Checking in with Knight Society + recapping offseason moves at Rutgers, Seton Hall
Seven weeks after I went on hiatus, this seemed like the right time to fire Guarden State back up for an offseason update.
Just when I thought I was out, this sport pulls me back in.
I was admittedly exhausted at the end of college basketball season, ready to give myself a break from the self-imposed publishing schedule of this newsletter. But I regretted missing a bunch of offseason developments in April and May while I occupied myself with other work and commitments.
Seven weeks after I went on hiatus, this seemed like the right time to fire Guarden State back up for an offseason update. Movement on the transfer market has mostly settled down, the NBA draft is around the corner and we’re already starting to get teases for the 2022-23 schedule.
Now let me ask the question...
In no particular order, these were the five biggest storylines on the local college hoops scene since the Final Four.
What’d I miss?
5. Coquese Washington heads to Rutgers
C. Vivian Stringer, the fifth-winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball, retired on the last day of April. Her replacement will be Coquese Washington, the former head coach at Penn State who played and worked as an assistant at Notre Dame, a premier program.
“I’ve been able to learn and grow a lot,” Washington told reporters at her introduction. “I wasn’t in a rush to be a head coach again, and it had to be the right opportunity. And this was that, this was that right opportunity.”
I don’t mind the hire. I think the 98-107 Big Ten record she compiled, in a competitive league and at a program without major basketball pipelines, is perfectly understandable over a large sample size during which she also won Big Ten Coach of the Year three times.
For those who felt underwhelmed by Washington, understand the timing. The hard truth is that Stringer made up her mind to retire four weeks after the end of the season, and it put Rutgers behind in the annual coaching carousel. That doesn’t mean the hire won’t pan out for the Scarlet Knights. Washington already began to restock the program with two transfer signings, UNC Ashville guard Kai Carter and Hartford guard Abby Streeter, the latter a 42% 3-point shooter last year.
4. KC Ndefo picks Seton Hall
Most Saint Peter’s players who starred on the Peacocks’ magical run to the Elite Eight have transferred to other mid-major or low-major programs. Daryl Banks is going to get playing time at St. Bonaventure, a good team that fell short of its lofty expectations last year and lost its entire starting five. Hassan and Fousseyni Drame will travel together down to Philly to play for Fran Dunphy at La Salle.
But the only player who moved up into a Power Six league was, predictably, KC Ndefo. Even more predictably – or as Ndefo himself called it, “a no-brainer” – he’s staying local and joining coach Shaheen Holloway at Seton Hall for one last ride together.
“I committed to Seton Hall because it’s basically a no brainer to go to the coach who’s been recruiting me since my high school days,” he told 247Sports. “This will be taking the next step with him where I’m graduating, and finishing the NBA draft process. ... I’m staying with the culture and the people who believed in me since day one. Since coach first got the job he told me to come over and bring the culture we built at Saint Peter’s to Seton Hall.”
One aspect of this reunion I particularly like is that one of the best shot-blockers in Division I joins a program that just graduated swat specialist Ike Obiagu. Ndefo is no center, though. At 6-foot-7, he’ll be one of the Big East’s best defensive forwards, but the Pirates didn’t need to look far to bolster their depth inside. Which brings us to...
3. Seton Hall fills out its roster – and schedules Saint Peter’s
Last time I reviewed Seton Hall’s depth chart, I wrote we should assume Alexis Yetna was out the door, “though I’m seeing some disagreement online about the perceived chances he’ll announce a return to college rather than turn pro in Europe.” Turns out I should listen to you people more often.
Yetna’s return for one more season in South Orange is the biggest surprise here. The Paris native might have been able to find work on the European circuit. He had a change of heart, and you can expect he will start down low, possibly next to Tyrese Samuel.
Otherwise, Holloway did a stellar job finishing this roster through the transfer portal. It’s guard-heavy with Al-Amir Dawes (Clemson), Femi Odukale (Pitt) and Dre Davis (Louisville) each bringing something to the table. But Holloway showed at Saint Peter’s that he likes a lot of rotation, splitting those minutes around. The Pirates’ last scholarship went to Illinois State big Abdou Ndiaye, adding more depth where they needed it.
(Funny enough, Dre Davis’ brother Tae committing to the program means Hall will have two pairs of brothers at the same time, joining Jamir and JaQuan Harris.)
With that settled, is it too early to talk about the 2022-23 schedule? Nope. The school hasn’t announced it yet, but Holloway told Jon Rothstein’s podcast Monday that the Pirates will face Saint Peter’s next season, with the date and location to be determined. “I don’t know if it’s going to be in Newark or if it’s going to be on campus,” Holloway said.
This won’t happen, but don’t you think it would be neat for them to play a one-off game at Run Baby Run Arena in Jersey City? It would give Saint Peter’s students one more chance to salute Holloway and send him off.
2. Steve Pikiell lands his highest-rated recruit yet
Let’s take a minute to peek ahead at 2023-24, because Rutgers recently landed its highest-ranked recruit since Kadeem Jack in 2011. Rivals had Jack as the 33rd best overall recruit in that class; the 247Sports composite pegs four-star Gavin Griffiths at 33rd overall, too.
The 6-foot-7 wing from Connecticut had offers from other major programs, including Michigan, Iowa and UConn. Interestingly enough, his father Larry Griffiths played against Steve Pikiell at both the high school and college levels in Connecticut, per this story I highly recommend from Jerry Carino.
Griffiths can shoot the lights out of the ball, and his dad compared his defensive toughness favorably to Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy.
“Basketball-wise, they’re a great up-and-coming program that’s made the tournament the last couple of years in the Big Ten Conference and they have great facilities and a great place to play at the RAC,” Griffiths said of Rutgers.
Try to imagine a recruit saying this 10 or 15 years ago. The RAC has always been a great arena, yes, but as far as the idea of an “up-and-coming” program? That caught my ear; it signals that basketball people more knowledgeable than you and me not only took notice of what Rutgers has accomplished in recent years, but also see potential for more.
Speaking of Rutgers, let’s wrap up with some draft discussion:
1. Ron Harper Jr. stays in the draft; Caleb McConnell returns
Fans get the best of both worlds with this one. They can root for Ron Harper Jr. to become the first Scarlet Knight taken in the draft since Hamady N’Diaye in 2010. And they get Caleb McConnell back in Piscataway for one more season.
Harper went as far as he could in his Rutgers career, and he helped build a foundation for future teams. (Heck, we could even see younger brother Dylan Harper – ranked No. 33 in the Class of 2024 in the 247Sports composite, coincidentally the same exact placement as Griffiths in 2023 – follow in Ron’s footsteps.) But Ron’s time had come, and he has a decent chance of successfully taking his game to the NBA level, like his father before him.
Jonathan Givony’s last couple of mock drafts for ESPN send Harper to the Portland Trail Blazers at No. 57 overall. Remember, the draft is usually 60 picks spread over two rounds, but Chicago and Miami forfeited second-rounders for breaking certain free agency rules, so Harper is squeaking in there at 57 out of 58. Other respectable outlets like NBA Draft Net and Sports Illustrated don’t have Harper being selected. At any rate, he might start out on a two-way contract and work his way into an organization from there.
As for Rutgers, you don’t need me to tell you how important it is to be getting back the reigning conference DPOY. The projected starting five next year looks something like Paul Mulachy and transfer guard Cam Spencer; McConnell and Aundre Hyatt on the wings; and Cliff Omoruyi at center. Hyatt stands to see a larger role in Harper’s absence, and Mawot Mag will still get time in situations that call for tough defense.
“Caleb has been the ultimate ambassador for our program on and off the court,” Pikiell said in a statement. “He is an unbelievable person and has been one of our best all-around players on both sides of the floor. The 2022 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best players in the conference is back.”
Bonus: Knight Society
With name, image and likeness rights for NCAA athletes comes the advent of NIL collectives. They’re already beginning to radically change certain ways that college sports operate. It’s a space I certainly want to do more of my own reporting on in the coming 12 months.
If you don’t know by now, some universities have deep-pocketed donors who are arranging NIL deals for athletes out in the open in order to attract them to their respective schools. Billionaire John Ruiz enticed Kansas State basketball player Nijel Pack to transfer to Miami by signing him to an NIL agreement with LifeWallet, in which Pack will receive $800,000 and a car, a sentence that is currently leaving my parents slack-jawed as they read it.
This is the reality of the current landscape. What are other institutions supposed to do to keep up?
That question is why I listened in to a Twitter Spaces conversation Monday night with several notable Rutgers athletes past and present. The live discussion was sponsored by Knight Society, the NIL collective co-founded by Geo Baker. And Baker, one of the foremost proponents of NIL rights, has given this plenty of thought.
“I think the biggest thing that’s going on right now that people are concerned about is other schools dishing out millions in NIL money,” Baker said. “You’ve got the guy at Miami, the football player at Pittsburgh (Jordan Addison), all these different things going on, and the general consensus right now is that Rutgers isn’t gonna do that – which I think is really true.”
Baker founded Knight Society with Eric LeGrand, the football alumnus who was left paralyzed from a neck injury in 2010. LeGrand was part of the conversation Monday night along with Baker, Harper, McConnell and retired Major League Baseball veteran Todd Frazier.
Baker’s vision is not that of the standard NIL collectives popping up around the country. He’s formed a community of Rutgers fans who have access to benefits like a Discord server where they can converse with one another and with participating Rutgers athletes. Baker also wants to capitalize on NFTs as part of the venture.
I’ll definitely be tracking how this collective develops in the near future. It’s a different way of doing things, a method that aims for other positive ripple effects like strengthening the university’s alumni network and connecting the fan base in innovative ways.
Harper joined Monday’s call from an NBA city where he’d had a workout earlier that day.
“I feel like (in the draft process) last year I was always one foot in and one foot out,” Harper said. “And this year, I kind of went into the process with blinders on. I moved to New York City for a couple months and I got my body right and I put myself in front of a bunch of NBA teams.”
Harper said he had five to six more NBA workouts coming up before the draft June 23.
McConnell also looked ahead to another season with the Scarlet Knights without Harper and Baker (who half-jokingly told him, “Sorry we left you, bro!”).
“We’ve got newer guys, we’ve got the younger guys but now they’re older, like Mawot, Cliff is now older,” McConnell said. “It’s going to be kind of a different dynamic, but I know it’s still going to be the same principles – playing hard and defense and stuff like that. ... I feel like now it’s all about just learning that chemistry, getting back and playing with the guys.”