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2019-’20 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Basketball 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 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Nebraska vs Rutgers David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘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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If you’re a person that follows the Big Ten, you’ve certainly heard the jokes by now. The sarcastic remarks about Rutgers moving to another conference, being relegated to a lower level, or general jokes made at the expense of the school and its sports teams. It’s been a pretty routine occurrence over the last five years.

And generally speaking, a lot of those remarks have been justified. Rutgers has been an absolute disaster on the football field and on the hardwood since joining the Big Ten. And while there have been some nice moments here and there, nothing has come together for the Scarlet Knights. For perspective, just consider that Rutgers has an overall record of 61-101 (.376) since joining the league and a horrid mark of 16-76 (.174) in Big Ten play.

There’s really no analysis needed about the last five years. They’ve been horrible.

However, things have started to tick up over the last few years with the hiring of Steve Pikiell. He was brought in to clean up Eddie Jordan’s mess and has made some real progress, helping to program to rise more than 200 (!!!) spots on KenPom in just three seasons. Last year’s overall record of 14-17 may not seem all that impressive, but it’s a long way from the 7-25 train wreck of Jordan’s final year with the program. And the 78th ranking on KenPom tied for the program’s best mark since 2006 and was only its third top 100 rating since 2004.

Pikiell has also shown some things on the recruiting trail as well. He landed a sneaky good player in Geo Baker in 2017 and a four-star in 2018 in Montez Mathis. In fact, the 2018 class actually came in just outside the top 50 nationally. Pikiell has also been working hard on the transfer trail, bringing in a handful of contributors on that end.

That youth was well displayed for the Scarlet Knights last season. Despite the program posting its best season in years, Rutgers ranked just 330th nationally in KenPom’s experience rating. There are no guarantees in college basketball, but it’s not hard to see where things could be heading if Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights can continue their upward trend. That youth could very well get them in some serious postseason discussions.

And that’s where things sit now. Things are clearly trending in the right direction for Rutgers and Pikiell has done an excellent job filling out the roster and developing talent. He’s brought the program out of the gutter of college basketball and on the verge of national relevance.

But with each step up the mountain, the air gets thinner and Rutgers is set to experience that challenge this season. This figures to be Pikiell’s best team since he arrived, but playing close won’t be good enough this time around. The Scarlet Knights are going to have to pull some upsets and beat the teams they should be to achieve the team’s overall goals this season. It’s something that’s easier said than done.

So, will it happen? Can Rutgers finally take that next step? Let’s take a look.

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

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 14-17 (7-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #78
  • NET Rating: #105
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Let’s make this clear before we dive into this portion of the preview. Expectations matter in college basketball. In fact, they matter quite a bit. What’s good for one team isn’t necessarily good enough for another. Maybe that’s unfair and maybe it makes the sport unreasonable, but that’s just reality. Duke enters a given season with certain goals in mind. Although programs like Rutgers may dream about having those goals someday, that’s not where things are today.

Rutgers entered last season with some excitement, but without lofty expectations. Few expected the team to have a serious shot at the postseason and nobody thought the Scarlet Knights would be in the Big Ten title hunt. However, there were certainly some optimists that thought Rutgers might be able to put together a decent campaign and challenge for a .500 record in Big Ten play.

And early on, it looked like Rutgers would struggle to meet those goals. The team scored some wins against bad competition and then fell apart in late November and in December when Rutgers faced legitimate competition. By January 5th, Rutgers was 7-6 overall and 0-3 in Big Ten play. The team’s only noteworthy win came against Miami (FL) team that seemed to be in a rebuilding season.

But that’s when the magic started. Rutgers didn’t suddenly become a powerhouse, but the team started protecting home court and defeating weaker opponents on the road. The Scarlet Knights beat Ohio State at home in early January and followed that up with wins over Indiana, Nebraska, and Penn State later that month. Rutgers was eventually able to beat Northwestern and Iowa on the road later that season as well.

Considering how good the Big Ten was last season and how poorly Rutgers started the season, Rutgers’ 7-10 finish to the regular season was pretty solid. And though the team lost its opening rough Big Ten Tournament game against Nebraska, the progress was still apparent. The team looked competitive and ended up finishing 78th on KenPom. Rutgers also played closer to a top 60ish level following its loss to Northwestern in January. That’s an incredible accomplishment, again, considering how bad Rutgers had been just a few years earlier.

