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2020-’21 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 2020-’21 season.

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

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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Perhaps no team deserved last year’s postseason more than the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. After years of losses, frustrating results, and inconsistency, the program finally got the job done. Rutgers was going to last year’s NCAA Tournament and it wasn’t up for debate. And it wasn’t even going to stop there. Rutgers had a serious shot of doing some damage in the Round of 64 and beyond.

Well, at least until there wasn’t an NCAA Tournament anymore.

Unfortunately for Scarlet Knight fans (and the rest of the world, really), they never got that moment. The celebration of hearing your name called on Selection Sunday and the moment that makes all the struggles worth it. And for better or worse, it can’t be replicated. The first time is always the sweetest and for a large portion of Rutgers’ fanbase, that was last season. The program hadn’t made the NCAAs since 1991 and hadn’t advanced to the second round since 1983. Last March was when both of those streaks could have been broken. It’s a tough blow for fans to stomach.

Perhaps the lone saving grace for fans has to be the knowledge that they might not have to wait too much longer to get there. Rutgers will enter this season with as much (or more) talent as it had last year and even more experience. The Scarlet Knights should be a formidable once again as the roster returns key players like Geo Baker and Jacob Young and adds an exciting 2020 recruiting class.

But can Steve Pikiell and company get it done? 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. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-11 (11-9)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #28
  • NET Rating: #30
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

As mentioned above, last season was a special one for the Scarlet Knights. After years of underwhelming results, Rutgers finally put everything together. Rutgers was nationally relevant for the first time in decades and would have made the NCAA Tournament had it been played. It was an incredible run and one fans will remember for years to come.

What’s wild is things started off relatively slow. Rutgers opened the season with three wins against middling opponents and then fell flat against St. Bonaventure in mid-November and stumbled against Pittsburgh and Michigan State in early December. After the loss to the Spartans, Rutgers was just 6-3 overall and 75th on KenPom. It was still early, but you got the sense Rutgers might be another year away from accomplishing anything significant.

But that’s when the team caught fire.

Rutgers didn’t just bounce back from loss to Michigan State with a win, but did it emphatically. The Scarlet Knights responded by beating a really good Wisconsin team at home and followed that up with a 20-point win over Seton Hall in mid-December. Rutgers would go on to win six-straight, including two more wins over Big Ten foes Nebraska and Penn State. By the end of that run, Rutgers was sitting at 12-3 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play.

Still, skepticism remained. We had seen Rutgers score some marquee victories before and fade as the season continued. Maybe not to the level the Scarlet Knights had done this time around, but it was hard to buy in too much. Fortunately for fans, those questions would be answered as the team continued to face off against quality opponents.

Rutgers may have dropped its next game (a road matchup against Illinois), but the team won four of its next five, including quality wins over Indiana and Purdue. By that point, there was no debating things were different for this Scarlet Knight squad. The team had already reached 16 wins by late January. If the team could just squeak out a few more wins, the NCAA Tournament would await.

And while Rutgers faded toward the end of the season, it wasn’t enough to derail the incredible success in December and January and some timely wins later on as well. And all doubts were silenced in March when Rutgers knocked off wins against Maryland and Purdue to end the regular season.

We’ll never know what Rutgers might have accomplished had the postseason went forward as scheduled. But we do know the team would have made the NCAA Tournament and been a pretty decent seed wherever it landed. And that’s a disappointment most won’t soon forget. Fans will hope the team can erase that memory with a great run this year.

Highlights of the season included wins over Maryland, Seton Hall, and Wisconsin along with the season sweep of Purdue. The lowest points of the season came early when Rutgers dropped games to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh.

Individual statistical leaders were Geo Baker, Ron Harper, and Myles Johnson. Baker led the team in assists and steals. Harper led the team in minutes, points, and total win shares. Johnson led the team in rebounds and blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

The Scarlet Knights got off relatively light this year, at least in terms of offseason departures. Rutgers is losing just four players from last year’s team in Shaq Carter, Joey Downes, Peter Kiss, and Akwasi Yeboah. That’s really not bad in today’s world of college basketball, especially considering the team’s success last season and the fact three of those four saw relatively limited playing time. It’s a really encouraging note for this year.

The biggest departure is certainly Yeboah. He averaged 23.8 minutes, 9.8 points, and 4.8 rebounds per game last season. He only played one year with the Scarlet Knights after transferring from Stony Brook, but made quite an impact. He played starter minutes and did work on the boards and inside the paint last season. Fortunately, his usage numbers weren’t massive, so the impact of his departure is a little more limited.

The other three departures all filled reserve roles, with Carter being the most notable of the group. He provided depth at the five behind Myles Johnson and played approximately 30 percent of the team’s minutes last season. He was a decent rebounder and an adequate shot blocker. Meanwhile, Downes and Kiss played extremely limited minutes, combining to play 23 minutes all season.

