Rutgers looks for first winning hoops season since 2005-06
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — It’s not surprising Rutgers has been picked to finish last in the Big Ten Conference in most of the preseason basketball polls.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 15-19 season. They lost leading scorer Corey Sanders, inside presence DeShawn Freeman and a combined 55 percent of their scoring and 48 percent of rebounding. They have won nine regular-season conference games since joining the league in 2014-15 and haven’t had a winning season since 2005-06. Last place seems a sound choice.
It might be the wrong one, though.
Entering his third season at Rutgers, Steve Pikiell has his deepest team. He is replacing experience with youth, athleticism and talent.
Rutgers returns shooting sophomore guard Geo Baker and fellow starters Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam at forward. Seven-footer Shaquille Doorson is healthy for a change.
Pikiell has one other ace. This is his best recruiting class. He has two four-star freshmen in guard Montez Mathis and swingman Ron Harper Jr. Sophomore guard Peter Kiss is eligible after sitting out a transfer year. Forward Myles Johnson is in shape after a redshirt season and junior college transfer Shaq Carter is going to contribute along with freshman point guard Caleb McConnell.
“This team is going to surprise some people,” Pikiell said. “The league is tremendous but we are a lot better than we have been. We’re picked last, and some of the reasons are we are young and people don’t know our guys. People don’t know Peter Kiss who was sitting out and Myles Johnson. I’m hopeful we can continue to take steps. The last two years we got a lot better.”
Here are five things to watch with the Scarlet Knights this season:
GO-TO GUY: In recent years, Sanders was the go-to guy. Baker, who averaged 10.8 points, would seem to inherit the role. Thiam, Kiss, Mathis, Harper, McConnell and Baker are all good outside shooters. The inside presence is in question. “It’s really going to be a shot selection thing,” Pikiell said.
OVERLOOKED: Kiss and Johnson get lost in looking at the first-year players. Kiss averaged 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds as a freshman at Quinnipiac, where he had good games against Gonzaga and Seton Hall. He is 15 pounds heavier. Johnson has lost 35 pounds since entering Rutgers. He can score around the basket and he has a 7-foot-7 wingspan. He can also pass the ball. “These guys are young but they have also been around a lot, which I like,” Pikiell said.
SHAQ SQUARED: Rutgers has two Shaqs: Doorson and Carter. Doorson, who earned a degree in human resource management in May, is the lone senior on the roster and much improved. He won the MidKnight Madness slam dunk competition. Carter is a high-energy, skilled post player from highly regarded Eastern Florida State College. He is tough and can provide much-need scoring inside and up to 15 feet.
DEFENSE: Defense has been the trademark of most of Pikiell’s teams, whether at Rutgers or Stony Brook. “I always want to count on that. I think it is one thing you can count on night in and night out. The Scarlet Knights allowed 64.8 points last season and held opponents to 41 percent shooting from the field. The scoring defense was second best in the conference, trailing only Michigan, which played for the national title.
RECRUITING HELP: Pikiell will get help recruiting this year. The RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center is being built and is slated for completion in summer of 2019. The 307,000-square-foot, four-story sports facility and parking deck will provide state-of-the-art practice facilities, training areas, locker room and office space for men’s basketball.