The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.
In 2016, Rutgers sat at the bottom of college basketball. The program was in shambles, hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in decades, and had little hope of turning things around. It was the laughing stock of the Big Ten and a program that had little (if any) respect.
But that was about to end.
Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell.
And the rest is history.
Since Pikiell’s arrival, Rutgers hasn’t just trended up. The Scarlet Knights have become nationally relevant, moved into the top 25 discussion and made each of the last two NCAA Tournaments—really three, if you count the cancelled 2020 Tournament. The program has also shown some renewed recruiting prowess, really putting together a solid group for the staff to develop.
The question is now whether Pikiell can sustain that success with the departure of key contributors like Geo Baker and Ron Harper, who helped lead the renaissance. They carried the load offensively last season, which will put a lot of pressure on the returners to figure things out. The good news is key players like Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy are back, so Pikiell and his staff will have some talent to work with this season.
So, can the Scarlet Knights get back in the Big Dance? Let’s take a look.
1. 2021-’22 Season Performance
- Record: 18-14 (12-8)
- KenPom Team Rating: #77
- NET Rating: #80
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (First Four)
Last season was a solid one for the Scarlet Knights. Despite a horrendous start to the season, Rutgers found its footing by Christmas and took that momentum into the new year. The team gradually built that into an NCAA worthy resume and the Scarlet Knights were able to make the cut. It was far from perfect, but plenty enough to keep the program’s momentum going.
Non-conference play was an unmitigated disaster for the Scarlet Knights last season. While Rutgers knocked off a respectable Clemson squad, a series of losses in November nearly derailed the entire season. Despite being favored, Rutgers dropped consecutive games to DePaul, Lafayette, and UMass right around Thanksgiving. All three opponents finished the season outside the top 100 on KenPom, including Lafayette at a dreadful 323rd nationally. It was an absolutely horrendous performance, and was so bad that it’s still difficult today to reconcile it with the team’s eventual finish.
Fortunately for Scarlet Knight fans, things reversed as Rutgers moved into conference play. The Scarlet Knights jumped out to a 5-1 start to Big Ten play and notched key wins against Iowa, Michigan, and Purdue early on. Those wins added plenty of juice to the team’s season and set the Scarlet Knights up well for a big home stand late in the season. Rutgers eventually cashed in, knocking off just enough teams to push the team onto the right side of the bubble, meaning even a loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament couldn’t derail things. Unfortunately, Rutgers didn’t do much once there, falling in dramatic fashion to Notre Dame in the First Four in double overtime.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference win over Clemson, the wins over Iowa, Purdue, and Wisconsin, and the NCAA bid. Low points included the three-game non-conference stretch noted above, blown games against Penn State and Minnesota on the road, and the letdowns against Iowa and Notre Dame in the postseason.
Individual statistical leaders were Ron Harper, Caleb McConnell, Paul Mulcahy, and Cliff Omoruyi. Harper led the team in minutes, points, and total win shares. McConnell led the team in steals. Mulcahy led the team in assists. Omoruyi led the team in rebounds and blocks.
2. Offseason Exits
Rutgers got hit with some notable departures this offseason. The Scarlet Knights saw five players leave in Geo Baker, Ralph Gonzales-Agee, Ron Harper, Jaden Jones, and Luke Nathan. Two were program-changing contributors and a few others contributed over the course of their careers. Pikiell will have his hands full replacing them.
The most significant departures are clearly Baker and Harper. They were the team’s most productive offensive players and played massive minutes, both averaging over 34 minutes per game. The two alone accounted for 38.6 percent of Rutgers’ field goal attempts and an even higher 55.9 percent of the team’s three-point field goals. These two weren’t just the team’s best offensive options, they were by a decent margin.
It’s also important to emphasize the difference these two made in some of Rutgers’ most important games last season. Harper had 30 points in the team’s upset over Purdue and 21 points in the win over Wisconsin. Similarly, Baker also routinely stepped up with clutch play in the biggest moments. There’s no way Rutgers is even close to making the NCAAs last year without their play down the stretch.
