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2017-’18 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2017-’18 season.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 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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A miracle is defined as “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing or accomplishment.” Maybe that’s a mundane way to start a preview, but if the shoe fits, it’s going to make the preview.

Rutgers and head coach Steve Pikiell are currently in the process of trying to perform a miracle. After Eddie Jordan drove the Scarlet Knights to (literally) the bottom of college basketball, Pikiell and his staff have been trying to lead the program back to relevance. To call this a challenging task would be disingenuous. It will take a sports miracle to bring Rutgers back anytime soon.

But don’t look now, because Pikiell is starting to work that miracle.

Since taking over the job last season, Pikiell has completely reversed course for the program. Despite regressing in each of Jordan’s three years at the helm, Rutgers jumped an astounding 144 (!!!) spots on KenPom in Pikiell’s first year and more than doubled its win total from the year prior. It may not seem like substantial improvement (Rutgers still finished last in the Big Ten), but it was a huge step forward.

Unfortunately, the first step isn’t the ‘miracle’ challenge. It’s the second step, where Rutgers elevates from a conference bottom dweller into a competitive Big Ten team. Rutgers not only needs to be competitive in games, but needs to start winning some too. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Conventional wisdom says it will be a few more years before Pikiell can realistically finish his rebuild. And that’s not an unreasonable opinion. One would assume that it would take more than an offseason or two to take Rutgers from the depths of college basketball to the national stage.

However, there are reasons to believe the transition might not take as long as many experts are predicting. To start, Corey Sanders returns to Piscataway after a solid sophomore season and the team also returns three other starters in Deshawn Freeman, Issa Thiam, and Mike Williams. Pikiell has also done a nice job to fill out the rest of the roster, thanks to some solid recruiting and transfer additions.

What this leaves for fans with the challenging of balancing hope and realistic expectations. Rutgers is not going to set the world on fire this season, but nobody thought the Scarlet Knights would start last season at 11-1, either. And while Pikiell may be faced with working a miracle, fans are hoping he can work some magic. Let’s see what Pikiell is set up to accomplish in his second year with the program.

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 Dave White of On The Banks breaking down Rutgers’ roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2016-’17 Season Performance

  • Record: 15-18 (3-15)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #135
  • RPI Rating: #172
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Let me preface this section with a few notes. Much of my commentary herein is going to read as if they’re backhanded comments about the Scarlet Knights. Please note that’s not the case here. It’s just important to lay the proper context for assessing where Rutgers was as a team and program during last year.

With that out of the way, we can dive into last season.

Don’t be fooled. Rutgers was not a good team last season. The Scarlet Knights may have jumped out to an 11-1 start and doubled its win total from 2015-’16, but Rutgers wasn’t anywhere close to good. Even if improved, Rutgers still finished at 15-18 overall, nowhere near the NCAA Tournament, and dead last in the Big Ten. Nobody in their right mind could argue that those marks equate to a good, or even solid, team.

To get some context, let’s take a look at the team’s 15 wins. To start, 11 of those wins came against one of the nation’s weakest non-conference slates. Rutgers played 13 non-con games with 11 of them coming against teams ranked 183rd (!!!) or worse on KenPom and two coming against top 50ish teams. If you guessed that all of Rutgers’ non-conference wins came against teams ranked 183rd or worse, you were right.

And while Rutgers was improved in Big Ten play, the team’s final results weren’t stellar either. The team beat struggling Illinois and Nebraska teams at home, Penn State on the road, and a seriously depleted Ohio State squad in the Big Ten Tournament. It may have been the team’s most regular season Big Ten wins (three) since joining the conference and its first Big Ten Tournament win, but there’s a reason two of those teams (Illinois and Ohio State) fired their coaches following the season.

But, of course, there was progress. Rutgers did jump 144 (!!!) spots on KenPom from the 2015-’16 season and proved to be far more competitive in Big Ten play. Even though the Scarlet Knights were losing games, the massive blowouts of the Jordan era were few and far between.

In fact, Rutgers won three Big Ten games outright and lost seven by 10 points or less. In the year prior, Rutgers only won a single league game and lost 15 games by 10 points or more. Even the biggest critics would have to admit that’s measurable progress.

But even with that progress, Rutgers still wasn’t anywhere close to being nationally relevant. The team’s overall record was built off a fraudulent non-conference schedule and much of the “improvement” had more to do with how bad the program was the year before than with significant progress. It was the “year zero” of year zeros.

Individual statistical leaders were DeShawn Freeman and Corey Sanders. Freeman led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. Sanders led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, and usage.

