Rutgers in review: Roster breakdown and what comes next
The era of Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell has come to an end. Where will this program on the rise go from here?
It’s gutting enough whenever and however your team’s season comes to an end. For Rutgers, that moment came March 16... in the NCAA Tournament... at the end of a double-overtime game.
“Gut-wrenching” does not begin to describe the experience the Scarlet Knights went through after Notre Dame defeated them in their First Four game, 89-87. But in terms of providing perspective on the journey writ large, there were a few quotes worth sharing.
“I wanted to kind of be the kid that started the trend -- go to Rutgers, you can go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Ron Harper Jr., a New Jersey native. “And I feel like I did good a job of that. But it never would have been possible without the guys to my left, my right, the guys in the locker room.
“We started something special up here. It’s like sitting next to the three pioneers; we did it three years in a row. I don’t care what anybody says -- COVID happened, we would have been right there in the mix. We did that three years in a row.”
The last part comes straight from their coach, Steve Pikiell, who was completely fair in that assessment whenever he mentioned it over the course of this season. It won’t say so in the record books, but when you count the lost 2020 tournament, these Scarlet Knights were going to be an NCAA Tournament-caliber team three years running, something unheard of for them throughout my time on this earth.
“We were 14th when I first took over the job,” Pikiell said. “Didn’t have any winning streaks. Didn’t have any postseason bids. Didn’t have any of that. They did an unbelievable job, finished fourth in the best league in the country. Our fan base has been great. I’ve got a great athletic director who supports us. President of the university supports us. And we’re going to continue to be a good basketball program.”
The era of Harper, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell has come to an end. Where will this program on the rise go from here? With the 2021-22 season formally complete and put to bed, it’s a good time to take stock.
Out: Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell, Ralph Gonzales-Agee, Luke Nathan
Caleb McConnell declared for the NBA draft while maintaining his NCAA eligibility for next season. The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year is not projected to be drafted by any source that I’ve seen, and because of the extra COVID year of eligibility that every student-athlete has received, a fifth season at Rutgers is still possible.
But more likely than not, these departures will ravage Rutgers on the perimeter. Harper (15.8) and Baker (12.6) were the Scarlet Knights’ two leading scorers. McConnell led them in steals and ranked third in both rebounds and assists. He would anchor defense-first lineups Pikiell would deploy at critical points within games. It won’t be as easy as plucking someone out of the transfer portal to fill any of these guys’ roles.
Back: Paul Mulcahy, Cliff Omoruyi, Mawot Mag, Dean Reiber, Aundre Hyatt, Oskar Palmquist, Jalen Miller
Mulcahy’s evolution throughout the season was a major story I don’t think I wrote about as much as I should have. Early in the year he didn’t look like himself, especially when operating in the high post, where he was easily guarded and missing a ton of shots. I saw fans tweeting about how awful he was. Those same fans were probably quiet the night Mulcahy broke out for 31 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Remember that? It wasn’t just a hot shooting night at Northwestern for the junior – he truly came close to a 30-point triple-double.
Besides that, he was this team’s best passer and assists leader, and he will be again next season. Miller was counted upon to provide stellar defense, and Hyatt, Mag and Palmquist are good depth at the wing and the four (I want to see more of what Palmquist provides; he seems to be a Pikiell favorite).
Let’s discuss Reiber, arguably the best surprise on the 2021-22 roster. After a tough freshman year in which he rode the bench and scored a grand total of 11 points, Reiber came back with a renewed confidence and played a key role off the bench, reincorporating his outside shot (7-for-12 from 3-point range) while playing some hard minutes at the four and five. Pikiell more or less said outright in February that Reiber surpassed Agee in the rotation.
Reiber’s versatility is nice to have, but there is no true backup center behind Omoruyi on this roster, and that’s probably the biggest need this offseason. Omoruyi has developed quite nicely and quieted many of his critics (see my links at the end of this story), but the lack of interior defense to stop Paul Atkinson Jr. in the Notre Dame loss showed a weakness not just for Omoruyi, but on this team as a whole.
Unknown: Jaden Jones
Jones, a 6-foot-8 guard, declared for the NBA draft and hired an agent, but he technically hasn’t given up his remaining college eligibility because of recent changes to the draft rules. He had two nice games in November and December when Baker was injured, but down the stretch he rarely played for Rutgers. There are only 58 picks in this year’s draft and Jones is one of many dudes testing the waters who are unlikely to be selected. If I had to guess, Jones will return to college, but whether that means Rutgers or the transfer portal is beyond my predictive powers.
(Harper is technically able to return to Rutgers, too, but his draft stock is the highest of the three mentioned here. He’s as good as gone.)
Incoming freshmen: Derek Simpson, Antwone Woolfolk
Simpson is a 3-star point guard from Mount Laurel who might see some playing time as a freshmen given how thin the spot is. Woolfolk is a 3-star power forward from Cleveland who garnered more collegiate interest as a football recruit than a basketball player. That’s the whole 2022 class, meaning to complete this roster, the transfer portal will be a must.
Possible transfers: Neal Quinn, Ithiel Horton, Ethan Wright
Before Quinn puts on a Rutgers uniform, fans would have to forgive him for leading Lafayette to that November upset of the Scarlet Knights. The 7-footer from New Jersey had 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in that game, and he could make an ideal No. 2 center behind Omoruyi next season. Rutgers has reached out to him, as have Ohio State and Penn State.
Horton is an interesting case. The former Roselle Catholic guard spent much of his season at Pitt suspended after he was arrested in November and charged with punching a police officer. He’s seeking a fresh start after a year at Delaware and a few years at Pitt, with career averages of 11.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. Both Rutgers and Seton Hall are interested, according to Adam Zagoria.
Just last night, Baker took to Twitter to hype up Princeton’s Ethan Wright as a potential transfer.
The Tiger grad transfer is more than a 3-point specialist. I never got to write my magnum opus about how Wright lives to make the gritty play under the basket, be it a steal or diving rebound, a style of play you rarely see from shooting guards. There’s a home for him not just at Rutgers, but at plenty of high-major schools who want a 3-and-D contributor with endless hustle.
Coaching staff: All returning
Every team must cope with roster turnover each year, but Rutgers is giving itself an edge via continuity among its coaching staff. This week it was reported that associate head coach Brandin Knight agreed to an extension after Saint Peter’s pursued him for its coaching vacancy. Fellow associate head coach Karl Hobbs was also in consideration for La Salle’s coaching job, but things never moved in that direction.
Take a look back through Rutgers’ season through this selection of my previous Scarlet Knights stories: