In this senior spotlight, the Daily Targum highlights a player who is the heart and soul of Rutgers men's basketball on the defensive end. If you don't believe us, check who was just named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
One phrase can describe senior guard Caleb McConnell’s four-year career as a member of the Scarlet Knights (18-12, 12-8): tough as nails.
In 2018, McConnell was a three-star prospect that was the 73rd-ranked shooting guard in the country. He was by no means a flashy recruit and was the third-highest recruit out of 4 in Rutgers' 2018 class.
Now, McConnell has recently been crowned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is a semifinalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and is part of this storied senior class for the Knights which also includes the likes of senior guards Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker.
Getting to this position has not been easy for McConnell. He had to get through multiple injuries in high school as well as the label of "too skinny" to play in the Big Ten. Then, as a member of Rutgers, he dealt with a new set of injuries that eventually forced him to miss the first eight games in the 2020-2021 season.
But through it all, McConnell stuck it out and kept working on his game. When he came back from injury in the 2020-2021 season, he was a key part of the team that broke the 30-year NCAA Tournament drought. In the first round against Clemson, McConnell had 13 points and 10 rebounds to help give the Knights their first NCAA tournament win in 38 years.
This year, McConnell has taken a massive step forward. He went from averaging 1.5 steals per game (SPG) last season to 2.2 SPG this season. His shooting percentages, rebounding, blocks, assists and points per game have all gone up from last year, as well.
More important than all the stats though, head coach Steve Pikiell has trusted the kid that scouts once deemed too skinny to play in the Big Ten to guard the best offensive player on the opposing team.
Whether that player is the point guard, shooting guard, small forward or power forward, it does not matter — McConnell will guard him and most likely have success in doing it. That is why he is the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
That night, Stefanovic had 9 points on 3-10 shooting while Ivey had 15 points on 5-9 shooting. McConnell kept both players to lower point totals than their season averages, and their inability to score was a big reason the Knights pulled off the improbable upset.
McConnell’s defense on Big Ten Player of the Year Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis helped Rutgers secure another upset away from home against the Badgers. McConnell hounded Davis all game, limiting him to 11 points on 5-10 shooting. This was way below his season average of 20 points per game.
A gritty, tough-minded, defensive program that will leave their whole bodies out on the court and play with a chip on their shoulder. These attributes are what Pikiell has wanted to build his program on, and with McConnell, he has found his perfect player.
McConnell's versatility and willingness to guard the opposing team's best player makes the Knights an elite defensive team. He hounds opposing players, seems to have an endless motor and plays defense as if he still remembers the scouts telling him he is too skinny to make it in the Big Ten.
In Jersey Mike’s Arena on Livingston campus, the crowd gets routinely energized when the shot clock starts to go down, and they see McConnell guarding the ball handler.
Stephen Rudy, a School of Engineering sophomore, is one of those fans, as he has taken notice of McConnell’s efforts on the defensive end.
“We have always been a defense-first team, but with (McConnell) on our team, we have a defense that can stop the best offenses in college basketball," Rudy said. “The fact that he can take anybody ... you can put him on any (NBA Draft pick), any guy that is averaging (20 PPG and 10 rebounds per game), he is always up to the task, and he will always give it his all.”
McConnell’s path as a basketball player was far from easy, and his response to all this adversity can be admired and give inspiration to any athlete out there whether collegiate or professional. This year, the right pieces have come into place for McConnell to have his best season yet.
That said, McConnell thinks there is even more room to improve his game. Knowing his work ethic and previous track record, it would be foolish to doubt him.
“I feel like people haven't even gotten to see my whole entire game just because I haven’t got a chance to really fill those holes in and because I have been hurt and had to sit out and miss things,” McConnell said. “So I feel like as of right now, I love my identity of being able to play (defense) and take on that challenge, but I feel like I'm not done here yet.”
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