2. Offseason Exits

While Rutgers was only 273rd nationally in KenPom’s experience rating last season, the team still lost five players from last season. These players are Khalil Batie, Ibrahima Diallo, CJ Gettys, Nigel Johnson, and Jonathan Laurent. Some of these departures are relatively significant and some will have little impact at all. Either way, it will give Pikiell and his staff some challenges heading into this season.

The most significant of these departures will be Gettys. He started every game for the Scarlet Knights last season and averaged 7.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game. While his advanced numbers were far from impressive, he was a huge defensive boost for the team and dominated the team’s minutes inside. He was also particularly good on the offensive boards, finishing with a 9.2 offensive rebounding rate.

Johnson is the other departure that fans will want to be aware of heading into this season. Even though he only started 13 games last season, Johnson played 63.6 percent of the team’s minutes and averaged 11.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He was also the primary backup at both the one and two spots and had a substantial role in the offense. In fact, Johnson was second on the team (behind only Sanders) in percentage of the team’s shots taken while on the floor.

Between Gettys and Johnson, Rutgers is looking at losing two of its top five in total minutes, including a starter and a diverse reserve player in the backcourt. Both can be replaced, but it’s important to remember that each played significant minutes for a team that finished 135th on KenPom last season. As such, every departure is a bit more magnified by the circumstances.

The other three departures are relatively inconsequential. Batie only played 14 minutes all season and Diallo averaged 8.3 minutes per game in 18 contests. Laurent played far more, but he still only averaged 13.3 minutes per game and failed to play 20 minutes in any of the team’s final 26 games last season. Nonetheless, Laurent’s departure is still notable given that he saw minutes at spot without much proven depth.

Generally speaking, Rutgers didn’t get hit too badly by offseason departures. The Scarlet Knights only lost one starter and just two of the team’s top seven players in minutes from last season. Even if the team is losing some contributors, it’s hard to think those are devastating departures.

3. New Additions

This season, the Scarlet Knights are adding four new recruits, one transfer, and one walk-on. The recruits are Geo Baker, Mamadou Doucoure, Myles Johnson, and Souf Mensah. Mensah is listed as a point guard, Baker is listed as a combo guard, and Doucoure and Johnson are listed as forwards. Mensah is a former JUCO player. All four are listed as three-star prospects by 247Sports. The transfer is Peter Kiss and the walk-on is Luke Nathan.

While none of the program’s incoming prospects arrive with elite recruiting rankings, all come to the program with some potential to contribute for the Scarlet Knights. Expectations will be relatively minor for the next year or two, but those should increase as these prospects gain some experience.

Two players who could contribute early, however, are Baker and Mensah. Many regard Baker as the player with the most potential in the class and Mensah joins the program after starting 20 games at Marshalltown Community College. Mensah was an effective scorer and a quality shooter and fans will hope he can bring those aspects of his game to Piscataway. Baker is another player known for his shooting abilities. These two have the potential to lift the program’s backcourt shooting substantially.

The other two prospects are pretty raw. Doucoure is an international recruit and Johnson comes in ranked 370th nationally and as the 88th power forward in the class. Neither will be asked to contribute much this season and that should be good news for Scarlet Knight fans. Any production from these two will be icing on the cake. As a walk-on, Nathan is another player who will likely make most of his contributions on the scout team.

Kiss is the lone transfer to the program. During an underwhelming 10-21 campaign for Quinnipiac last season, Kiss was one of the key pieces for the team, averaging 29.8 minutes, 13.3 points, and 5.6 rebounds per game. He also was an impressive passer with an 18.6 assist rate. Unfortunately, he will have to sit out the upcoming season pursuant to NCAA eligibility rules.

While Rutgers may not be adding a stacked recruiting class with the potential to instantly skyrocket the Scarlet Knights up the Big Ten standings, these newcomers do have the potential to help solidify what Pikiell is building. Fans will have to hope that a few of these players can emerge as reliable backup options and develop down the line.

4. Points of Optimism

Since Pikiell took over the program last year, Rutgers has clearly been trending in the right direction. Not all of that improvement has necessarily shown itself on the court yet, but it’s happening. The Scarlet Knights seem to finally be elevating from the depths of the Big Ten and that has to get fans excited for the future.

To put that improvement into perspective, just look at the team’s top rotation. Sanders has developed from a talented freshman into one of the Big Ten’s better guards, Mike Williams and Deshawn Freeman are experienced players who have seen productive playing time, and Pikiell has added a plethora of depth and options upfront. The overhaul has been pretty massive across the board.

And really, that’s the biggest thing to be optimistic about. Rutgers finally has a legitimate Big Ten roster this season. Maybe it’s not the best roster in the league, but it’s finally comparable. Under Jordan, Rutgers wasn’t just a step behind the other teams. It had to use binoculars to see the rest of the conference. That’s no longer the case, thanks to Pikiell’s activity on the recruiting and transfer markets.

There’s also still some upside on this roster too. Sanders has the potential to be an All-Big Ten player, Freeman was a monster on the boards, and the frontcourt is young and has room to grow. Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam were freshmen last season and the team is adding two forwards in its recruiting class this season. Conventional wisdom implies that one or two of those players will take a step forward this season.

Rutgers also has the potential to (once again) be a tough matchup during league play. Not necessarily because Rutgers is an elite unit that can overwhelm opponents, but due to its emphasis on defense and rebounding. In a day and age where more and more teams are committing to small ball, Rutgers could sneak up on unprepared opponents by going against the grain.

And, even though the wins weren’t there last season, Rutgers was already making things difficult for opponents. The Scarlet Knights were seventh nationally in offensive rebounding rate and 70th in defensive efficiency. Rutgers still needs to improve elsewhere, but those are two great places to start.

It’s also important to mention the fact that Rutgers will enter this season with a real All-Big Ten candidate. Sanders is back after averaging 12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game and looks to take another step forward. His efficiency numbers weren’t outstanding, but he was still really productive. Rutgers fans will be hoping that Sanders can take another step forward and prove to be one of the league’s best players. If so, that would go a long way toward the team’s success.

While fans shouldn’t exactly be clearing out the rafters for new banners this season, there are some legitimate reasons to be excited about this year’s team. The roster has taken major steps forward and fans should anticipate that they will start to see some of the results of those improvements this season.

5. Points of Concern

Some of this will read like the early portions of this preview, but let’s not sugarcoat things. Rutgers was not a good team last season. The Scarlet Knights weren’t even above average. The team finished 135th nationally on KenPom and was immediately exposed as a fraud when conference play started.

These struggles are particularly important to keep in mind because they paint the picture of a program that is still trying to find its footing in the Big Ten. Add in the fact that Rutgers is adding a recruiting class ranked 85th nationally by 247Sports and that picture gets even darker. The roster simply isn’t loaded with talent. After all, there’s a reason why Rutgers is dead last in the Big Ten in roster talent per Verbal Commits.

Of course, teams can overcome a talent gap. After all, it’s not like more talented teams win every single matchup in college basketball. Upsets happen, talent can underachieve, coaches can develop players, and coaches can put less talented players in better positions to succeed. It’s a moving scale that depends upon a number of factors on both sides. A lack of talent won’t necessarily doom Rutgers.

However, it’s also disingenuous to pretend that talent doesn’t matter. Pikiell has done a great job at improving the talent on Rutgers’ roster, but it’s still anywhere close to the top of the league. Even if the team’s roster is now on the same playing field as other Big Ten teams, there’s still a gap, especially in comparison to the top teams.

To put this in perspective, just ask a simple question: How many Rutgers players would start on other Big Ten teams? Sanders would probably crack the lineup on most, but nobody else would be a lock for even another team or two. While Freeman would probably get some attention, it’s hard to assume any of the others would start on another of the league’s other teams. Not exactly an encouraging sign.

The team’s offense also looks like a major concern heading into this season. Maybe that’s a general comment, but Rutgers is bringing back most of its key contributors from last season and ranked 231st in offensive efficiency last season. Even if the team can be great defensively and on the boards, it won’t be able to overcome offensive numbers that underwhelming. The team needs to take steps forward there.

Rutgers also has some major frontcourt concerns. With the departure of Gettys, the Scarlet Knights need to find a new starting center and someone who can help the team on the defensive end and on the boards. There are some intriguing players down low, but no proven options. Fans will have to hope that a young player surprises.

It’s possible that Rutgers can find some ways to surprise fans and exceed expectations, but the team has some major concerns heading into this season. Unless Pikiell can address them adequately, things could get rough.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, I pointed to Sanders as the team’s best player. I was a bit hesitant to anoint a player entering his sophomore season as the team’s top option, but there really wasn’t any other logical choice:

“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.”

And with his return this season, Sanders once again figures to be the team’s top option. There will be little to no drama in this area. Sanders averaged 12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game last season and figures to only improve upon his production.

If someone does end up challenging him for the role as the team’s top player, the most likely option will be Freeman. He was an extremely productive player on the boards and could turn into a great player if he can improve his offensive production as well. Still, he will likely be a good distance back from the play of Sanders. It would be surprising if anybody else made a serious push here.

