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Rutgers 2017-18 Preview: Corey Sanders Set to Lead the Backcourt Once Again

Corey Sanders is back, but the Scarlet Knights will need to replace Nigel Johnson.

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

In the weeks leading up to the 2017-’18 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.

Today’s edition of the ‘BTPowerhouse Preview Series’ will focus on the backcourt for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are set at point guard with the return of Corey Sanders, but they’ll need to replace second-leading scorer Nigel Johnson.

'BTPowerhouse Preview' - Rutger’s Backcourt:

  • 2016-’17 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Corey Sanders (honorable mention coaches and media)
  • Departures: Nigel Johnson, Khalil Batie
  • Additions: Geo Baker, Peter Kiss, Souf Mensah
  • Top Player: Corey Sanders

Rutgers was scheduled to have a talented, experienced crop returning in the backcourt until Nigel Johnson announced he was going to play for Virginia as a graduate transfer. The loss will hurt, as Johnson started 13 games and averaged 11.3 points per game for a scoring-challenged team.

Despite the loss of Johnson, the Scarlet Knights still have talent with veteran guards Corey Sanders and Mike Williams, along with talented sophomore Issa Thiam.

Starting Rotation

Sanders has had the ball in his hands since he arrived at Rutgers, averaging 15.9 points, 4.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game as a freshman in 2015-16. Those numbers dropped a bit last year, but Sanders still put up 12.8 points, 3.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game as Rutgers’ main option. The quick 6-foot-2 guard will look to show some more consistency, particularly with his jump shot. Sanders can get to the basket when he wants, but he shot just 38.2 percent overall, including 26.6 percent from behind the three-point line, last season. Those numbers were at 42.3 percent overall and 31.5 percent on three-pointers in 2015-16. If Sanders can get back to that level or above, he’s going to be even tougher to defend.

Williams will spend a lot of time playing off Sanders. Williams, co-captain last year, has seen significant playing time in each of his first three seasons at Rutgers. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 9.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game last season while making 12 starts. The Scarlet Knights would like Williams’ offensive output to increase this year, and he has the ability, having averaged 12.3 points per game in 2015-16. Williams also brings solid defensive ability to a team that was solid on that end of the floor last season, giving up 67.1 points per game.

Like Sanders, Williams has struggled with his outside shot. He attempted a team-leading 135 three-pointers last season, but connected on just 31.9 percent, while shooting 39.2 percent from the field overall. Rutgers needs to improve in that area, having shot just 30.3 percent on three-pointers as a team last season.

Thiam will likely play a small forward type role and be one of the Scarlet Knights that is relied upon to stretch the defense. At 6-foot-10, 190 pounds, Thiam has a smooth-looking jump shot, but his body, and game, have a lot of filling out to do. Thiam averaged 3.9 points per game as a freshman last season, connecting on 30.3 percent (30-99) of his three-point attempts. If the Senegal native can take a leap forward this year, it will go a long way in replacing the scoring of Johnson.

Bench Rotation

That trio is going to play the bulk of the minutes, as backcourt depth is going to be an issue for Rutgers.

Jake Dadika has the most experience of any guard behind Sanders, Williams and Thiam. But that isn’t much experience, as Dadika has appeared in 36 games over his first three seasons, never playing more than 5.6 minutes per game. Sophomore Joey Downes appeared in just two games last season, while sophomore Peter Kiss will sit out due to NCAA transfer rules.

Baker may have to play early on. The 6-foot-4 true freshman was a three-star recruit that chose Rutgers over programs like George Mason, George Washington, Kansas State, Lehigh and Vermont.

Mensah also joined the Scarlet Knights after spending two years at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa. Mensah, a big body at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, averaged 10.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game as a sophomore last season.

Mensah and Baker bring very different games to the table, but it’s likely that at least one of them may have to contribute for a Rutgers team that is light at the guard position.


Rutgers is very top-heavy in the backcourt. Sanders can get out and go with anyone in the conference and he has proven it over the last two years, while Williams and Thiam have also shown that they can play significant roles.

But they are going to log heavy minutes for a Rutgers team that still doesn’t have enough talent to compete in the Big Ten. It’s likely going to be another tough year for the Scarlet Knights, but at least they are strong at college basketballs most important position. They will beat some teams this year when Sanders really has it going.