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Rutgers men's basketball: What lies ahead?

After losing two of the best players in program history, head coach Steve Pikiell has work to do to bring the Rutgers men's basketball team back to the NCAA Tournament next season. – Photo by Rutgers Basketball / Twitter

In a season full of ups and downs, the Rutgers men’s basketball season ended with a heartbreaking, double-overtime loss to Notre Dame. With the season over and five players set to depart the program, the future for the Scarlet Knights (18-14, 12-8) is a little cloudy. 

So while it may be early, let’s examine what the future looks like for Rutgers.

We like Pikiell

Head coach Steve Pikiell will be on the Banks for the foreseeable future, thanks to a four-year, $16 million contract extension he signed before the Big Ten Tournament. 

Every year following Pikiell’s first season in 2016-17, the Knights have improved, culminating in their first postseason appearance since 2006, their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991 in the 2020-21 season. 

While Pikiell is not immune to criticism, what he has done for this program cannot be understated. He has turned around what was previously a perennial bottom-dweller program in the Big Ten and has created a special environment at Jersey Mike’s Arena on Livingston campus, where they have a 42-8 record in the last three years. 

Defense is Pikiell’s forte and something that the coach loves to hang his teams’ hat on. So with Pikiell at the helm emphasizing this defense, hustle and grit that he has built the program upon, the 2022-23 team should be competitive in conference play. 

Next man up

The losses of senior guards Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., and Caleb McConnell cannot be understated, as McConnell earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors while Harper and Baker were the team’s top two scorers. 

While Pikiell will eventually need to find replacements for these three senior starters, something that this past season has shown is that Rutgers has some talented players returning.

After a shaky start to the season, junior guard Paul Mulcahy broke out in the month of February and was a key reason why the Knights played themselves back into NCAA Tournament contention. 

Mulcahy is a naturally talented passer, showcased by the fact that he finished second in the Big Ten with 5.3 assists per game (APG) and 12th in assist to turnover ratio.

Mulcahy’s February stretch was him at his full potential, and while his production dropped off slightly afterward, he showed that Rutgers will have a dependable ball-handler on the roster in 2022-23.

Two more players that Knights fans should be excited about are freshman guard Jaden Jones and sophomore forward Mawot Mag

Jones recently declared for the NBA Draft and might not be back for the upcoming season. This season, he flashed his potential in spots, especially early this season when Baker was sidelined with an injury, notably leading the team with 10 points in a loss to Illinois. 

While Jones hired an agent for this summer’s draft, he has not forfeited his remaining college eligibility. Thus, it remains to be seen if he will return to the Banks for next season.

Meanwhile, Mag has been a key bench piece for Rutgers this season, and he should have an increased role in the upcoming season. 

The Melbourne, Australia, native is a player with defensive potential which was shown at crucial points this season. He also flashed at times offensively, most notably in their upset win over then-No. 1 Purdue and their 63-61 win against Nebraska where he put up 13 points. 

Players that also figure to see greater roles are sophomore forwards Aundre Hyatt and Oskar Palmquist and freshman guard Jalen Miller

Palmquist can see an increased role as a three-point specialist, as he finished the season shooting 45.5 percent from beyond the arc. On defense, Miller and Hyatt figure into Pikiell’s system with never-ending motors and the willingness to get in anyone’s face, especially in Miller’s case. 

The center position

The Knights are also in a good place at center due to the emergence of sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi and sophomore forward Dean Reiber

Omoruyi improved drastically this season. With an increase in playing time, the Benin City, Nigeria, native scored 8.1 more points per game (PPG) and grabbed 3.8 more rebounds per game (RPG) this season. He also shot 60.2 percent from the free-throw line, a 17.8 percent increase.

What is even scarier for conference opponents is that he can get even better. If Omoruyi improves, it is quite likely Rutgers fans will be looking at one of the best centers in the conference next season.

As for Reiber, the sophomore came to occupy the backup center role this season. He is a three-level scorer who showed efficiency from behind the arc, shooting 58.3 percent from three. His defense also improved as he posted a 97.3 defensive rating last season, third-best among rotational players. 

Pikiell has rarely put both Reiber and Omoruyi on the floor together, but if Reiber improves with the ball in his hand, we may see that more in the 2022-2023 season.

Transfer portal and recruits

Pikiell is going to need to hit the transfer portal hard for next season in an effort to replace the production that has graduated. 

Penn State guard Sam Sessoms is in the transfer portal and is a player fit to play alongside Mulcahy. The guard shot 42 percent from beyond the arc this season, and with Pikiell’s tutelage, Sessoms can develop him into a good backcourt defender.

The Knights have also been linked to Lafayette forward Neal Quinn, who averaged a team-high 14.7 PPG and 7.4 RPG this season. The addition of Quinn would free Reiber up to play more power forward and help in times when Omoruyi gets into foul trouble.

Shifting to the recruiting class, Pikiell’s main incoming recruit is three-star point guard Derek Simpson from Mount Laurel, New Jersey. 

Simpson, who has been frequently compared to Baker, is a 6-foot 2-inch primary ball handler with smooth handles. In his senior season, he led Lenape High School to a 27-4 record and a trip to the NJSIAA Group 4 Semifinal. 

Like any young player, it will likely take Simpson time to adjust to the college game, but there is certainly lots to be excited about as he gears up for his first season in Piscataway.

Rutgers’ second incoming player is three-star power forward Antwone Woolfolk from Cleveland. Woolfolk, who attends Brush High School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, stands 6-feet-7-inches tall, weighs 250 pounds and is the 13th rated power forward out of Ohio. 

Fans should not expect him to significantly contribute next season, but he is a name to look out for and excite fans in the upcoming seasons.

A wrap-up

While the departure of the program’s cornerstones will bring a lot of unknowns and many new faces next season, Baker, Harper and McConnell’s departures should not be seen as a final hurrah for the program.

Those players may be moving on, but the culture they created is not. There are young pieces ready to take up the mantle, and Rutgers fans should have confidence that they eventually will.

While these last three years with Baker and Harper have been magical to say the very least, with coach Pikiell at the helm, it is safe to say that the days of Rutgers being a doormat in the Big Ten are over.

For more updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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