What was so important about last season for the Scarlet Knights is that for the first time in years, the success felt sustainable. This wasn’t a team getting lucky on a particular night (the Wisconsin game in 2015) or a team building a lofty record against garbage competition like Rutgers did during the 2017-’18 season. This was a program rising from the ashes into something that was at least respectable. That alone meant a lot to Scarlet Knight fans.

All told, Rutgers wasn’t a great team last season. The Scarlet Knights finished with a losing record and failed to make it into the top 75 nationally on KenPom. The team also blew a number of games it should have won. But that last phrase speaks volumes by itself. Rutgers was actually supposed to win some games. Simply put, progress.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference road win over Miami (FL) and conference victories over Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio State. Low points of the season included losses to Fordham, Northwestern, and Seton Hall during the regular season and the loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were Geo Baker, Shaquille Doorson, and Eugene Omoruyi. Baker led the team in minutes, assists, and steals. Doorson led the team in blocks. Omoruyi led the team in points, rebounds, usage, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

Although the Scarlet Knights only lost two players this offseason, both will be significant hits to the team. Shaquille Doorson leaves after a few solid years with the program and Eugene Omoruyi opted to transfer after posting a career year with the team. The two will leave plenty of questions in the frontcourt in their wake.

The most significant departure, undoubtedly, will come from Omoruyi. One can make a pretty convincing argument that he was the team’s best player last season and he will now be transferring to Oregon. Not only was he a monster on the boards, but he led the team in usage and was great at getting to the line. Omoruyi was also a key reason why the Scarlet Knights were so good defensively the last few years.

Unfortunately for Rutgers, there really isn’t a clear replacement for him on the roster, either. Part of that is because his departure was so surprising (nobody expected Omoruyi to transfer when he did), but another part of it comes from his unique skillset. This isn’t an elite recruiting program. It’s hard to replace a player like that when you don’t have five-stars coming in every summer. Pikiell will need some time to recruit and develop. Odds are, Rutgers will have to look to Shaq Carter and some underclassmen to fill the void.

And making things even more tricky, Rutgers is also losing Doorson, who played significant minutes upfront. While he only ended up playing 44.2 percent of the team’s overall minutes last season, he was a valuable bench piece behind Myles Johnson at the five. Between the two, Rutgers will be losing two of its top three guys upfront. That’s not something that’s easy for any program to get over in a given offseason.

These departures won’t necessarily train wreck the season. Nonetheless, it’s important to emphasize how much the team is losing, especially in Omoruyi. The good news is that the team returns everyone outside of these two, including four of the team’s starters. That’s pretty good for a team that was trending up.

3. New Additions

This season, the Scarlet Knights will be adding three new additions to the team’s roster. Paul Mulcahy will join as a true freshman, Daniel Lobach as a walk-on, and Akwasi Yeboah joins as a transfer addition from Stony Brook. Mulcahy and Yeboah are both listed as a small forwards. 247Sports rated Mulcahy as a three-star prospect.

Generally, when I touch on the new additions for a team, most of my time is focused on the incoming recruits. Transfer additions are always tougher to evaluate and more often than not, transfers fail to deliver on their hype. However, that really isn’t the case here. Mulcahy seems like a decent prospect, but fans should be paying attention to who Rutgers has added on the transfer market this year.

The new addition in this regard is Yeboah, who arrives from Stony Brook. He was arguably Stony Brook’s best player last season and was a really efficient player inside, specifically doing a lot of damage on the free throw line. He’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds. On paper, he should be able to replace at least a decent share of the minutes left open by Omoruyi’s departure.

Additionally, Rutgers is also “adding” another player via transfer this offseason in Texas transfer Jacob Young. After seeing serious time for the Longhorns during the 2017-’18 season, he opted to transfer and sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. He’s a pretty good player inside and projects to be a decent outside shooter. Young should have a very well shot at starting in the backcourt alongside Geo Baker.

Between these two transfers, Rutgers is projected to add quite a bit this offseason. Yeboah and Young could both reasonably start this season for the Scarlet Knights and the team is also adding a decent prospect in Mulcahy and a walk-on as well. It’s not an incoming group on pap with what programs like Duke and Kentucky bring in on an annual basis, but it’s a great group to add to what Rutgers already returns.

