Caleb McConnell is back, and Rutgers is ready for a step up in competition
Adding the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year brings pesky Rutgers one step closer to full power – just in time for a key stretch of games against Power Six opponents.
PISCATAWAY – The fans at Jersey Mike’s Arena showed their full-throated support for Caleb McConnell in his season debut Saturday, the crowd humming with excitement every time he touched the ball.
His 25 minutes off the bench didn’t produce a gaudy stat line – four points, four rebounds, three assists, two turnovers – but what mattered to the fans was that one of the most crucial veteran pieces of Rutgers’ past two NCAA Tournament teams was back on the floor.
At one point, McConnell tried to thread a pass to Omoruyi that Omoruyi didn’t see coming, resulting in a turnover.
“I was forcing things and I just heard someone say, ‘Caleb, just let it come to you!’” McConnell said afterwards. “After that I kinda relaxed. I went into relax mode and I was like, you know what, he’s right. I heard it from the crowd so I was like alright, let me just relax and let it come to me.”
Rutgers played about 36 minutes of good basketball in Saturday’s 83-49 rout of Central Connecticut State, a winless team that started finding its footing to start the second half before Pikiell subbed in McConnell, among others, to bolster his defense.
The most important story of the game, then, was not the final score but McConnell’s return to action after a left knee injury sidelined him for six weeks. Adding the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year brings pesky Rutgers one step closer to full power – just in time for a key stretch of games against Power Six opponents.
“You saw the energy he brings,” coach Steve Pikiell said of McConnell’s return. “I think he’s the best defender in the country, too. He’s going to have to get his timing back and everything, but he causes major disruption on the other end of the floor. His athleticism, his quick hands, he knows our system as well as anybody and I love the fact that I can play him almost at any position.
“It’s just great to have him back. He gives me a lift. We’ve missed him, but I’m glad he’s healthy now and hopefully he stays healthy for a long time.”
When we last saw McConnell in a competitive game, he was putting up a season-high 23 points in Rutgers’ double-overtime loss to Notre Dame in the First Four. Known less for his offense than his defense, it was just his third 20-point game as a college player.
That team, of course, was anchored by Ron Harper Jr. at forward and guided by Geo Baker at the point. With those two having moved on, McConnell finds himself in the senior leadership role. Especially while he was injured and could only coach his teammates from the sideline.
And from where McConnell stands, this Rutgers team, on the whole, is better than last year’s roster.
“These guys take the weight off our shoulders,” McConnell said. “It’s not just me, man. We have a whole different dynamic. Those guys (Harper and Baker) were great for us, but now we have a whole different team. We’ve got Jalen (Miller) here, we’ve got Cam (Spencer). From top to bottom, man, I think we’re good. And actually, I think since we have such a different dynamic, I think this is actually a better team because we’re just loaded.”
Spencer has established himself as a terrific starting shooting guard for this team; the Loyola Maryland transfer is averaging 17.3 points and 3.7 steals while shooting 46.9 percent from three. Saturday was our first glimpse of him and McConnell playing together on the wings.
“Like I said, I only had about three practices, so I’ll admit I couldn’t wait to get back out there. I was telling Cam I can’t wait to play with him,” McConnell said.
But the rest of the core roster has stayed the same with no losses to the transfer portal, as Pikiell proudly pointed out before the season. It’s supporting cast members like Mawot Mag (11 points, eight rebounds Saturday) and Miller (career-high six points) who have allowed the Scarlet Knights to be a more complete team.
It’s standard for Pikiell to praise his players’ work ethic, but he made an extra point of highlighting Mag’s improvement when I asked about him.
“We have a good group of workers, but if you pop your head over at the APC (Athletic Performance Center) any time of the day, you’re going to see him in the gym,” Pikiell said. “He can really shoot the ball. His mid-range game is really good. ... He did some of these things last year, it’s just that we had Ron Harper at that same spot. We knew he could play and now he’s getting an opportunity to play real minutes and he’s taking advantage of it.”
(Watch for Mag to start games at the four once McConnell returns to the starting lineup at the three. Mag is the hotter hand than either Aundre Hyatt or Dean Reiber at the moment.)
