Offseason preview: Will Rutgers need a roster rebuild, or just a retool?
It’s the season of “way-too-early” projections, so why not try?
I led off October’s Rutgers season preview discussing how joyful it made Steve Pikiell to say that none of his players from the 2021-22 team had transferred out.
“No one in the portal, which I appreciate. They’ve stayed here,” he said at Rutgers’ preseason media day. “I appreciate that these guys have come back. They have a lot of choices now, and thankful that they’ve all come back and took on more responsibility, more roles.”
That foreshadowed the increased roles he gave to Mawot Mag, who became a full-time starter for the first time in his career, and Aundre Hyatt, who became an important contributor in his own right with a sharp increase in minutes and scoring.
But it was a far more mixed bag further down the bench. Oskar Palmquist stepped into a critical role late in the season – only after Mag went down with a torn ACL and Palmquist had not played a single minute in January. Dean Reiber would make some shots and Jalen Miller could provide solid on-ball defense, but down the stretch their minutes ranged from inconsistent to meager.
Springtime arrived, and Rutgers could no longer keep these players’ eyes away from the transfer portal. Palmquist, Reiber and Miller will not be back next season.
I was ready to overreact, to view this as the beginning of a roster overhaul, but let’s zoom out. How much roster rebuilding will Rutgers actually need to do?
The sharp minds over at The Knight Report have been tracking the roster using their own scholarship chart, seen here:
One update to this chart that you should know: guard Paul Mulcahy, like center Cliff Omoruyi, has also declared for the NBA draft while maintaining his college eligibility.
Supposing Omoruyi and Mulcahy don’t return, here’s what the Scarlet Knights would be looking at, broken down by position group:
Guards: Cam Spencer, Derek Simpson, Jamichael Davis
Forwards/wings: Mawot Mag (coming off ACL tear), Aundre Hyatt, Antonio Chol, Gavin Griffiths
Bigs: Antwone Woolfolk, Baye Ndongo
That… is thin.
The Scarlet Knights have no choice but to use the transfer portal to replace some depth they lost at just about every position. But let’s take the state of Rutgers’ roster one piece at a time:
How likely is it that Omoruyi and Mulcahy come back?
Sorry to scare you earlier! Omoruyi and Mulcahy both turning pro is a possibility, yes, but I think it’s a faint one.
Omoruyi is a very talented player who specializes in dunking, rebounding and protecting the rim. At 6-foot-11 he has the height for the NBA, but could probably stand to add more to his frame. He’s the player from this Scarlet Knights team I can most easily see in an NBA uniform someday.
But scrolling around the internet, I can’t find any mock drafts that have Omoruyi being selected in either the first or second round. He was No. 86 on The Athletic’s big board last month; for context, there are 58 selections in this year’s draft. Maybe it’s his limited offensive game; Omoruyi only shoots 20 percent from 3-point range and NBA teams only seem interested in bigs who can space the floor.
Maybe it’s just partly the curse of the Big Ten center. Luka Garza, the former national player of the year, is on a two-way contract and spends much of his time now in the G League. Kofi Cockburn went to Japan. Hunter Dickinson actually can shoot threes and still isn’t getting enough feedback from NBA evaluators to make the jump, instead transferring out of Michigan.
When you play Big Ten basketball and you encounter bigs like these, having Omoruyi on your side is undeniably helpful, NBA prospects or no. My belief is he’ll withdraw from the draft and try to expand his game as a senior while anchoring Rutgers once again.
I think Mulcahy will do the same. There are few competitors in that league more fiery than Mulcahy, and the way Rutgers’ season ended, with a blown lead in the first round of the NIT, is certainly not the way he wants to go out.
Which transfers has Rutgers shown an interest in?
Some power-conference guys of various sizes, positions and accomplishments: Virginia big Kadin Shedrick, 6-foot-11; Pitt forward John Hugley IV, 6-foot-9; Virginia Tech forward Darren Buchanan Jr., 6-foot-7; Washington State guard TJ Bamba, 6-foot-5. Bamba was an honorable mention All-Pac-12. Hugley was honorable mention All-ACC two seasons ago in between rocky seasons. Shedrick was a part-time starter for Tony Bennett, while Buchanan redshirted his freshman year.
One more caught my eye and doesn’t fit the group above: Coastal Carolina center Essam Mostafa, a three-year starter originally from Egypt (by way of Long Island) who averaged a double-double this season.
Rutgers found an unbelievably good fit in the form of Cam Spencer last season. He was the Patriot League Player of the Year and managed to keep performing at a high level in the Big Ten. I wonder if Pikiell and his staff can make that work again – a high performer from a mid-major conference like the Sun Belt whose game will translate.