Overall, this section is pretty brief and for good reason. Rutgers just isn’t losing much from last year’s squad. It’s basically one starter and one depth piece. That’s hardly an insurmountable hurdle to clear.

3. New Additions

This season, the Scarlet Knights are adding four new recruits and one walk-on. The recruits are Mawot Mag, Cliff Omoruyi, Oskar Palmquist, and Dean Reiber. According to 247Sports, Omoruyi is a four-star prospect and the other three recruits are three-stars. Palmquist is listed as a small-forward, Mag and Reiber are listed as power forwards, and Omoruyi is listed as a center. The walk-on is freshman Aidan Terry.

Omoruyi is certainly the incoming recruit receiving the most attention heading into this season. He’s listed at 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds and is rated 48th nationally by 247Sports. That’s an incredible mark for Rutgers. In fact, Omoruyi is the second-highest rated prospect Rutgers has landed in the online recruiting era, behind only Mike Rosario. Omoruyi is a big bodied center who will dominate the paint at the next level. He also fits in perfectly to Pikiell’s defensive-focused style. Expect him to play early and often.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see any of the four other additions playing a ton this season. And not because they aren’t capable. Rutgers just has a lot of depth in front of them. Mag will get a serious look on the wing and Palmquist and Reiber might factor into things if there’s an injury or two. However, most of these guys will be “wait and see” prospects. Give them some time to develop and they might be able to make some noise.

All told, Rutgers is adding a really solid group of additions this season. Omoruyi is certainly the centerpiece and the player who fans have to be the most excited about. However, the three other incoming recruits could also factor in down the line. And if any of those three are more ready than expected, Rutgers could make some massive noise.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to be excited about for this year’s Scarlet Knights. The program brings back substantial portions of a good roster, has potential star contributors from that group, and adds enough in the offseason to think the team could improve on last year’s mark. All the pieces are there for a special season in Piscataway.

Of course, any optimism about Rutgers has to start with last season. The Scarlet Knights were a top 25ish squad that returns virtually every major contributor from that run. Yeboah and Carter are gone, but everything else is back. And it’s hard to even get too panicked about those two. Yeboah was arguably the team’s weakest starter and Carter was a bench option behind an established starter. Plus, with Omoruyi’s addition in the frontcourt, one of those spots should be filled immediately.

The returners also include three potential star-level contributors in Baker, Harper, and Young. All three put up solid numbers last season and could be set for even bigger performances this time around. And if Baker improves his shooting a bit, Harper gets a little more consistent, and Young improves his passing, Rutgers could be really dangerous. Few teams have a top three like the Scarlet Knights will this year.

Rutgers is also adding a number of additions who fit in nicely with the team’s returners. Omoruyi projects to be a special player for the Scarlet Knights and is more than talented enough to replace Carter upfront. And the other three additions all come on the wing, where Rutgers could use some additional depth after losing Yeboah. It’s almost as if Rutgers’ roster had a peanut sized hole and Pikiell found a peanut to fill it. These are perfect additions to fill in and take the team to the next level.

All told, there’s a lot to be excited about here. Rutgers has a proven roster, three potential stars, and newcomers who can address the team’s various weaknesses. It’s a great cocktail for a program heading into a new season.

5. Points of Concern

Of course, there are still reasons to be concerned as well. To start, Rutgers does have to replace a starter and an important reserve from last year’s run. While the departures don’t look massive on paper, it’s important to remember Rutgers was markedly worse before Yeboah showed up on campus. Suggesting he was Rutgers’ “magic ingredient” would be hyperbolic, but there’s a little truth there. Finding a player who can fill that role is crucial if the team is going to sustain success. And Carter was an important player as well. Omoruyi looks like a great replacement, but he’s also a freshman. Who knows what to expect.

Rutgers also needs to improve its offensive production, particularly from three-point range. The Scarlet Knights were 295th nationally in three-point percentage last season. You can win a lot of games playing ugly basketball, but it limits your ceiling. If Rutgers is going to take the next step and compete at the top of the Big Ten, that has to improve. Additionally, Rutgers was also dreadful from the charity stripe. It’s another thing that needs to get better.

However, perhaps the bigger challenge comes from a more spiritual angle.

Rutgers faces the unique challenge of coming off a magical season for the program. Those usually aren’t easy to follow up, even if you have talent. Go ask programs like Northwestern and Penn State, who have had great years, only to take sizable steps back the next season. The 2019-’20 season was a special one for the Scarlet Knights. After years of frustration, things finally went right. And that’s naturally associated with a season of enthusiasm and energy not easily replicated.

