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2018-’19 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2018-’19 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Rutgers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the upcoming 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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For better or worse, Rutgers has become the punchline when it comes to Big Ten basketball. When the Big Ten announced that Maryland and Rutgers would join the conference, it was met with resistance as many conference fans saw the addition of each program as a cash grab by the league. And while Maryland has had success in the Big Ten, as well as past success in the ACC, Rutgers hasn’t came anywhere close.

From a competitive standpoint, the addition of Rutgers was never a good fit for the Big Ten. In 18 seasons as a member of the Big East, the Scarlet Knights NEVER had a winning record in conference play. They haven’t had a winning season in general since 2005-’06, haven’t made it to the NCAA Tournament since 1991, and haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1983. In their lone season as a member of the American Athletic Conference, they were overmatched and finished 5-13 in the league.

For a team that has struggled so heavily, it probably wasn’t a great idea to step up to one of the nation’s most talented basketball conferences, with money being the catalyst for that decision. And while Steve Pikiell showed considerable improvement from Eddie Jordan’s lackluster run in Piscataway, the program didn’t continue that improvement this past season.

Now, Rutgers loses their best two players in Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman while playing in a Big Ten that is set to be drastically improved after a down season last year. Things could get ugly once again.

1. 2017-’18 Season Performance

Record: 15-19 (3-15)

KenPom Team Rating: #130

RPI Rating: #200

Postseason Appearance: None

The 2017-’18 season was the fourth season that Rutgers has been a member of the Big Ten conference. And for the fourth year in a row, the Scarlet Knights finished dead last in the conference, going 3-15 for the second year in a row. Through four seasons as a Big Ten member, Rutgers has only managed to win nine conference games. In comparison, six of the other thirteen members of the Big Ten won at least nine conference games last year alone. Over that four-year stretch, the team with the second worst conference record is Minnesota, with 23 wins. Rutgers has won nine games in FOUR years.

If there’s any positives to build on, at least Rutgers has won 12 games in non-conference play each of the past two seasons, a marked improvement from winning eight and six games respectively in their first two seasons. Of course, winning 12 games out of conference means absolutely nothing when you have a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks in at 348th in the nation per KenPom, putting them above only three teams in the country.

Of course, there were some glimpses of Rutgers showing competency at times in the first two months of the season, hanging around with Florida State and then knocking off a ranked Seton Hall unexpectedly. What did they do to follow up a rare win over a ranked team? Well, they lost to Stony Brook and Hartford to close out non-conference play.

In conference play, all three Big Ten wins came against conference opponents with losing records. 12 of their 15 losses in conference were by double digits. The Scarlet Knights offense was ranked last for the second year in a row, averaging only 57.9 points per game in conference play and finishing last in field goal percentage and three point percentage. And their defense slipped from 8th to 10th in the conference, giving up 69.8 points per game.

Or in other words, any progress they made in 2016-’17 led to little improvement last season when everything was said and done.

2. Offseason Exits

While Rutgers will return several starters this season, two departures from last season include arguably the Scarlet Knights’ best players with Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman leaving the program.

Corey Sanders ultimately decided to forgo his senior season and will be the biggest loss for Rutgers. Sanders led Rutgers in scoring in all three of his seasons and at times was the only consistent offensive weapon on a team that struggled scoring. He also led the team in assists and could basically do everything for the Knights besides hit from deep, with the junior only converting on 22.4 percent of this three pointers.

Also gone this year is forward Deshawn Freeman, another consistent weapon for Rutgers the last two seasons. Freeman was second in scoring last season with 11.1 points per game and led the team in rebounds (7.3) and steals (1.5).

The Scarlet Knights will also lose a four year guard in Mike Williams, who started 57 games over four seasons and was the team’s fourth leading scorer. Candido Sa, a backup forward that played in 32 games, and Souf Mensah, a backup guard that saw playing time in 27 games, also depart. While neither Sa or Mensah were major contributors, it does thin out the depth for Rutgers.

3. New Additions

With the Scarlet Knights losing two of their best players, they’re going to need some additional production from both their returning players and their incoming recruiting class. Headlining that class is Montez Mathis, a four-star (per 247Sports) guard that was ranked as the 135th best prospect in 2018. Pikiell has raved about his athleticism and ability to make plays and with Corey Sanders now trying to make it professionally, Rutgers will need Mathis to hit the ground running and help improve a dreadful offense.

Also joining the mix are a pair of three star commits in guard Caleb McConnell and guard/forward Ron Harper Jr. The 6-foot-6 McConnell will likely be called on to backup Geo Baker at point guard while Ron Harper Jr. (son of former NBA player Ron Harper) figures to be an end of rotation guy during his freshman season.

The last new recruit for 2018 is Shaq Carter, a three-star JUCO transfer that will bring some much needed depth to the Rutgers frontcourt. Carter averaged 8.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game last season for Eastern Florida and will be needed to help add some size inside for Rutgers.

Rutgers also landed Texas transfer Jacob Young. The former Longhorn guard averaged 6.2 points per game in a reserve role last season. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, he’ll have to sit out this season per transfer rules.