And perhaps that’s what makes this so exciting for Scarlet Knight fans. The team could easily field a starting lineup made up of players returning from last season. Adding two more potential starters and at least one more depth piece is a nice luxury to have. It should give Pikiell as much talent as he’s ever had at this job to work with this year.

4. Points of Optimism

For the first time in years, Rutgers enters a season with legitimate expectations. Not a faint hope things could go right or the dream of a player suddenly becoming a star. No, a real hope that this team can contend for a postseason appearance. The team is clearly on an upward trend, brings back numerous contributors from last season, and can reasonably expect some improvement from a roster primed for growth.

Much of this was touched on earlier, but it would be a disservice to readers to start this section without referring back to what we touched on in the intro. Rutgers has grown tremendously since Pikiell’s arrival. The Scarlet Knights have improved from one of the word Power Five programs in the nation into a decent team. Rutgers finished 78th last season, which is far from perfect, but it at least respectable.

Further improvement isn’t guaranteed simply because the team improved in the past, but we have to start there. Rutgers has been on an upward trajectory the last few years and we have to think at least some of that will carry over this time around.

That improvement will also be easier with so many pieces returning from last season. Baker and Montez Mathis return in the backcourt, Ron Harper and Carter return on the wing, and Johnson returns upfront. All five of those players saw serious playing time for the Scarlet Knights last season and return. And that doesn’t even include players like Caleb McConnell or the new additions, which include two transfers. This is undeniably the best roster that Pikiell has had since he arrived on campus.

What’s even more important is that those returners could be primed for serious improvement. Rutgers finished at 330th in KenPom’s experience metric last season and those young players are returning. Many of the growing pains should be in the past, which could mean big things for this season. Even moderate improvement from some of the rising freshmen like Mathis and Harper would likely mean big things for this team.

I hate to keep repeating myself, but this roster has all the signs of a team about to take a step forward. The Scarlet Knights have been trending up, keep virtually all the key pieces from last season, and could improve drastically simply because of younger players getting older. That’s a pretty good spot to be in heading into a season.

5. Points of Concern

Despite having a lot of excitement heading into this season, it’s also important not to get too carried away about the Scarlet Knights. To start, the team is losing arguably its best player in Omoruyi, has some significant questions in the frontcourt, and is attempting to take a really difficult step foward this year. It’s easy to be decent, it’s another thing to be a legitimately good team with a shot at the postseason.

The most substantial concern fans should have entering this season is with regard to what the team will do in the frontcourt. With Doorson and Omoruyi out the door, Rutgers suddenly finds itself having to fill a lot of voided minutes. The frontcourt has been a strength the last few years, but that may no longer be the case with the two upperclassmen departing. Notably, Omoruyi might have been the team’s best player over the last two seasons. Losing a contributor like that isn’t easy to overcome.

Rutgers does have some potential options to replace these two, but a lot of it is going to depend on some young players like Ron Harper and Myles Johnson. Shaq Carter and Issa Thiam are also poised to return after decent campaigns last year. However, we’re talking about roughly 45 minutes a game or so to replace and none of these guys are sure-fire bets. Johnson should be able to grow after a solid freshman year, but who knows who else is going to fill in next to him. While there’s some potential, nothing is certain.

And perhaps even more importantly, Rutgers is going to have to find a star to replace Omoruyi. I feel like I put this in virtually every preview, but teams that want to make the NCAA Tournament are going to need a serious All-Big Ten contender or two to have a real chance. Geo Baker has made some noise, but can he elevate his game? Moreover, who else can emerge alongside him? Omoruyi was that guy before. The Scarlet Knights are now going to have to try and find another.

Rutgers also faces the monumental challenge of trying to transition from a mediocre team in the Big Ten into a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender. That’s one of the toughest steps to take in college basketball. It’s easy to compete with some teams and pick off a team or two. It’s another to be consistent on a nightly basis, protect home courts, and compete on the road.

The Scarlet Knights really haven’t had to play with expectations before. That will change this season. I’m not saying the Big Dance should be the team’s expectations, but Rutgers is going to enter a lot of games as the favorite. Being the hunted is a lot different from being the hunter. Playing in obscurity is also generally easier than having to put up with the media’s criticism after every loss. This kind of stuff has derailed a lot of teams before and the Scarlet Knights need to try and avoid it this season.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, Rutgers didn’t really have a clear-cut favorite. Here’s what our site wrote in our preview of the Scarlet Knights;

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.