The other three departures aren’t quite as significant. Agee and Jones played the most with 17 games of action each, but Jones saw his time disappear as conference play began and Agee only averaged 7.2 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Nathan only saw 10 minutes of action all season. Replacing anyone is hard, but it’s unlikely these departures will keep Pikiell up at night.
Overall, there aren’t a lot of bodies going out the door. Rutgers’ roster remains relatively stable. Unfortunately, it’s just the ones that did leave were substantial. Replacing guys like Baker and Harper won’t be easy.
3. New Additions
This season, the Scarlet Knights will be adding three new recruits and a transfer. The recruits are Antonio Chol, Derek Simpson, and Antwone Woolfolk. 247Sports rates Simpson and Woolfolk as three-star recruits, while Chol is unrated. Simpson is listed as a point guard and both Chol and Woolfolk are listed as power forwards.
Generally speaking, none of the three incoming prospects are expected to do much this season. Even Simpson, who’s the highest rated prospect, came in at 244th nationally on 247Sports. Woolfolk and Chol are likewise unfinished prospects that are going to need some developing. Simpson probably has the best line to playing time with his skillset and the team’s depth, but don’t expect to see more than a reserve role this year.
The other addition is Cam Spencer from Loyola (Maryland). He’s a 6-foot-4 shooting guard that put up decent numbers for the Greyhounds last season. He was a do-it-all offensive player that dominated the team’s offensive usage and was a respectable shooter, even given the usage level. He likewise ranked as one of the better passers in the Patriot League and shot 38.6 percent from three in league play last year. He should get an opportunity to start alongside Mulcahy this season.
Overall, this isn’t a group of additions that’s going to turn many heads nationally. It’s a solid step behind the earlier groups that pushed the Scarlet Knights to success. However, these players can grow as time goes on. And given Pikiell’s history as a developer, that isn’t a bad thing.
4. Points of Optimism
While the Scarlet Knights have some obstacles this season, there’s plenty to be excited about. The most notable areas are the team’s defense, potential star power on the wing, and the physical play down low. It could set the team up well for success in the heart of Big Ten play.
Of course, any discussion about Rutgers has to begin with the team’s exceptional defense. For each of the last five seasons, Rutgers has posted a top 55 defense on KenPom, with three units finishing in the top 30. It’s been the calling card of Rutgers under Pikiell’s leadership and has guided the team to significant success. And that figures to be the case yet again. The team returns a handful of starters and should remain a defensive force, particularly down low.
Rutgers also boasts a talented wing group, led by McConnell and Aundre Hyatt. Both played really well last season and should be set to take another step forward this year. McConnell projects as one of, if not, the best defender in the Big ten this season and rightfully so. He is a great perimeter defender that can pressure the ball and force opponents into bad looks. And if he can take even a modest step forward offensively, he could be a monster contributor overall. Hyatt and Mawot Mag also stand poised to take steps forward, which could make this group even deeper and stronger.
The frontcourt is also poised for a solid campaign. Omoruyi returns after a stellar season and he should be a stabilizing force down low yet again. Dean Reiber and Chol should also provide valuable depth minutes behind him. Having that many available pieces is certainly a good spot for the program to be heading into a new season, particularly when the starter is a proven contributor.
All these aspects give Rutgers a solid base heading into this season. And as Scarlet Knight fans have seen, if you can show up, defend, and play physically, you’ll have a shot in your fair share of games.
5. Points of Concern
Unfortunately, Rutgers also faces its fair share of challenges as well. To start, the loss of Baker and Harper can’t be understated. While both had their issues, they were easily Rutgers’ most important offensive contributors over the last few years. Baker was the team’s offensive initiator and Harper was the consistent producer. Mulcahy was the closest guy in usage to those three and he was well behind their numbers.