It was arguably a blessing in disguise for this team to deal with injuries to McConnell and Paul Mulcahy in this early portion of the season. The Scarlet Knights had to turn to their role players and freshmen for significant minutes in games against opponents it ought to beat.
They came out the other side 5-1, and for a team that’s aiming for 20 wins by Selection Sunday to cement their tournament berth, every bit helps.
“I think with me and Paul out, it gave our younger guys a chance and an opportunity to show what they can do, and it gave them some confidence as well,” McConnell told me. “And it also let them know, damn, you know, college basketball is hard no matter who you play. It lets them know how hard it is to win.”
Up next, Rutgers travels to Miami, opens up Big Ten play with a top-10 Indiana team and a trip to Ohio State, then hosts Seton Hall and Wake Forest. The first four programs made NCAAs last season; Wake was one of the best teams in the ACC before settling for the NIT.
“I’m very excited for this team,” McConnell said. “I think this next couple of games is gonna be a good test to who we are and what kind of team we actually have. So I’m excited to hit this stretch.”
Happy Monday, and thanks for reading! Feast Week left me unsure of two things: why casual college basketball fans wait until March to start watching this sport, and why college basketball’s cognoscenti argue that the opening week is a disappointing snoozefest. Never mind that Gonzaga beat Michigan State by one point on a literal aircraft carrier on the fifth day of the season. Just practice patience, and Feast Week will arrive to deliver games like Sunday’s quadruple-overtime mind-melter that saw not-for-long No. 1 North Carolina fall to high-octane Alabama.
Let’s clean the glass, starting with stray notes on Rutgers before I catch you up on Seton Hall’s and Princeton’s contrasting weekends:
It doesn’t sound like Mulcahy (shoulder) will be ready in time for Wednesday at Miami. The guard hasn’t played since Nov. 12 against UMass Lowell. Pikiell confirmed Mulcahy has been practicing but, as of Saturday, not cleared for contact yet. McConnell, who wore a brace on his left knee Saturday, said he isn’t 100% but healthy enough to be out there.
Pikiell on what he’s learned about his team through six games: “We’re very different than we’ve been in the past. We change up defenses a lot. We can do a lot of different things. (McConnell) brings another level of versatility, too, to our defense. Today, I liked 19 assists without Paul Mulcahy, who’s the leading assist guy in our conference. We share the game. I think again, our guys have gotten some valuable minutes. Derek (Simpson) and Wolf (Antwone Woolfolk) trying to figure out how to play college basketball.”
You’ve seen this shot by now, no doubt, so we’ll get it out of the way first. Tyrese Samuel banked in this buzzer-beater on Thanksgiving night to steal Seton Hall a win over Memphis:
But if the Pirates’ showing at the ESPN Events Invitational began with a little March Madness-esque magic rubbing off Shaheen Holloway and onto his new players, it didn’t last long. Losses to Oklahoma and Siena sent Seton Hall to a fourth-place finish.
Take the whole three-game set into account, and Seton Hall was outscored by 17 points in Florida and outshot 46.8 percent to 39.4 percent. Opponents are finding ways to beat the defense already, an ominous sign for a team whose defense was to be its identity. Who is the scoring threat after Al-Amir Dawes and Samuel? It could have been Dre Davis, whose 11.4 points off the bench actually paced the team at one point, but making matters worse, Davis missed the Siena game with a knee injury.
Then you have Princeton, which has shaken off two tough losses to Hofstra and Navy and won four straight ever since. The Tigers captured the inaugural London Basketball Classic by beating Army 74-66 and Northeastern 56-54. In usual Princeton fashion, the Tigers cobbled together a comeback after trailing Northeastern 49-41 with 5:47 to play. The defense clamped down the rest of the way while Ryan Langborg and Tosan Evbuomwan made most of the plays Princeton needed on offense. Evbuomwan, fittingly, won tournament MVP honors in his homeland.
After trips to Maryland, upstate New York and London, Princeton plays seven of its next eight games in New Jersey and the other one in Philly against Drexel.