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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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After two decades of missteps, Rutgers finally broke through last March. The Scarlet Knights earned the program’s first NCAA bid since 1991 and put together one of the program’s most impressive seasons since the late 1970s. It was an incredible achievement for Steve Pikiell and the players involved.

However, that was then and this is now. Rutgers now faces the challenge of following up on a groundbreaking season. And for fans well versed in college sports, they know the hangover effect is real. It also can be significant, which is certainly a concern here.

The good news is Rutgers returns a good hunk of last year’s core, including key contributors like Geo Baker, Ron Harper, and Paul Mulcahy. The team also has enough young players and newcomers to believe some of the departures will be replaceable. This certainly is a decent enough roster, especially if Pikiell and his staff keep getting the best out of them.

So, can Rutgers avoid a let down season? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 16-12 (10-10)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #38
  • NET Rating: #40
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)

There’s no denying last season was a successful one for the Scarlet Knights. The team broke a 20-year NCAA drought and the program posted its second straight winning season, which hadn’t happened since 1992. Rutgers also earned its way into the top 25 for just the second season since 1979, topping out at 11th.

However, things weren’t always easy. Rutgers got off to a fast start, but lost six out of seven at one point in the year and blew some key opportunities down the stretch. It took two wins against Indiana and a victory over Minnesota to get the Scarlet Knights on the right side of the bubble and back to the promised land.

Perhaps the most memorable moments of the season were the two NCAA Tournament games. Rutgers opened with an impressive win over Clemson, but fell short against Houston in the Round of 32. Rutgers was in control deep into the second half against the Cougars, before giving up a 14-2 run and falling short. Notably, Houston went on to the Final Four. Many Scarlet Knight fans will wonder what might have been, had Rutgers avoided the collapse.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference win over Syracuse, early wins over Maryland and Illinois, and the late season wins against Indiana and Clemson. Low points included the 1-6 stretch in late December and early January, losses to Maryland and Nebraska late in the regular season, and the loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament.

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

2. Offseason Exits

The Scarlet Knights got hit relatively hard with offseason departures this year. The program lost a total of six players in Nick Brooks, Mamdou Doucoure, Myles Johnson, Daniel Lobach, Montez Mathis, and Jacob Young. That’s two starters and one of the team’s best bench options.

The most significant departures are Johnson and Young. They combined to start 42 games last season and dominated the team’s statistical production. Johnson led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares and Young led the team in assists and steals and was arguably the team’s most productive perimeter option, which is significant considering Rutgers finished 287th in three-point percentage.

Mathis is also a notable departure. He was the team’s sixth man last year, providing consistent relief at the two and three. In fact, Mathis started13 games, finished fourth on the team in total minutes, and was third on the roster in usage when he did play. He’s very much not your typical bench player.

The final three departures are relatively insignificant. Brooks, Doucoure, and Lobach combined for a total of 67 minutes last season. Rutgers should be able to replace these three with its offseason additions.

3. New Additions

This season, the Scarlet Knights will be adding two new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Jaden Jones and Jalen Miller, who are three-star prospects on 247Sports. The recruiting site lists Jones as a small forward and Miller as a point guard. Andrew Fulin and Logan Stephens also join the team as walk-ons.

Jones and Miller on campus with a decent amount of hype. Jone sis listed at 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds and Miller is listed at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds and should get a chance to contribute early on with Young’s departure. On The Banks wrote the following about their games:

Jaden Jones is the freshman that has gotten the most hype and rightfully so. His athleticism and quickness jumps out watching him in person. Patience is needed but I fully expect him to be a significant contributor this season. However, it was the former 3-star point guard, Jalen Miller, who left a major impression on Friday. I’d heard he was playing tough this summer and then the video that the program tweeted out weeks ago shows him playing lockdown defense on Ron Harper Jr., who is significantly bigger than Miller.

On Friday, I watched Miller give Geo Baker all he could handle on the defensive end in Friday’s practice. Even if Miller can’t crack the rotation on a regular basis this season, he will be a valuable addition. Baker has openly talked about his mistakes with the ball down the stretch in the loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament second round last year. Having to face Miller every day in practice is exactly what Baker wants. And don’t be surprised if Miller is called on at times to come in to be a defensive stopper in spots in Big Ten play.

The transfers are Ralph Gonzales-Agee and Aundre Hyatt. Gonzales-Agee arrives from San Jose State and Hyatt arrives from LSU. Both were starters at their prior schools and should be in position to compete for starting roles with the Scarlet Knights. Agee is a 6-foot-8 big man who should help replace Johnson and Hyatt was a solid rotational player for a pretty good LSU squad that made the Round of 32. He should contribute on the wing.

