Along with our lovely 46-minute podcast with Aaron and Dave from On The Banks, we have also done an in-depth Q and A session with Aaron so we are fully prepared for all the good or bad things that can happen tomorrow, as the Red Storm travel into New Jersey to pull off the victory the redcoats couldn’t — what, too soon?
St. John’s faces Rutgers on Friday night at 7 PM on the Big Ten Network. Full preview later today, but for now, let’s get to know the Knights a little better - a squad that has found a surprising confidence in outside shooting. Maybe this is the year that Rutgers becomes a real Big Ten contender, and continues the success that league has had in this week’s Gavitt Games.
1. Is this the year we should believe in Rutgers? Is the Pikiell plan coming together?
Yes and no.
Yes, things are improving and the core nucleus of the roster that Pikiell has assembled is a promising group.
But they are a year away from being ready to make a significant jump.
They are much improved offensively, are more athletic, and fully bought into the team concept. However, they don’t have a true point guard until Paul Mulcahy arrives next season, the defense has a ways to go and they are an inexperienced group that still has to learn how to win against high major competition.
The signs are clear that the rebuild under Pikiell is picking up steam and there is more reasons for Rutgers fans to believe in the future of the program than in a very long time.
2. What is improved on the floor from last year to this year?
Through two games so far, ball movement, shooting, especially from three-point range (26-46 for 56.5%), and team chemistry.
The roster is deeper, more athletic, and more versatile. Pikiell can mix and match lineups more so than before. They are less predictable on offense because they have more legitimate two-way scorers.
Rutgers has also blocked 20 shots in two games, so if they can maintain that production it will be a huge positive in Big Ten play.
3. Are the Knights feeling the loss of Corey Sanders and DeShawn Freeman (where are they now, btw?) or is the team improved now that those two are gone?
They were the two best players on last year’s team, so of course how Rutgers replaces their production is a major question for this season.
However, Sanders and Freeman were not very efficient players on the offensive end and Rutgers has been more efficient as a team in the early going this season. They are sharing the basketball more this season, while Sanders and Freeman took the bulk of shots on the offensive end in the past. Where they will miss these guys the most is rebounding and defense with Freeman and playmaking and taking big shots down the stretch in Sanders.
Note: Freeman is playing in a professional league in England while Corey Sanders was cut from the Rio Grande Vipers of the G-League and affiliate of the Houston Rockets. No word on his future plans.
4. So far this season, the Scarlet Knights have shot the ball well from outside the arc and dominated most of their two games. A sign of increasing skill, or easier opponents?
The competition hasn’t been strong in the first two games but that hasn’t stopped Rutgers in the past from struggling in those types of contests. They lost to Hartford and Stony Brook last season after beating Seton Hall, so seeing them take care of business so easily against FDU and Drexel is encouraging.
Shooting lights out from three certainly helped, as no Rutgers team has ever made as many shots from behind the arc in any two game stretch in program history as they did last week (26). While they obviously can’t keep this level of shooting up, there is legitimate hope now that they can make between 8-10 three’s per game. That would be a huge improvement for a team that Pikiell rarely let even attempt more than that amount in games last season, because they were a terrible shooting team.
It was a huge disadvantage for Rutgers, so the idea that three-point shooting could now be a strength has fans very excited and would give them opportunities to pull some notable upsets at times this season.
5. With Geo Baker taking on a leading role, what growing pains do you expect?
Geo Baker has been impressive so far in his new role as point guard, dishing out 13 assists and committing just 5 turnovers while being the predominant ball handler. I worry about him playing too many minutes that will cause him to wear down in Big Ten play, but Rutgers has a six week stretch from early December to early January where they only play 6 games, all on Saturdays, so that should help keep Baker fresh for awhile.
He has done a good job of balancing when to take his own shot and when to get his teammates involved. I do think Baker isn’t a strong defender as of yet and will have an issue matching up against some other point guards in the Big Ten. However, he has a high basketball IQ and I expect him to keep getting better as the season progresses.
6. Do the freshmen look ready to make an impact in the Big Ten, physically?
Montez Mathis does for sure. The 2-guard has the strength and athleticism to get to the rim in traffic in Big Ten play. His shot hasn’t been great so far, but he is a natural scorer. It’s his defense that needs a lot of work.
Ron Harper Jr. has reshaped his body since last spring and is silky smooth on the court. He is a big 6’6” and looks to be ahead of schedule physically for this season. That being said, he’ll likely hit the freshman wall at some point, but I think he is talented enough on offense that he will find his way out of it at some point.
Caleb McConnell is the backup point guard at 6’6” and needs to bulk up his frame significantly. He has talent, but won’t get more than 10 minutes a game this season while backing up Baker.
Myles Johnson sat last season out as a redshirt and his debut weekend for Rutgers was impressive. He is physically gifted with great hands, vision and has a high IQ as well. He has also retooled his body, lost a lot of weight and added muscle. Johnson is a promising addition that at 6’10” will be a factor down low for Rutgers.