Speaking of transfers, Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss will now be eligible after sitting out last season. The guard averaged 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in his freshman season.

4. Points of Optimism

The best thing for Rutgers heading into this season is that it can’t get any worse. It’s a harsh thing to say, but considering Rutgers has finished last every year in the Big Ten, there’s nowhere to go but up for Steve Pikiell’s squad. Even more so when you realize that none of the players on the team were even alive when Rutgers last made it to the NCAA Tournament almost three decades ago.

The biggest reason for optimism is sophomore guard Geo Baker. Baker hit the ground running as a freshman with 10.8 points and 2.6 assists per game while hitting on 36.1 percent of his three pointers. He wasn’t perfect, as expected from a freshman, but there’s a good chance he could be the key offensive weapon this year and take over the Corey Sanders role this winter. If Baker can build off of an impressive freshman season than Rutgers will have a player to build around this season.

While not setting the world on fire, Rutgers was able to get solid contributions from Issa Thiam last year and brings in four-star guard Montez Mathis this November. If Rutgers wants to improve from last season, they need to find a way to get the offense going and Thiam was the team’s best outside shooter and Mathis has shown flashes in practice.

If Pikiell can get the guys he has back from last year to improve and can get the most out of his recruiting class, you can make the argument that Rutgers could crawl out of the basement. But in order for that to happen, it’s going to likely come down to how much Baker improves from his freshman season and if the team can get some solid minutes in the frontcourt.

5. Points of Concern

Rutgers was the worst offensive team in the Big Ten and they lost their two best offensive weapons this offseason. That’s not a good thing. Even more so for a team that has won nine conference games in four seasons and hasn’t been relevant in quite some time.

While Geo Baker has promise, who else will contribute on the offensive side of the ball? Forward Eugene Omoruyi is the second leading returning scorer with 7.9 points per game and he’ll need to build off last season in what will likely be an expanded role.

Forward/center Mamadou Doucoure was an offensive liability last season for Rutgers, averaging 2.8 points per game on 36.2 percent shooting even though he started 29 games. Shaquille Doorson didn’t do much better, averaging 1.8 points per game over 12 minutes per game.

The Scarlet Knights will need to find their place offensively and while that means replacing the production of Sanders and Freeman, it also means they’ll need players to step up in the frontcourt. The Rutgers frontcourt did next to nothing offensively and it didn’t help that the team couldn’t shoot from outside, with their 29 percent three-point shooting coming in at 347th in the nation.

If Rutgers is going to show any improvement in a Big Ten that is expected to be considerably better, then they’re going to need their offense to step up. Outside of a player or two returning from last year, there aren’t many known offensive weapons available for Pikiell. That means his 2018 recruiting class could get some early playing time this winter.

6. Top Player

Geo Baker was third in scoring for Rutgers, second in assists, and the team’s second best three point shooter. With the Scarlet Knights losing their top two offensive weapons, that means Baker is going to have to be the guy in Piscataway.

His freshman season wasn’t perfect, but Baker was also a freshman trying to navigate a difficult Big Ten season. His ability to shoot from outside, even if he only hit on 36% of his three pointers, was much needed for Rutgers. If he can continue to develop on offense and effectively run the point than he could be set for a breakout sophomore season.

Of course it won’t mean much if the players around him can’t improve this season. As good as Corey Sanders was for Rutgers, his success on the court didn’t lead to much improvement for the Scarlet Knights and, like Sanders, Baker won’t be able to do it alone.

7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown

• 11/9 - Fairleigh Dickinson

• 11/11 - Drexel

• 11/16 - St. Johns (Gavitt Tip-Off)

• 11/19 - Eastern Michigan

• 11/23 - Boston University

• 11/28 - at Miami (Big Ten / ACC Challenge)

• 11/30 - Michigan State

• 12/3 - at Wisconsin

• 12/8 - at Fordham

• 12/15 - at Seton Hall (Garden State Hardwood Classic)

• 12/22 - Columbia

• 12/29 - Maine

• 1/5 - Maryland

• 1/9 - Ohio State

• 1/12 - at Minnesota

• 1/15 - at Purdue

• 1/18 - Northwestern

• 1/21 - Nebraska

• 1/26 - at Penn State

• 1/30 - Indiana

• 2/2 - at Ohio State

• 2/5 - Michigan

• 2/9 - at Illinois

• 2/13 - at Northwestern

• 2/16 - Iowa

• 2/20 - at Michigan State

• 2/24 - Minnesota

• 3/2 - at Iowa

• 3/6 - Penn State

• 3/10 - at Indiana

Do you remember that part above where I mentioned Rutgers having one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country last year? Well, it’s not exactly better this season.

Heading into the 2018-’19 season the best opponent, per KenPom, is Miami (Fl.). And of course that game was scheduled because of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The other two games of note are a game against St. Johns (39th) as a part of the Gavitt Tip-Off and a road game against Seton Hall (54th), with the Pirates likely looking for revenge from last season.

