In the Senior Day Spotlight, The Daily Targum highlights the University's athletes who are being honored at senior day and have made an impact for their respective teams.
Fifth-year senior guard Caleb McConnell's career at Rutgers has been anything but conventional. He has risen above it all to become one of the most decorated players in Rutgers men's basketball program history.
Prior to the Scarlet Knights' (18-13, 10-10) loss to Northwestern on Sunday night, McConnell was asked what it was like to play at only one school for his whole career.
"I learned how to fight," McConnell said. "Kids don't want to stay and fight, they don't want to grow, they don't want to have to go through the fire or go through adversity, and I feel like that's what I did."
The 2022 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year decided to return for his final year of eligibility after testing the NBA waters and followed it up with yet another tremendous season on the defensive end, becoming the first repeat Defensive Player of the Year since 2004.
McConnell's freshman year for the Knights saw him come off the bench as a key player while still managing to make a defensive impact. He led the team in three-point percentage and was fifth in the Big Ten among freshmen in steals.
When Rutgers broke out onto the scene in the 2019-2020 season, McConnell shined along with them. He started in 21 games and was a key player for the Knights on a team that would have likely made the NCAA Tournament if it had not been canceled due to the pandemic.
More adversity struck McConnell at the beginning of his junior year, as he did not make his season debut until January due to a back injury. In Rutgers' NCAA Tournament win over Clemson, he tied for the team lead in both points and rebounds, notching 13 and 10, respectively, for a double-double in the Knights' first NCAA Tournament wins in 38 years.
As a senior on the team, McConnell truly broke out as one of the Big Ten's elites. He struggled out of the gate on offense as he was still dealing with nagging injuries. But he began to find his groove in a win over Clemson when he scored 16 points. On defense, McConnell was entrusted by head coach Steve Pikiell with guarding the opposing team's best player.
McConnell kept up his elite defensive play as the season progressed. In a stretch where Rutgers defeated four consecutive ranked teams, he cemented his case as one of the best defenders in the entire country. He sparked a game-winning run in the Knights' comeback win over Ohio State with an epic chase-down block.
Three days later, he held Johnny Davis to just 11 points and four turnovers in a road win over Wisconsin. McConnell's 21 steals over a five-game span was tied for second-most in the Big Ten since 2003.
Once again, he shined with the lights at their brightest. In Rutgers' loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament, he scored 18 points in the first half alone. McConnell again led the Knights in points and rebounds, adding 11 boards to his 23 total points in a career effort in Dayton, close to home in Ohio, in front of friends and family.
McConnell overcame injuries again at the start of his final season but hit the ground running. In addition to winning another Defensive Player of the Year award, he again paced the conference in steals per game.
In the Knights' win over Wisconsin, he suffered back spasms in warmups to the point where he could not even walk. Yet, McConnell returned for the next game and has not missed a game since. On his senior night, he was unable to practice the day before and still recorded six steals in 39 minutes.
A warrior in every sense, McConnell gave it his all, even when the going got tough.
"It takes a certain type of person and a certain mindset to stay in a situation when it's not going your way, to get through it, and then to find the light at the end of the tunnel," McConnell said. "I'm glad that I got a chance to do that."
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