This year, Rutgers needs to find a way to replicate that energy. And it won’t be easy. If Rutgers can’t find a way to recapture some of that magic, it’s hard to see the team finding the success it had last time around. After all, much of the roster is the same.

6. Top Player

Rutgers is one of the rare teams entering this season with multiple candidates for this spot. Baker, Harper, and Young all have serious potential and could contend to be the team’s best player this season. It’s anyone’s guess who will end up coming out on top.

Here’s what BTPowerhouse wrote about Baker in our top 25 countdown:

Baker is a reliable scorer in the moments his team needs points. The point guard for Rutgers had game winning big shots in five conference games alone last season. Clearly Baker is a point guard that you can rely on to score when the game is on the line. Baker is also a reliable contributor around the floor. He ranked No. 28 in the conference for scoring last season, tied for No. 9 in assists, tied for No. 10 in steals, and tied for No. 7 in assists to turnover ratio. Overall Baker is a solid and reliable player to run the point.

. . .

Baker will be a formidable point guard this season for Rutgers. Despite being robbed of the chance to snap their NCAA tournament drought last season, Rutgers enters this season with high expectations on the hardwood. Baker is a key component of those expectations. Big Ten fans should expect to see a lot of minutes out of the senior point guard when tuning in for the Scarlet Knights.

With players like Ron Harper Jr. flanking him on the court, Baker will be a potent scoring threat manning the offense for Rutgers. Opponents should be wary of the Scarlet Knights and expect little to no drop-off from Rutgers’ breakout season last year. With a long off-season to recover from his thumb injury and continue to work on his game, Baker should be an enjoyable player to watch (when your team is not facing him) this season.

Here’s what I wrote about Harper in our top 25 player countdown:

Harper was a bit like a Swiss army knife last season. He was an efficient player offensively, could stretch the floor, did damage on the boards, and defended pretty well. He didn’t have a single area that blew people away statistically, but the combination was impressive. It’s rare to find a player who can do as many things as Harper can.

The biggest improvement for Harper last season was from deep. He improved from 27.8 to 35.2 percent from three-point range and ranked 16th in the Big Ten during conference play. His defensive block rate also improved, jumping to 3.8 against Big Ten opponents, good enough to rank 16th in the conference. He also posted top 25 marks in the conference in effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, turnover rate, and defensive rebounding rate.

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Given his performance last season, it’s reasonable to think Harper will (once again) be one of the Big Ten’s best players this season. If his shooting numbers remain consistent, he should remain as the team’s key offensive piece, stretching the floor to allow players like Geo Baker to get into the lane and do damage. In a lot of ways, Rutgers’ season will ride with Harper. The better he does, the better the team should do.

The biggest question will be whether the team can find a second shooter outside of him. Akwasi Yeboah was arguably the team’s second-best shooter last season and is now gone. Steve Pikiell will need to find someone to fill that role. Otherwise, Harper’s production could be limited as teams key in on him. It should be interesting to watch.

Meanwhile, Young is also a quality volume scorer and a great defender. If he can improve his shooting numbers, there’s a lot of reasons to love this game. Omoruyi is another wildcard in this category, given his recruiting profile. With all that said, Harper seems like the most reliable bet here.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/25 - Sacred Heart
  • 11/27 - Fairleigh Dickinson
  • 12/8 - Syracuse
  • 12/14 - at Maryland
  • 12/20 - Illinois
  • 12/23 - at Ohio State
  • 12/29 - Purdue
  • 1/2 - Iowa
  • 1/5 - at Michigan State
  • 1/9 - Ohio State
  • 1/12 - at Penn State
  • 1/15 - Wisconsin
  • 1/24 - at Indiana
  • 1/28 - Michigan State
  • 1/31 - at Northwestern
  • 2/4 - Minnesota
  • 2/10 - at Iowa
  • 2/13 - Northwestern
  • 2/18 - at Michigan
  • 2/21 - Maryland
  • 2/24 - Indiana
  • 2/28 - at Nebraska

There’s a lot to like about the slate for Rutgers this season. The Scarlet Knights get a marquee matchup against Syracuse in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and follow that up with a loaded slate in December and early January. It’s going to be difficult, but fans have to look at it as an opportunity. I mean, look at this stretch:

  • 12/8 - Syracuse
  • 12/14 - at Maryland
  • 12/20 - Illinois
  • 12/23 - at Ohio State
  • 12/29 - Purdue
  • 1/2 - Iowa
  • 1/5 - at Michigan State
  • 1/9 - Ohio State

That eight-game stretch features six teams ranked in the top 25 on KenPom and another in the top 35. And the lone exception (Maryland) won last year’s Big Ten regular season title. But if Rutgers can find a way to survive that stretch, there are a lot of potential wins down the line. It won’t ever get easy, but it should get easier.