At any rate, it’s clear they are casting a wide net and not afraid to add a big man in the event Omoruyi doesn’t return. (If he does, well, they still could use another capable player down low, and it would open up a new way to play against the bigger teams in the league – the “twin towers” look a la Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith at Maryland a few years back.)
What does this mean for the projected starting five in 2023-24?
It’s the season of “way-too-early” projections, so why not try? In a perfect world, Omoruyi and Mulcahy withdraw from the draft and return for one more year. Mag is unlikely to be ready by November, given his ACL tear occurred in early February, but Hyatt is a viable fill-in starter in the meantime.
Point guard: Paul Mulcahy (with Derek Simpson able to play ample minutes)
Shooting guard: Cam Spencer
Small forward: Gavin Griffiths
Power forward: Aundre Hyatt (eventually Mawot Mag)
Center: Cliff Omoruyi (or a transfer)
The only spot I haven’t touched on was the three, where Caleb McConnell, the Lefty Driesell Award winner for national defensive player of the year, is out of eligibility. It’s a good thing Rutgers has a top-40 recruit on his way at the position. Unless he has a poor preseason for whatever reason, Griffiths ought to be starting right out of the gate. I can also see a combination where Simpson runs the point with Mulcahy and Spencer on either side of him.
A sneak peek at the 2024 recruiting class
Rutgers just missed out on another top-40 recruit in the Class of 2024, four-star shooting guard Kur Teng, who picked Michigan State over Rutgers and Providence on Monday.
But get used to the Scarlet Knights being “in” on some of the best high schoolers in the country. Five-star Ace Bailey, the No. 5 player in his class according to the 247Sports composite, committed over the winter. You know who he’s close with? Dylan Harper, brother of Ron Jr. Dylan Harper is ranked No. 4 in the class and has Rutgers in his top five; Naas Cunningham, No. 6 in the class and a Jersey native like Harper, does as well.
Landing either Harper or Cunningham, or both, along with Bailey in one class would be more than unprecedented for a program like Rutgers. It’s the kind of thing only Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina tend to pull off.
For now, it’s still a great-looking class, the other commit besides Bailey being Pennsylvania four-star point guard Dellquan Warren. Twelve months from now, an offseason preview of Rutgers’ roster might not be fretting over the margins, but rather projecting just how high the ceiling can go.
Thanks for reading, and welcome back! (I don’t know if that sounds like I’m saying “welcome back” to you, the readers, or if I’m welcoming myself back to my own newsletter, which would be really pretentious.)
I’ll be winding down Guarden State for the summer by publishing once a week through the month of April. God willing, I’ll bring it back for Season 3 in October (or sooner).
In the meantime: Heck of a tournament, huh?
Congratulations to UConn, which seems in hindsight like the perfect national champion for this gloriously messy season. The Huskies were perhaps the best team in the country for November and December, threw everyone off the scent with an awful January, then addressed their problems and became one of the best teams again Jan. 31 and onward.
UConn is a blueblood, by the way. I can’t believe how much disagreement I’ve seen on this topic the past few months. It is a basketball school and a damn good one. I felt it was a blueblood program even before this Final Four, but now there’s no arguing it: UConn has won five national titles, more than Kansas, Villanova or Louisville and tied with Duke and Indiana.
At least Seton Hall fans get to say they beat the national champions this season.
Speaking of Seton Hall, of course, this is a terrific accomplishment for UConn coach Dan Hurley, the pride of Jersey City, the Seton Hall point guard before Shaheen Holloway, the onetime Rutgers assistant and head coach of St. Benedict’s. There’s always a Jersey connection, folks, and without linking to every single thing, I recommend that those interested read the stories being told right now about Hurley’s upbringing and career.
Let’s quickly clean the glass with other notable notes and get going:
Pikiell told the Asbury Park Press that he’s working on getting a nonconference opponent to play a neutral-site game at Madison Square Garden next season – surely a better arrangement at this point than losing one of 10 conference home games. He also mentioned the Bahamas, which could mean picking up an invitation to the Baha Mar Bahamas Hoops Championship that features Miami (coming off a Final Four), Kansas State (Elite Eight) and Providence (NCAA Tournament regular). No better way to improve your nonconference strength of schedule.
Reports late Monday said NJIT was aiming for Maryland assistant Grant Billmeier to be its next head coach. He’s a Pennington resident and former Seton Hall player and assistant under Kevin Willard – whose coaching tree, by the way, apparently knows no bounds.
ICYMI, other players on New Jersey teams who have entered the transfer portal include Seton Hall big Tyrese Samuel, NJIT’s former four-star recruit Paul McMillan IV, Nehemiah Benson and Tyrel Bladen from Rider and Tahron Allen, Myles Ruth and Myles Foster from Monmouth.