4. Points of Optimism

Entering this season, there’s plenty to like about this Rutgers squad. The team returns a solid core from last season, has multiple players with star potential, and adds three players capable of making an early impact. Those are all great signs for the year ahead.

Clearly, the biggest thing Rutgers has going for it this season is the returning core. Baker returns in the backcourt, Harper gets another year on the wing, and Cliff Omoruyi is back for his second year upfront. That’s a great three-man punch and it doesn’t even include players like Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell, who are both proven contributors as well. That’s essentially an entire lineup of proven players.

A few of those players also have star potential as well. Baker and Harper made our list of the top 25 players this year and Omoruyi could be set for an explosion as well. Omoruyi has the most room to grow given his 2020-’21 season, but even having three decent All-Big Ten prospects is a great start.

The additions should also work wonders here for the team’s lineup gaps. Agee and Hyatt are both starting caliber players and Jones and Miller are great pieces to have coming off the bench. They also give Pikiell and his staff some flexibility, as they can try out players at different positions to find the best five. Players like Hyatt can easily play multiple spots.

5. Points of Concern

Unfortunately, Rutgers also faces some serious challenges entering this season as well. Some roster-based and others related to psychological factors, namely the challenging of sustaining and repeating on success.

From a roster-perspective, the biggest questions for the Scarlet Knights will be replacing this offseason’s departures. Young and Mathis left the backcourt and Johnson is gone upfront. Those three might not have been All-Americans, but they were key players for the team last year and put up solid numbers. After all, Johnson led the team in total win shares and Young and Mathis finished second and fourth in total minutes.

Every team is going to face some attrition, but overcoming these losses will be a big challenge for Pikiell and his staff. The lose of Young and Mathis is also particularly difficult as they come at the same position group. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on Baker and the new additions to hit the ground running.

Rutgers also faces the mental obstacle of following up on a successful season. That might sound odd, but it’s a genuine concern. The Scarlet Knights have gotten to operate without expectations under Pikiell’s leadership so far. However, that changes this year. Fans have tasted Selection Sunday and success in March. Even if fans say so, nobody is going to be alright with missing the NCAAs moving forward. It’s one thing to be the hunter and another thing to be the hunted. Rutgers will have to figure that out this season.

6. Top Player

Rutgers enters this season with two clear candidates for the team’s best player in Baker and Harper. Both are established players for the Scarlet Knights and have already put up solid numbers so far in their careers. Both also made BTPowerhouse’s top 25 player countdown. Here are some comments in the countdown on Baker:

Baker is a solid defender and one of the best passers for the Scarlet Knights over the last few years. He had a top 20 assist rate last season and was a key piece in Rutgers’ top 10 ranked defense.

It’s also important to note what Baker does off the court as well. He’s a team leader and one of the core pieces that got Rutgers back to national relevance. Having a player like that on a roster is huge, especially as the program hopes to integrate younger players into the rotation.

And Harper:

Harper is a physical player that makes an impact on both sides of the floor. He can clean up the boards, pressure opponents, and does a good job of making smart plays, avoiding fouls and turnovers. In fact, he ranked among the top 25 players in the Big Ten in turnover rate and fouls committed per 40 minutes last season.

Additionally, Harper is a solid interior player offensively. He gets in the paint and does damage once there, shooting 52.4 percent from two-point range last season. He also shot 76.4 percent from the free throw line. Harper is also athletic enough to run the floor when needed.

Other candidates for this spot are Omoruyi and the two transfer additions. However, all these of these will be long shots.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/10 - Lehigh
  • 11/13 - Merrimack
  • 11/16 - NJIT
  • 11/18 - at DePaul
  • 11/22 - LaFayette
  • 11/27 - at UMass
  • 11/30 - Clemson
  • 12/3 - at Illinois
  • 12/9 - Purdue
  • 12/12 - at Seton Hall
  • 12/18 - Rider
  • 12/23 - Central Connecticut State
  • 12/29 - Maine
  • 1/4 - Michigan
  • 1/8 - Nebraska
  • 1/11 - at Penn State
  • 1/15 - at Maryland
  • 1/19 - Iowa
  • 1/22 - at Minnesota
  • 1/25 - Maryland
  • 1/29 - at Nebraska
  • 2/1 - at Northwestern
  • 2/5 - Michigan State
  • 2/9 - Ohio State
  • 2/12 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/16 - Illinois
  • 2/20 - at Purdue
  • 2/23 - at Michigan
  • 2/26 - Wisconsin
  • 3/2 - at Indiana
  • 3/6 - Penn State

This year’s schedule looks pretty typical of what we’ve seen out of the Scarlet Knights in recent years. The non-conference slate is a bit lacking, but it highlights local matchups and builds up to some key Big Ten matchups in December and January.