Expect a lot of close games and some tough nights. But if Rutgers can find a way to compete with the Big Ten’s top teams, this has a chance to be a special slate.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Jacob Young (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Geo Baker (Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Montez Mathis (Jr.) - 75%
  • PF: Ron Harper (Jr.) - 95%
  • C: Myles Johnson (Rs. Jr.) - 70%

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

With four returning starters from a top 25ish squad, this is a pretty stable lineup. Three of those returners are near locks for the starting lineup and the fourth is going to get starter minutes, even if he’s edged out by a new addition. Rutgers will have to work out the bench rotation, but most of this looks pretty static.

In the backcourt, Young and Baker are going to dominate things. Both started last season and should maintain that position now. The only real question is who will play behind them. Paul Mulcahy looks like the top reserve option here after playing some decent minutes last season. Caleb McConnell could also be an option. Most thought he would redshirt this season, but with everything going on, don’t be surprised if he gives it a shot.

However, with a thinner wing group and Montez Mathis likely moving there to help, expect Young and Baker to get even more minutes, as opposed to the heavy bench minutes fans saw last season. At least, that’s assuming Mulcahy doesn’t take a massive step forward. If he does, perhaps the minute splits for Young and Baker will stay the same.

On the wing, Mathis projects as a starter with Yeboah’s departure. He clearly has the most experience, especially with the questions about McConnell. Mathis should start at the three and Ron Harper will start at the four.

Like the backcourt, the biggest question about the wing will be regarding the reserve minutes. Mulcahy is an option here as well as the three incoming freshmen wings. Mag projects as the most college ready of the three, but he, Palmquist, and Reiber should all get a look here. And that’s a nice thing for Pikiell. He should have plenty of options to try out.

Upfront, Johnson and Omoruyi are going to split the minutes at center. The only question is how quickly Omoruyi will be ready to contribute in a significant way. Fans are hoping he can hit the ground running and push Johnson into a reserve role. But either way, things should be in good shape here. That’s a great two-man rotation. Mamadou Doucoure is also an option here as well, should either of the top two get in foul trouble.

Overall, this is a really solid and stable starting lineup. There’s tons of experience here, players with star potential, and enough newcomers to fill out the bench. And if even a player or two surprises, Rutgers could be a really dangerous Big Ten team.

9. Outside Perspective From Aaron Breitman of On The Banks

“Great expectations have arrived for the Scarlet Knights. After winning 20 regular season games for the first time in 37 years and producing a winning record in Big Ten play for the first time since joining the league, they have the potential to be even better this season. They are ranked in the preseason for the first time in 42 years. Six of the top eight contributors from last season return and they’ve added a top 40 recruiting class that includes 4-star big man Cliff Omoruyi, as well as 3-star wings Mawot Mag and Oskar Palmquist.

Two players poised to become major contributors are guards Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy. Both can be the lead ball handler and run the offense, while having unique qualities no one else on the roster has. Young is the best penetrator and quickest guard the program has had in years, as well as being an excellent on the ball defender. Mulcahy at 6’7” can play and defend multiple positions, is the best passer on the roster and makes the team as a whole more unselfish when he is on the floor, as well as an asset in picking apart zone defenses.

After finishing 6th nationally in defensive efficiency last season, their increased size and versatility give hope they may be even better on that end of the floor. The ceiling for this season will likely be determined by how much they improve offensively, particularly from the free throw line and three-point range. However, Baker is one of the best closing playmakers in the country and Harper Jr. is poised to become a star, giving the program the potential to have its best season since the Final Four run 44 years ago.

To their credit, Rutgers isn’t hiding from the hype and made it clear at media day their goal is to surpass that Final Four team as the best in program history. If they can stay healthy, they have the talent and depth to have a special season.” - Aaron Breitman.

Projected Starting Lineup:

  • G - Geo Baker
  • G - Jacob Young
  • G - Montez Mathis
  • F - Ron Harper Jr.
  • F - Myles Johnson

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You can check out Aaron’s season preview here!

10. Overall Season Outlook

Last season was a legendary one for the Scarlet Knights. It’s one fans and players won’t soon forget. But whether fans are ready or not, it’s time to move on from last year. The clock has restarted and the resume is blank yet again. Pikiell and staff now need to find a way to deliver once again on rising expectations.

The good news is Rutgers has more than enough to get the job done. Four of the team’s starters return and the Scarlet Knights also add one of the best incoming recruits in program history. Even if players just maintain their play from last year, there’s plenty of reason to believe Rutgers will compete for a spot near the top of the Big Ten.

However, keeping things fresh and overcome a few key departures will be challenging. And a challenging slate will make things difficult as well. Expect some lumps, but an otherwise successful campaign. And if a few things break the right way, Rutgers could have an outside shot at its first ever Big Ten title.

Big Ten Prediction: 5th Place