Besides that, Rutgers will face Fairleigh Dickinson (263rd), Drexel (293rd), Eastern Michigan (113th), Boston University (235th), Columbia (213th), Maine (332nd) and, for some reason, will travel to Fordham (239th) for a road game in the Bronx.

That non-conference slate should pave the way for some wins, but assuming an upset over Miami or Seton Hall, will likely net Rutgers zero quality wins and only hurt their resume heading into conference play. Of course that means little if Rutgers isn’t in contention for a postseason appearance, and with the conference looking to be drastically improved, it’ll be a huge surprise if Rutgers is in that position.

Rutgers is likely going to be an underdog most nights in the Big Ten, but starting off against Michigan State and at Wisconsin in the first month of the season is rough for the Knights. With Maryland and Ohio State opening up conference play in January, followed by road trips to Minnesota and Purdue, there’s a high possibility Rutgers will start 0-6 in conference play before hosting Northwestern and Nebraska.

With home games down the stretch against Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State, Rutgers could pick up some wins. But with the talent on hand, it’s hard to see Rutgers favored in many games after the first two months of the season.

8. Projecting Starting Lineup

G: Geo Baker

G: Peter Kiss

G/F: Issa Thiam

F: Eugene Omoruyi

C: Shaquille Doorson or Shaq Carter

The Scarlet Knights’ starting lineup could end up looking drastically different throughout the season, especially if Rutgers struggles down the stretch. The two biggest ‘locks’ in the rotation will be guard Geo Baker and guard/forward Issa Thiam, the teams two best returning shooters. Rutgers will need to show considerable improvement on the offensive side of the ball and the reality is those two are the only proven options.

There’s a lot of talk that Peter Kiss will likely end up in the starting lineup when the season tips off, but he’ll need to improve considerably to stay there. Kiss sat out last season due to transfer rules and while he scored 13.3 points per game as a freshman, he was a bad volume shooter (40.8 percent from the field, 27.7 percent from three) that committed almost three turnovers per game for a bad Quinnipiac team from the MAAC. He brings more experience than freshmen like Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell and Ron Harper Jr., but he could fall out of the starting rotation by conference play.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Rutgers hasn’t had much offensive production from their frontcourt. Returning forward Eugene Omoruyi averaged 7.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game last season and will need to build off of that as he should be a full time starter after starting only 7 of the 32 games he played in last year.

The center spot could go to Shaquille Doorson early on, but Doorson was a liability on offense last year. With the 7-foot big only shooting 1.1 field goals per game in 12 minutes each outing, he’ll need to be more aggressive on offense. That leaves the door open for JUCO transfer Shaq Carter to potentially land the starting five spot. The 6-foot-9 forward doesn’t bring as much size to the mix, but was a proven scorer/rebounder at the JUCO level and if that can translate then it would make him the better option down low.

9. Team Perspective From Thomas Beindit

“Heading into this season, Scarlet Knight fans have some major reasons for optimism. Steve Pikiell has had some time to build the roster and the program has one of its better incoming recruiting classes in recent memory. If Pikiell is truly the coach that fans think he can be for the program, this is the year where it should start showing on the court.

But even with that optimism, the elephant in the room is that Rutgers has been absolutely terrible for the better part of a decade. Not just mediocre, but legitimately terrible. And last season was not exception. The Scarlet Knights finished 15-19 overall, but 130th on KenPom and built up its win total by playing an incredibly weak non-conference slate. And last year’s team also had Geo Baker and Deshawn Freeman, who are both now gone.

Still, last year’s Big Ten Tournament was a highlight and Geo Baker looks like he could be a star for the Scarlet Knights. The question will be whether Pikiell can find player to replace Sanders in the backcourt and Freeman upfront. If so, Rutgers could make some noise in Big Ten play this season. If not, it could be another rough year.” - Thomas Beindit.

10. Overall Season Outlook

It sounds weird to say, but in order for Rutgers to improve this season, they’re probably going to need other teams in the conference to implode. The Scarlet Knights were the worst team in the league once again last year, had a dreadful offense and lost their two best players. Now they have to take on an improving conference with a weaker roster.

Will Penn State falter this winter? Is Minnesota going to continue to free fall for a second season in a row? Will Illinois and Iowa fail to improve at all after bottoming out at 4-14? What about Northwestern?

For every Big Ten team that was towards the bottom of the conference last year, they all still have more talent on hand than Rutgers. If the Scarlet Knights want to climb out of the cellar than that means that Geo Baker has to have a breakout sophomore season after an impressive freshman outing. It also means that the 2018 recruiting class is contributing immediately and that the frontcourt can do anything on the offensive side of the ball.

That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ in a league that is looking to return to form this winter. Even if Rutgers fixes a lot of the problems they have heading into the season, building off of what they did last year, that might mean very little. In one of the worst seasons for the Big Ten in quite some time the Scarlet Knights were ran off the court on most nights and this team will likely be worse.

It’s going to be another long winter in Piscataway.

Big Ten Prediction: 14th Place

(Please note: Final Big Ten predictions come from Thomas Beindit.)