The 2023-’24 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-’24 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 postseason potential.
Over the last seven seasons, Steve Pikiell has resurrected Rutgers from the depths of college basketball. He took a program defined by irrelevance and transformed it into one of the league’s most consistent performers, earning two NCAA Tournament appearances and a trip to the NIT over the last few years.
Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights fell just a tad short of achieving its primary goal last season, narrowly missing the NCAA cut on Selection Sunday. It was a brutal disappointment for a squad that seemed like a sure-fire NCAA team in early February before fading down the stretch, thanks in large part to the injury of Mawot Mag.
The question is now whether Rutgers can get back on track. The losses of Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy pose a major challenge, but the Scarlet Knights should have enough other pieces to stay competitive.
So, can the Scarlet Knights get back in the Big Dance? Let’s take a look.
1. 2022-’23 Season Performance
- Record: 19-15 (10-10)
- KenPom Team Rating: #39
- NET Rating: #40
- Postseason Appearance: NIT (First Round)
Last season was a frustrating one for Scarlet Knight fans. While the team was pretty solid and started well, a horrid finish to the regular season and a few upset losses prevented Rutgers from making its third straight NCAA Tournament. It was a tough pill to swallow for a program that had started expecting good things on Selection Sunday.
What was so bizarre about the season was how well things started. Rutgers began the year at 11-4 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play. And that stretch included a massive road win over Purdue and wins over quality Indiana and Maryland squads. It was an incredible start and had many Scarlet Knight fans not only hoping for another Tournament bid, but far more, including a lofty seed in March.
Unfortunately, the wheels fell in February. Rutgers lost six of its final eight regular season games, including brutal losses to Nebraska and Minnesota. It derailed what looked like a banner year in Piscataway. Unfortunately, as noted above, the nosedive timed up with Mag’s injury, leading many to speculate the team would have made the cut if he stayed healthy. It will be a “what if” for Rutgers for years to come.
Highlights of the season included the upset win over Purdue, and the wins over Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan State. Low points included the misstep against Temple in non-conference play, the losses to Minnesota and Nebraska in Big Ten play, and the loss to Hofstra in the NIT.
Individual statistical leaders were Caleb McConnell, Paul Mulcahy, Clifford Omoruyi, and Cam Spencer. McConnell led the team in steals. Mulcahy led the team in assists. Omoruyi led the team in points, rebounds, and blocks. Spencer led the team in minutes and total win shares.
2. Offseason Exits
Rutger is losing quite a bit from last season, including several of its most significant contributors. The Scarlet Knights are losing seven players in total by way of Andrew Fulin, Caleb McConnell, Jalen Miller, Paul Mulcahy, Dean Reiber, Cam Spencer, and Logan Stephens. It’s about an even split between contributors and non-contributors.
The most significant departures are McConnell, Mulcahy, and Spencer. The three not only started for the Scarlet Knights last season, but led the roster in minutes per game and finished as three of the top four on the roster in total field goal attempts. Add in McConnell’s defensive prowess and Spencer’s perimeter shooting (43.4 percent from three) and these losses look even more significant.
For perspective on what these three meant, look no further than Rutgers’ final meaningful game against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament. McConnell and Mulcahy both played 36 minutes and Spencer finished with 35 himself. These three alone accounted for 53.5 percent of the team’s minutes against the Boilermakers. Even if you add talented new pieces, those are some big numbers to replace.
None of the other four departures stand out much. Reiber played the most of the group, but only finished with 190 total minutes on the season, for roughly 6.8 per game. All four should be replaceable, at least on the court.
3. New Additions
This season, the Scarlet Knights will be adding three new recruits and five transfers. The incoming recruits are Jamichael Davis, Gavin Griffiths, and Emmanuel Ogbole. Davis is listed as a point guard, Griffiths as a shooting guard, and Ogbole as a center. Griffiths is rated as a four-star prospects by 247Sports, Davis is listed as a three-star, and Ogbole is unrated. Daniel Vessey also joins the program as a walk-on.
Griffiths is the recruit receiving the most attention. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds and projects as a solid contributor at the next level. He seems to be decent in transition and fans are hoping he can provide enough from deep to replace some of Spencer’s lost shooting.