7. 2016-’17 Schedule Breakdown

  • 115 - St. John’s (Ex.)
  • 11/10 - CCNY
  • 11/12 - Central Connecticut
  • 11/14 - Cleveland State
  • 11/19 - Coppin State
  • 11/21 - Bryant
  • 11/24 - East Carolina
  • 11/28 - Florida State
  • 12/3 - at Minnesota
  • 12/5 - Michigan State
  • 12/7 - NJIT
  • 12/9 - Fairleigh Dickinson
  • 12/12 - Fordham
  • 12/16 - Seton Hall
  • 12/22 - Stony Brook
  • 12/28 - Hartford
  • 1/3 - at Purdue
  • 1/5 - Wisconsin
  • 1/10 - at Michigan State
  • 1/14 - Ohio State
  • 1/17 - Iowa
  • 1/21 - at Michigan
  • 1/24 - Nebraska
  • 1/27 - at Penn State
  • 1/30 - at Illinois
  • 2/3 - Purdue
  • 2/5 - Indiana
  • 2/10 - at Nebraska
  • 2/13 - Northwestern
  • 2/17 - at Maryland
  • 2/20 - at Ohio State
  • 2/25 - Illinois

Two years ago, I spent a large amount of time in my Northwestern preview criticizing the program’s decision to put together one of the nation’s non-conference slates. I called it “the most underwhelming non-conference schedule in the Big Ten” for that season. I wasn’t wrong either. Northwestern ended up finishing 349th nationally in non-conference strength of schedule.

But for as bad as that Northwestern schedule was then, this one might even be worse.

This is the second year in a row that Rutgers has constructed a non-conference schedule with the sole intention of adding wins to its resume. Not only does every non-conference game come at home (not sure I have ever seen this before), but the only games against remotely decent teams come against Florida State and Seton Hall. In fact, 11 of these 13 opponents are all ranked outside the top 170 (!!!) on KenPom.

What this leaves is a non-conference schedule where more than 80 percent of the games will do absolutely nothing for the team’s resume. Generally, beating teams outside the top 150 isn’t considered a resume win and Rutgers is set to face 11 (!!!) teams outside the top 170. If Rutgers doesn’t beat Florida State and/or Seton Hall, it will enter league play (once again) with nothing real on its resume.

This schedule also puts Rutgers in the no-win situation of having to win all 11 of these games. Even if Rutgers should win these games, the Scarlet Knights absolutely cannot be upset. These aren’t top 100 opponents away from home. All these games are at home against poor competition. Any non-conference loss to anybody except Florida State or Seton Hall would be a terrible blow.

All of these poor opponents also puts even more pressure on Rutgers to win its games against Florida State and Seton Hall. An 0-2 record against its only quality opponents would look horrible for the team’s resume. Even if those games are at home, that’s a lot of pressure for Rutgers to be in that early in the season.

Big Ten play, of course, is a different story.

Rutgers will have its work cut out when the calender rolls to conference play. Rutgers gets double-plays against Michigan State and Purdue and road games against Maryland, Michigan, and Minnesota. According to KenPom, Rutgers’ most winnable game of those seven is at home against Purdue and the team only has a 21 percent chance at victory. All told, Rutgers is an underdog in 16 of its 18 Big Ten games.

The good news is that there are some winnable games. Double-plays against Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio State look manageable and Rutgers also gets Indiana and Iowa at home. That’s at least eight games where Rutgers should enter the game with a fighting chance. It’s unrealistic to think the Scarlet Knights can win all of those games, but winning a few should be a reasonable goal.

While Rutgers has a relatively weak schedule, there are enough opportunities for the Scarlet Knights to score some resume building wins. The key to the season will be taking care of business at home, avoiding upsets, and trying to steal a big game or two.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Corey Sanders (Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Mike Williams (Sr.) - 75%
  • SF: Deshawn Freeman (Rs. So.) - 95%
  • PF: Issa Thiam (So.) - 70%
  • C: Shaquille Doorson (Rs. Jr.) - 55%

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

With plenty of key contributors returning from last season, it’s not difficult to project who the Scarlet Knights will be starting early this season. The lineup should look similar to the one the team put on the floor last season and the most important thing to watch will be whether any of the players get pushed for starting spots. If Rutgers is going to overachieve, the team will want some of its younger players to push for starting roles by season’s end.

At the point guard position, Sanders figures to lock down a starting role after putting up quality numbers last season. He should be the team’s best player and will get minutes corresponding to that fact. The biggest question at this position will be whether any of the younger players can push for serious backup minutes. Many eyes will be on Geo Baker for this role. He has the potential to hit the ground running and fans will be hoping he can lock down quality backcourt minutes.