Their departures particularly raise concerns regarding Rutgers’ production from three-point range. Baker and Harper accounted for more than 50 percent of the team’s three-point field goals last season. Mulcahy was really the only other player to do much from deep last season, which means teams will be able to key in on him this year unless somebody else develops.
Rutgers is also losing those two from a team that had clear flaws. While the Scarlet Knights may have finished well and made the NCAAs, it wasn’t with much of a margin. Rutgers was a First Four team and didn’t even make it to the Round of 64. This wasn’t the Rutgers squad from earlier seasons under Pikiell. In fact, the Scarlet Knights slid from 28th to 77th on KenPom between 2020 and 2022. Rutgers already had the task of reversing that trend and now needs to do it without arguably its two best players.
It’s also important to note that Rutgers will be doing much of this with what projects as a less talented roster. Pikiell has done a great job of identifying, recruiting, and developing talent during his tenure. However, he’s also depended on a key number of high profile prospects to get him across the finish line. And that talent has faded in recent classes. Rutgers still has enough to make some noise, but it could be tougher than before.
6. Top Player
With the departures of Baker and Harper, this category looks to be more open than it has been in several years. However, there are a few solid candidates, led by McConnell, Mulcahy, and Omoruyi. All three were productive starters for the Scarlet Knights and project to be even more this time around. McConnell is an elite defender with NBA potential, Mulcahy is a respectable scorer that could thrive with a bit more polish to his game, and Omoruyi is a physical presence down low.
Rutgers also has a few wildcards that could emerge here. Spencer arrives with a respectable pedigree as a transfer and should get plenty of opportunities in a thin backcourt. Rising young players like Jalen Miller and Aidan Terry also have the potential to grow into productive options this season. The other newcomers also have a shot to surprise folks and emerge into productive players as freshmen.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/7 - Columbia
- 11/10 - Sacred Heart
- 11/12 - UMass Lowell
- 11/18 - Temple (Uncasville, CT)
- 11/22 - Rider
- 11/26 - Central Connecticut State
- 11/30 - at Miami (FL)
- 12/3 - Indiana
- 12/8 - at Ohio State
- 12/11 - Seton Hall
- 12/17 - Wake Forest
- 12/23 - Bucknell
- 12/30 - Coppin State
- 1/2 - at Purdue
- 1/5 - Maryland
- 1/8 - Iowa
- 1/11 - at Northwestern
- 1/15 - Ohio State
- 1/19 - at Michigan State
- 1/24 - Penn State
- 1/29 - at Iowa
- 2/1 - Minnesota
- 2/4 - Michigan State (TBD)
- 2/7 - at Indiana
- 2/11 - at Illinois
- 2/14 - Nebraska
- 2/18 - at Wisconsin
- 2/23 - Michigan
- 2/26 - at Penn State
- 3/2 - Minnesota
- 3/5 - Northwestern
Rutgers gets a surprisingly manageable slate this year. While it has plenty of marquee challenges, there’s a lot of games that look winnable, particularly given the program’s strength at home. Much will come down to how the Scarlet Knights perform in the “manageable” games and teams with similar resumes and profiles.
Non-conference play will essentially come down to four games. The neutral site game against Temple later this month, the road trip to Miami (FL), and the December home stand against Seton Hall and Wake Forest. Notably, Rutgers is favored in all the games except the road trip to face the Hurricanes and even that one doesn’t look that formidable, given Miami’s inconsistency in recent years and underwhelming home court. After all, it’s not like there’s any massive gap projected between the two as KenPom has them separated by just eight spots in its preseason ratings.
Of course, Big Ten play will have its fair amount of challenges. Rutgers got a relatively tough draw with double-plays against Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan State. However, Rutgers avoided a worse case scenario by getting single-plays against Michigan and Purdue and the game against the Wolverines at home. It also gives the team more than its share of opportunities at marquee wins at home, assuming it plays well.