The transfers are Noah Fernandes, Zach Hayn, Jacob Morales, Austin Williams, and Jeremiah Williams. Fernandes is a point guard out of UMass, Hayn is a guard from Hartwick, Morales is a guard from Springfield College, Austin is a combo guard from FIU, and Jeremiah is a point guard from Iowa State.
The sheer number of transfers suggests somebody here will be a contributor. However, this is a mixed bag of newcomers, to say the least. Many have a shaky history, significant prior injuries, and/or have otherwise been college basketball journeymen. The most intriguing are probably Fernandes and Jeremiah Williams, but both were limited last season and Williams is still working through eligibility issues. As such, it’s hard to tell how that’s going to shake out.
Overall, this is a decent group of newcomers. Nothing exceptional that will turn heads nationally, but enough of a base to keep things going for Pikiell and staff. The key will be how much the transfers produce.
4. Points of Optimism
While this generally projects as a rebuilding season in Piscataway, there are enough pieces on the roster to believe the Scarlet Knights can do some damage. The biggest positives come in the frontcourt and with the new additions. The program’s culture also presents some encouraging signs.
The most encouraging aspect of Rutgers’ roster has to start upfront, with Omoruyi’s return at the five. He was one of the league’s better big men last season and produced on both sides of the floor, leading one of the Big Ten’s best defensive outfits. Fans can expect him to be a mainstay again and play extensive minutes. Antwone Woolfolk also returns behind him, which should only strengthen the team’s bench production.
Rutgers also welcomes an intriguing set of newcomers that could contribute early if they manage to hit the ground running. Griffiths is one of the more talented prospects the Scarlet Knights have landed in years. In fact, he’s second on Rutgers’ list of all-time basketball recruits since 2000, at least according to 247Sports. It seems likely he’ll start and contribute early. And Rutgers welcomes a number of transfers with him, who should fill out of the depth chart.
The program also boasts an impressive culture. The Scarlet Knights rose from the ashes under Pikiell’s leadership and its embodied by his players. This is a tough team filled with grit and a hard working attitude. Rutgers is going to grind out games this season. And if the team can grind out enough of them, perhaps the Scarlet Knights can sneak into a postseason bid.
5. Points of Concern
Unfortunately, Rutgers also faces its fair share of challenges as well. To start, the offseason departures can’t be understated. Rutgers is losing three of its top four players from last season, including a large share of its offensive production. Departures are common in today’s world of college basketball, but losing that much is certainly significant.
Perhaps the most significant loss of the trio is Spencer. That’s because he was the only player on Rutgers’ roster last season that was a genuinely good shooter from three-point range. Others like Mulcahy did alright, but nobody hit that top mark. Without him, it’s unclear how Rutgers is going to stretch the floor. That showed him in the team’s first scrimmage, as the Scarlet Knights went a dreadful 0-of-11 from deep in the first half.
Rutgers’ regression last season is also important to keep in mind. While the Scarlet Knights were a solid team that probably should have made the NCAA Tournament, they closed the season with a 3-8 record and dropped to 35th on KenPom. That run also included some rough losses, including missteps against underwhelming Nebraska and Minnesota squads.
6. Top Player
There’s little debating Omoruyi enters this season as the runaway leader in this category. He was arguably Rutgers’ best player last season and should only strengthen his position there, with so many key departures and another year of experience. Fans should expect him to remain a force down low.
The only real question is whether anyone can seriously push Omoruyi for this distinction. Scarlet Knight fans will hope so, because it would mean at least another player stepped up this season. Darkhorse contenders will be Griffiths, Hyatt, and Simpson. The player with the most upside certainly appears to be Griffiths.
7. 2023-’24 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/21 - at St. Johns (Exh.)
- 11/6 - Princeton (Trenton, NJ)
- 11/10 - Boston University
- 11/12 - Bryant
- 11/15 - Georgetown
- 11/18 - Howard
- 11/27 - Saint Peter’s
- 12/2 - Illinois
- 12/6 - at Wake Forest
- 12/9 - at Seton Hall
- 12/16 - Long Island
- 12/23 - Mississippi State (Newark, NJ)
- 12/30 - Stonehill
- 1/3 - at Ohio State
- 1/6 - at Iowa
- 1/9 - Indiana
- 1/14 - at Michigan State
- 1/17 - Nebraska
- 1/21 - at Illinois
- 1/28 - Purdue
- 1/31 - Penn State
- 2/3 - at Michigan
- 2/6 - at Maryland
- 2/10 - Wisconsin
- 2/15 - Northwestern
- 2/18 - at Minnesota
- 2/22 - at Purdue
- 2/25 - Maryland
- 2/29 - Michigan
- 3/3 - at Nebraska
- 3/7 - at Wisconsin
- 3/10 - Ohio State
While Rutgers projects to have a pretty challenging slate this year, it’s a schedule with more upside than some might believe. The question will be whether the Scarlet Knights can be moderately outperform its preseason projections. If so, there are plenty of wins to be had.