Alongside Sanders figures to be Williams. His career numbers don’t amaze, but he has become a reliable option for the Scarlet Knights over the last few seasons. He averaged 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season and did a nice job on the boards and in avoiding turnovers, ranking 12th in the league in offensive rebounding rate and 14th in turnover rate. Williams will hope to once again be a nice role player for the Scarlet Knights.

Truth be told, the starters on the wing listed above are a bit misleading. Freeman plays more like a four, so although he’s listed as the three, his role will be similar to what he was last season. Freeman figures to be a lock for the starting lineup and will look to build off last season. I think Thiam will grab the spot alongside him after seeing major minutes to end his freshman season.

Behind Freeman and Thiam will be a plethora of potential options. To start, Eugene Omoruyi returns after playing nearly 30 percent of the team’s minutes last season. While he wasn’t particularly impressive, he was just a freshman and should improve. The team also gets Matt Bullock off a redshirt, Baker as an incoming recruit, and returns Sa. None of these three are great positional fits, but could see minutes at either the three or four spots. It should be an interesting battle.

The frontcourt, meanwhile, should be the major question mark in the lineup.

While Doorson seems to be in line to lock down the starting job, he wasn’t all that impressive last season. He only had a 94.8 offensive rating and averaged 1.3 points and 1.7 rebounds a game. As such, Rutgers and Pikiell are certainly hoping that he will improve, or someone will pass him on the depth chart.

Unfortunately, the options to pass Doorson aren’t all that encouraging. Sa also returns, but put up pedestrian numbers as well and was even less efficient than Doorson. The other options will be true freshmen in Mamadou Doucoure and Myles Johnson. Neither was particularly highly regarded on the recruiting trail and arrives on campus with low expectations. Fans will hope one (if not both) of these two will surprise.

This is the first season in quite some time that Rutgers enters the season with multiple proven players in its lineup, a respective starting five, and depth at every spot. And while the center position looks like an area of concern, there’s at least two players with experience returning and two incoming recruits. The days of fans pinning all their hopes to one player at each position are now gone.

9. Team Perspective From Dave White of On The Banks

“Rutgers is going into the second Steve Pikiell season with some raised expectations. After a year where the team picked up its defense, started on an 11-0 run and won some exciting games in the Big Ten, Rutgers fans are hoping this team makes the next step.

There are some signs it could happen: Corey Sanders is back to run the point in his junior year and scoring forward Deshawn Freeman and do-it-all guard Mike Williams are back for their senior years. With some exciting freshmen in Geo Baker and Mamadou Doucoure, there's some hope that Rutgers can pick up its scoring enough to upset some apple carts in the Big Ten. They will need better shooting, though. Baker and sophomore wing Issa Thiam should help, but getting Sanders to be a better shooter is important too.

This team has some pieces and is starting to take on Pikiell's attitude. Look for Rutgers to try and finish this season with an overall over .500 record for the first time since 2006."

10. Overall Season Outlook

Ever since joining the Big Ten in 2014, it’s been a rough ride for Scarlet Knight fans. The team has finished dead last in the conference each season, went 7-51 (.121) against Big Ten opponents during that time, and has been nowhere close to a postseason bid. And that doesn’t even include Eddie Jordan’s last season with the program, where Rutgers was arguably the worst Power Five team in the modern era.

But finally, finalllllly, things are heading in the right direction.

Pikiell has turned things around both on the court and on the recruiting trail. Unlike previous seasons, Rutgers enters this year with a legitimate Big Ten roster. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has a good roster, but it has one that’s capable of playing with Big Ten teams on a nightly basis. Even though that may not sound great, it’s a huge improvement from where this team and program was even a year ago.

That team will, undoubtedly, start with Sanders in the backcourt and Freeman on the wing. Rutgers is going to need both of those players to produce at a high level this season. Sanders has the chance to be an All-Big Ten player and if Freeman can take steps forward offensively, he could get into the All-Big Ten honorable mention discussion as well.

After that is where things get tricky. Thiam and Williams are both good enough to grab starting roles and players like Baker could provide interesting depth for the Scarlet Knights. However, the frontcourt looks like a concern and much of the team’s depth figures to come from unproven underclassmen and underwhelming recruits. Players can surprise, but the ceiling for this team isn’t necessarily all that high. There just aren’t a ton of players that can breakout.

There should be positive signs this season, but unless the Scarlet Knights can find a few surprise contributors and/or a dynamite center, Rutgers will be near the bottom of the Big Ten again. The hope will be that the program can grab a few more wins than last year, protect home court, and earn a few upset wins. If so, that will be real progress.

Big Ten Prediction: 12th Place