Perhaps the most interesting stretch will come in January, when the team gets this with KenPom win percentages noted for each game:

  • 1/4 - Michigan (23%)
  • 1/8 - Nebraska (67%)
  • 1/11 - at Penn State (38%)
  • 1/15 - at Maryland (21%)
  • 1/19 - Iowa (45%)
  • 1/22 - at Minnesota (57%)
  • 1/25 - Maryland (41%)
  • 1/29 - at Nebraska (44%)
  • 2/1 - at Northwestern (32%)

That’s what we call an opportunity stretch. That’s nine games where five of the games are between 40 and 70 win percentages and another is just below that. And when you consider Rutgers seems a bit underrated in KenPom’s preseason rankings (67th overall), most of those games could be tossups if Rutgers moves up a few spots earlier in the season.

The important things for Rutgers will be avoiding missteps against a forgiving non-conference slate and cashing in on home court opportunities. If the team does that, another NCAA appearance seems reasonable.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Geo Baker (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Aundre Hyatt (Rs. So.) - 90%
  • SF: Paul Mulcahy (Rs. So.) - 90%
  • PF: Ron Harper (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • C: Cliff Omoruyi (Rs. Fr.) - 75%

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

This is one of those lineups where things are simultaneously complex and straightforward. It seems pretty easy to project four players into the lineup, but figuring out the last spot and where players will see the floor is pretty challenging. There are a lot of different ways things could go, particularly based on how the newcomers fit.

In the backcourt and at the three spot, expect Baker, Hyatt, and Mulcahy to grab starting roles. However, it’s unclear how Hyatt and Mulcahy will fit together. Moreover, if Miller can emerge as a freshman, don’t be surprised if Pikiell moves Baker to the two. This is one of those groups where guys can easily switch positions and see time at multiple spots.

The bench at these spots will primarily be Jones, Miller, McConnell, and an assortment of the other three when Miller is on the floor. Don’t be surprised if Pikiell tries to limit his bench this time around, allowing players to shift to another position to minimize reliance on bench contributors.

The frontcourt also looks relatively settled. Harper should lock down the four and Omoruyi should start at the five. Both are solid players who have proven themselves in the Big Ten. The only thing that could shake things up here is if Agee arrives better than expected and pushes Omoruyi in the lineup. However, that seems unlikely. The backups at these spots will be McConnell and Agee, who both have plenty of experience.

Overall, it’s hard to complain much about this lineup. Rutgers enters the season with three returning starters, a bench player more than capable of grabbing another spot, and two additions who should push for time as well. The only question will be how they fit together.

9. Realistic Team Goals

After a groundbreaking 2020-’21 season, Rutgers enters this year with renewed hope. However, fans are certainly wondering whether this will be another chapter of success or a hangover from the special run that took place over the last two years. We won’t get a feel for how things go until we see the team take the court.

However, given the last two years, it’s fair to expect Rutgers to contend for another NCAA Tournament. The team has enough to sustain a solid level of play and enough pieces to elevate from there, if things go right.

Perhaps the biggest question will be how these pieces fit together. Rutgers desperately needs to find some perimeter shooting this year after (arguably) its most productive shooter departed this offseason. Defense will carry you pretty far, but it’s not going to be enough to achieve the program’s loftiest goals.

10. Overall Season Outlook

If you had polled Scarlet Knight fans in 2016 about the state of the program, few would have expected what happened over the last few years. Rutgers has transitioned from a Big Ten bottom dweller into a legitimate program. The Scarlet Knights have found respectability and finally broke through last season, making the NCAAs and the top 25.

However, sustaining that level of success is easier said than done. Rutgers has to figure out new goals for itself and put those into action. Getting players like Baker and Harper back will help, but can the team overcome the losses of Johnson and Young? It’s a big question, especially as the team has a target on its back.

All told, Rutgers should have another solid year. The team figures to be in NCAA consideration at season’s end. Whether it can get back to the Big Dance will likely depend on a handful of games in March yet again.

Big Ten Prediction: 7th Place