Generally speaking, that evaluation was relatively accurate. Baker was one of the team’s most productive players and saw a ton of minutes in the backcourt. However, one can make a decent argument that Omoruyi ended up being the more valuable option, averaging 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. He was also a great defender.

But with Omoruyi off to Oregon, Baker once again seems to stand out. He’ll be entering his junior season and will have some pretty significant expectations. Scarlet Knight fans are hoping he can make a real push for All-Big Ten status this season. Some other potential dark horses for this spot will be Johnson, Mathis, and Texas transfer Young. However, Baker seems like a pretty safe bet at this point.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/7 - Bryant
  • 11/10 - Niagara
  • 11/13 - Drexel
  • 11/16 - St. Bonaventure (Toronto, ON)
  • 11/20 - Stephen F. Austin
  • 11/26 - NJIT
  • 11/29 - UMass
  • 12/3 - at Pittsburgh
  • 12/8 - at Michigan State
  • 12/11 - Wisconsin
  • 12/14 - Seton Hall
  • 12/22 - Lafayette
  • 12/30 - Caldwell
  • 1/3 - at Nebraska
  • 1/7 - Penn State
  • 1/11 - at Illinois
  • 1/15 - Indiana
  • 1/19 - Minnesota
  • 1/22 - at Iowa
  • 1/25 - Nebraska
  • 1/28 - Purdue
  • 2/1 - Michigan (New York, NY)
  • 2/4 - at Maryland
  • 2/9 - Northwestern
  • 2/12 - at Ohio State
  • 2/15 - Illinois
  • 2/19 - Michigan
  • 2/23 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/26 - at Penn State
  • 3/3 - Maryland
  • 3/7 - at Purdue

Given the projections for the Scarlet Knights coming into this season, this is a pretty good schedule. It’s difficult, but not overwhelming and has plenty of ups and downs. If the team can avoid bad upsets and pick off a few people at home, there’s a lot of opportunity on this slate.

The non-conference slate isn’t particularly loaded, but it has a handful of interesting matchups. The Seton Hall game in mid-December should be massive, as will the trip to Pittsburgh. Throw in teams like Stephen F. Austin and Lafayette, who can be tricky in any given season, and Rutgers has a chance to pick up some quality wins. This isn’t like what Rutgers was doing a few years ago with fraudulent non-conference records. This is a legitimate slate of games.

And with the Big Ten’s new 20-game slate, things are going to be pretty predictable in conference play. Schedules aren’t going to be as unbalanced as they used to be and you aren’t going to get to avoid the good teams as often. However, there are two particular stretches that I find really intriguing here. The first is as follows:

  • 12/3 - at Pittsburgh (101)
  • 12/8 - at Michigan State (3)
  • 12/11 - Wisconsin (16)
  • 12/14 - Seton Hall (60)
  • 12/22 - Lafayette (298)

To put things in perspective, I listed each team’s KenPom rating from last season next to their name. What’s intriguing here is that outside of the trip to East Lansing, four of those games should be winnable. Pittsburgh and Lafayette were lower than Rutgers on KenPom last year and the Seton Hall game should be coming at home. It’ll be tough to get to 4-1 through the stretch, but even 3-2 would go a long way.

And the second stretch is as follows:

  • 1/15 - Indiana (52)
  • 1/19 - Minnesota (46)
  • 1/22 - at Iowa (37)
  • 1/25 - Nebraska (47)
  • 1/28 - Purdue (9)
  • 2/1 - Michigan (New York, NY) (6)

We can never predict what will happen in a given college basketball season, but I feel pretty confident in saying Rutgers’ season will ride on these six games. If the Scarlet Knights are going to be a contender, this is when the team needs to rise up. Only one of the six games will come on the road and it’s against a team Rutgers beat on the road last season. Throw in that teams like Iowa and Michigan could regress significantly this season and it’s easy to see a shot at a 4-2 record if things go right. It wouldn’t lock up any postseason appearance for Rutgers, but it would mean a lot.

