’s safe to expect another close finish to the .500 mark next season, in either direction.

With upperclassmen Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams leading the team, mixed with the addition of three recruits who are three-stars or greater, the Scarlet Knights are capable of winning five to seven Big Ten games next season.

2. What Kind of a Leash Does Steve Pikiell Have?

With their constant struggles, obviously the Scarlet Knights have made a lot of head coaching changes in recent time. It’s worth noting that Pikiell is off to a better start than most previous coaches.

Eddie Jordan, the coach from whom Pikiell took over, finished 12-21 in his first season as Rutgers’ head coach. The coach before him, Miles Rice Jr, finished only one half of a game better than Pikiell in his first season with Rutgers (15-17). And before that, Fred Hill was coach. Hill finished 10-19 in his first season with the Scarlet Knights.

Pikiell is off to a better start than most of his predecessors. With a weak schedule for close to half the season, Pikiell has a solid chance at leading Rutgers to an over .500 finish, which would secure his job for a few years to come.

Also, with how Piekiel has recruited for the 2018 season, things are looking up.

Piekiel picked up a huge commitment from Montez Mathis, a four-star shooting guard from Maryland. Mathis is also a member of ESPN’s Top 100 incoming players in the 2018 class. This marks only the fifth ESPN Top 100 player to commit to Rutgers since 2007. Montez held offers from a number of programs including Minnesota, North Carolina State, and West Virginia.

In addition to Mathis, Piekiel also landed versatile point guard Mac McClung for the 2018-’19 season. McClung is a three-star player that received attention from a lot of D1 programs because of his athleticism.

However, one has to wonder about how things will progress this season. Things look good on paper, but fans will be looking for improvement. If not, perhaps the leash gets shortened on Pikiell.

3. Will Corey Sanders Improve?

It’s obvious Corey Sanders is the best player on his team. But, if you’re a Rutgers fan, you had to be a little concerned that Sanders was significantly better as a freshman than he was last season, as a sophomore.

Sanders averaged 15.9 points per game as a freshman, and then only 12.8 as a sophomore. Sanders’ assist numbers went down from 4.3 to 3.2. The guard’s rebound and steal totals decreased as well, while he also fouled more people as a sophomore.

There is no denying that Sanders was a better, more consistent player during his freshman year. However, it’s not like the guard had a poor sophomore season. Sanders still managed to score in double figures in 22 of the Scarlet Knights 33 games last season.

I’d say the most concerning thing is how much better he shot as a freshman. Sanders shot 42.3 percent from the floor during the 2015-’16 season and under 40 percent last season, at 38.2.

With all of this being said, Sanders is still a very, very talented player. It’s hard for me to imagine him regressing in two consecutive years after one of the most promising freshman seasons we’ve seen at Rutgers in a while. He’ll be given the opportunity to take over every game and shoot as much as he would like. Sanders will without a doubt play over 30 minutes per game next season. Only time will tell if Sanders in fact bounces back, and plays more like he did his freshman year.