Non-conference play will be highlighted by a handful of games against “marquee” opponents. However, the quotation marks are used here because many of these opponents are marquee in name only. For example, Rutgers gets Georgetown, Wake Forest, and Seton Hall, but none of the three even present as top 50 KenPom teams. That inherently means they’re all beatable. The most challenging opponent seems to be Mississippi State, though the game comes essentially at home. An upset there would be huge.
Naturally, Big Ten play will be its normal challenge. The key will be outperforming expectations and turning some of the projected losses into tossup opportunities. For perspective, Rutgers enters the season with 11 conference games where the Scarlet Knights have between 20 and 45 percent odds to win on KenPom. That means over half the Big Ten slate falls into this range. If Rutgers can modestly outperform expectations, it could turn some of those 20s and 30s into 40s and 50s. That would have a tremendous impact on the team’s postseason hopes. Those matchups will define the season.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Derek Simpson (So.) - 90%
- SG: Gavin Griffiths (Fr.) - 90%
- SF: Aundre Hyatt (Sr.) - 80%
- PF: Oskar Palmquist (Rs. Sr.) - 80%
- C: Clifford Omoruyi (Sr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
With most of Rutgers’ starting lineup gone, there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding who will take the opening tip. The two returning starters seem safe bets to find their way into the lineup. It’s an open question regarding who else will be there for the heart of the season.
In the backcourt, Derek Simpson seems like a safe bet to start after being a reliable piece for the Scarlet Knights last season. Highly touted freshman Gavin Griffiths should be the main piece alongside him. However, it’s unclear how much these two can play. Simpson didn’t even play half of the team’s minutes last season and Griffiths is just a freshman. Expect Fernandes and Austin Williams to get a good hunk of the reserve minutes here. Jamichael Davis is another option who could get extended minutes as the season continues.
The wing group has a little more stability with Hyatt and Palmquist returning. Both provided reserve minutes last year and should be positioned to get extended time this season. Mawot Mag also returns, though it’s unclear how long it will take for him to be completely healthy. Antonio Chol could also play at the four if needed.
Upfront, it’s Omoruyi’s show. He dominated the minutes there last season and should this time around. Woolfolk also returns after being the main backup and should fill out that role as well. This is easily the most table position in the lineup. Fans will hope Ogbole emerges as a key reserve here as the season unfolds.
All told, this projects as a decent lineup. The frontcourt could be really good and the wing spots have plenty of depth as well. The big question will be how much the backcourt can do as we roll into Big Ten play. If the Scarlet Knights can find answers there, this could be a really solid squad.
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 the NCAA Tournament is hard enough and Rutgers has now effectively done it in three of four years and narrowly fell short last spring. That’s a clear statement about where things have trended.
Unfortunately, while the program has delivered some impressive results, it’s been heading in the wrong direction since the explosion a few years back. Rutgers’ numbers have fallen on KenPom and the team fell short of last year’s NCAA Tournament, painfully getting the bad news on Selection Sunday and landing in the NIT. The goal this time around needs to be ending that trend and getting back on the right side of the bubble.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Since taking over in 2016, Pikiell and staff have done a wonderful job of resurrecting a program from the dead. The Scarlet Knights were absolutely irrelevant when he took over. And while it hasn’t all been perfect, Rutgers has at least turned into a consistent NCAA contender.
But the program now faces a significant test. The roster has regressed, at least on paper, and it seems like Rutgers is set for a significant backslide. Can Pikiell overcome the departures and find a way to keep things rolling? The answer seems mixed.
Overall, Rutgers should remain a factor in the Big Ten and seems good enough to compete for the NCAA Tournament again. However, it’s going to be far from a sure thing and likely an uphill battle. Much will depend on the newcomers.