Perhaps the most interesting stretch comes in January, with the following slate with KenPom odds noted alongside:
- 1/5 - Maryland (64%)
- 1/8 - Iowa (51%)
- 1/11 - at Northwestern (47%)
- 1/15 - Ohio State (55%)
- 1/19 - at Michigan State (31%)
- 1/24 - Penn State (60%)
That’s six games where every game projects as a coin flip, or close to it. And three of those games could be marquee win opportunities, as Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State are getting national attention in the preseason projections. If Rutgers can protect home court and win the road game at Northwestern, it can build a huge hunk of an NCAA resume in just three weeks.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Paul Mulcahy (Sr.) - 95%
- SG: Cam Spencer (Sr.) - 90%
- SF: Caleb McConnell (Rs. Sr.) - 85%
- PF: Aundre Hyatt (Jr.) - 70%
- C: Cliff Omoruyi (Jr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Despite the two significant departures this offseason, Rutgers enters this fall with some decent options to fill out its starting lineup. Three starters return, the program adds a readymade transfer, and there are a handful of options to slide into the final starting spot. Many of the players are going to have to learn to play together and there will be some growing pains, but at least the potential is there.
In the backcourt, expect to see Mulcahy and Spencer dominate the playing time. Mulcahy is arguably the team’s best returning offensive contributor and Spencer arrives as a productive player at Loyola (Maryland). Even in the team’s opening exhibition, they combined for 69 minutes. The other nice aspect of these two is Mulcahy’s ability to play multiple spots, which will allow Pikiell to minimize bench minutes even more, as he can use Mulcahy at the two when Spencer sits. Simpson is presently projecting as the primary backup behind the two. Jalen Miller is also expected to play.
On the wing, McConnell is a lock to start as soon as he’s healthy. The remaining minutes are going to be absorbed by Hyatt and Mag. That’s a really nice group of three players with room to grow. There’s also reasonable depth behind them as well, with Woolfolk. And given some of the massive minutes McConnell will play as the season continues, don’t expect too many bodies to see time here.
The most stable position, though, is the frontcourt. Omoruyi returns after a solid season and will lock down the five spot. He will be backed up by Chol and Reiber. However, unlike many bigs, Omoruyi is capable of playing more than 30 minutes a game, so you’re probably not going to see a ton of bench minutes here unless there’s foul trouble. Fans will hope Chol develops into a reliable reserve player.
Overall, Rutgers should have a relatively stable starting lineup. The only big question is who will emerge as scoring threats alongside Mulcahy. Spencer seems like a decent option, but the team will need someone else as well.
9. Realistic Team Goals
For Rutgers fans, the last few years have been a dream. The program finally found its footing, got its head coaching hire right, and turned that into success in March. The Scarlet Knights not only became respectable, but took it up a few steps as well. Making one NCAA Tournament is hard enough and Rutgers has now effectively done it three times in a row. That’s a clear statement about where things have trended.
Unfortunately (and fortunately), some of the extra COVID eligibility pushed off a rebuilding season for the program. The Scarlet Knights have seen their advanced numbers regress in each of the last two seasons and that may happen yet again. Expect some serious growing pains and an uphill battle for the NCAAs. However, it should still be a respectable group.
10. Overall Season Outlook
It’s hard to understate how significant a turnaround Rutgers has experienced over the last few years. The program has gone from purgatory to some of the heights of college basketball. It’s been an incredible ride and something special to watch.
Unfortunately, many of the players that pushed the Scarlet Knights to that success have now departed. The entire starting lineup that pushed Rutgers on the verge of its first NCAA Tournament in decades in 2020 are now gone, including the team’s star contributors. In a lot of ways, it makes this fall feel like the changing of the guard in Piscataway.
The good news is enough talent returns to give Rutgers a shot at keeping things rolling. Mulcahy returns in the backcourt, McConnell projects for another great season on the wing, and Omouruyi should be a great player down low. The program also added enough new pieces to build some optimism. All told, it should be another solid season, just probably not quite enough to get back to where fans have been the last few seasons.