Overall, there are more than enough games here for Rutgers to reach all of its season goals. Protect home court and steal a road game here or there and the postseason is definitely in reach.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Geo Baker (Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Jacob Young (Jr.) - 90%
  • SF: Ron Harper (So.) - 85%
  • PF: Akwasi Yeboah (So.) - 65%
  • C: Myles Johnson (So.) - 95%

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

Rutgers enters this season with plenty of uncertainty regarding its starting lineup. However, for the first time in years, it’s not because the team doesn’t have enough players to field a functional lineup. This time, it’s because Pikiell and his staff will have the luxury of choosing between a litany of options at multiple positions. There are a few guys that stand out, of course, but Rutgers genuinely has six or seven guys that should compete for starting spots.

In the backcourt, things should revolve around three players in Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, and Jacob Young. Both Baker and Mathis return after pretty productive seasons with the Scarlet Knight and Young joins the active roster after sitting out due to NCAA rules. All three have starting experience and Baker may be the team’s best player entering this season. Baker seems like a lock to start and Mathis and Young will compete for the other spot. The only real question will be who plays where. None of the three stand out as traditional point guards, so I expect Baker to start at the one and Young to start alongside him. Caleb McConnel will also provide some relief minutes off the bench.

The Scarlet Knights will also have an interesting competition on the wing. With Omoruyi’s exit, a lot of minutes opened up. However, with the addition of Akwasi Yeboah, some of those minutes should be filled. Ronald Harper also returns after playing a decent amount last season. Many regard him as a potential breakout option.

The wing is really where the beauty of Rutgers’ growing depth should stand out. Harper and Yeboah are both good enough to grab starting spots, but the team has plenty of options behind them. Shaq Carter, Peter Kiss, and Issa Thiam all return after serving in backup roles last season and players like Mathis and freshman Paul Mulchay could also potentially see minutes out there depending on the lineup. What that leaves is a variety of options for Pikiell to use these season and it could really offer quite a bit of depth if any injuries occur.

Upfront, minutes should be dominated by Myles Johnson. He returns after starting as a freshman and there’s no reason to think he’ll lose that role this time around. Potential depth pieces will be Carter and Mamadou Doucouré. As mentioned earlier in this preview, the frontcourt depth is a major question mark. Carter has played decent minutes before, but Doucouré really hasn’t played whatsoever. Fans are going to have to hope one of these two emerges into a productive backup big man.

This isn’t going to be a lineup good enough to get Rutgers to a Final Four this season, but there are some real reasons to be excited about what’s here. The Scarlet Knights have multiple returning starters and a few key additions that could raise this group up to the next level. If some of the bench players can surprise, watch out.

9. Team Perspective From Dave White of On The Banks

”Rutgers is looking to make the next step in Steve Pikiell’s year 4 after winning 7 Big Ten games last year. The big news of the off season is they lose their leading scorer and rebounder Eugene Omoruyi to transfer, but they have replaced him with a ton of depth. They are six deep at the guard and wing area. They’ve added grad transfer Akwasi Yeboah as a step out power forward and speed transfer guard Jacob Young.

”This team is going to look very different on the court as they now appear to profile as a team that will run, trap and press. They have a ton of length and height which can be very disruptive. Pikiell is going to have to bear down and get this team to really defend and rebound, but a lot of the pieces are there. This team has NIT potential and if we really dream hard... maybe more.” - Dave White.

10. Overall Season Outlook

It’s been a rough go for Rutgers since joining the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights have not only failed to make the postseason, but the program has struggled to compete at any respectable level in conference play. Whether fans want to admit it or not, Rutgers has been the whipping post of the rest of the league.

But for the first time in years, Rutgers has legitimate hope. The roster is improved, Pikiell has proven to be a solid coach over the last few seasons, and Rutgers now projects to finish with its best KenPom rating in the history of the website. We no longer have to write about long shot potential. The Scarlet Knights genuinely figure to be a solid unit this season.

The question is how much progress Rutgers can make in a single offseason. After all, the air gets thinner as you rise up the mountain. It’s easy to take the first step, but things get tougher after that. Rutgers is no longer a terrible team. However, can it go from mediocre to good? That’s the question this season. There are some reasons to believe the team can get the job done, but it’s not a sure thing. It will take some fortune.

All told, Rutgers figures to be a more competitive team that it’s been in years. However, that probably won’t be good enough for an NCAA bid this year. If the team can pull off a few upsets, the NIT should be on the table though.

Big Ten Prediction: 9th Place