Friday was media day for the Rutgers men’s basketball program and it was the first training session I was able to attend in two years because of COVID-19. I’ll have a lot of content from interviews with players leading up to the November 10 season opener at the RAC against Lehigh. Here are five thoughts and observations from Friday’s workout.
Jalen Miller will help this team
Jaden Jones is the freshman who has gotten the most hype and rightly so. His athleticism and speed stand out when you look at him in person. Patience is needed, but I expect him to make a significant contribution this season. However, it was former 3-star point guard, Jalen Miller, who made a big impression on Friday. I’d heard he was playing tough this summer, and then the video the show tweeted weeks ago showed him playing lockdown defense on Ron Harper Jr., who’s significantly taller than Miller.
On Friday I saw Miller give Geo Baker everything he could on defense in Friday’s practice. Even if Miller can’t crack the rotation on a regular basis this season, he will be a valuable addition. Baker has spoken openly about his mistakes with the ball in last year’s second-round loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament. Being confronted with Miller every day in practice is exactly what Baker wants. And don’t be surprised if Miller is sometimes called upon to be a defensive stopper in spots in Big Ten play.
Leadership has strengthened the culture
The leadership of this team stood out personally. This is the team of Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. with Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy in the lead. I saw them all talking to younger players on the team at least once during and between specific drills. They behave more confidently and the younger players told how they were welcomed with open arms. The veterans love the competitive spirit that the younger players have brought and it has made everyone better.
When the class with Harper Jr. and McConnell arrived as a freshman, they had the same moxie, but it wasn’t embraced in the same way by everyone on the roster. The culture has always been strong since the arrival of Pkiell, but the experienced four core players have made it even better. Players are focused on succeeding in their roles and helping the team to win above all else.
Aundre Hyatt fits perfectly
The LSU transfer looked like he’s been on this team for years when you see him practice. He fits right in and looks like a veteran player who has played well and won in the NCAA tournament. Smooth in every way on the pitch, his versatility to play in multiple places makes him invaluable. He can shoot from the perimeter, run across the floor and defend the four on the block. Expect him to be a prolific sixth man who can get off the bench for multiple players.
Hyatt told me after training that this is not the same program that recruited him. He is also not the same player when he came to college and has diversified his skills. Hyatt is a great example of not burning bridges when recruiting on both sides. He and Rutgers take advantage of that.
Big men are the biggest question mark
While there are many keys to Rutgers’ return to the NCAA tournament, Cliff Omoruyi and Ralph Agee’s play is arguably the most important.
Everyone has praised the effort Cliff has put in this off-season as he regularly clocks in at the APC at 4:30am for individual practice sessions. His athleticism is off the charts and he explodes on the brink. I wouldn’t expect him to have an overly extensive toolbox on the offensive side just yet, but I think he will be a better rebounder. However, it is the way he develops defensively that is the most important aspect of his game. He is not expected to play at the level of Myles Johnson, who was robbed of the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award last season.
That said, it should be able to hold its own and defend the rim without making any mistakes. He’s not going to play 35 minutes a game anyway, but he should be available to Rutgers when they need him most. I’ve said that off-season is the biggest key when Omoruyi leaves a Big Ten game with two fouls in the first five minutes, how will Rutgers react?
Enter Ralph Agee, who looks more polished on the offensive end than any great man who has played for Pikiell. He has been efficient at two-point shooting and free throws throughout his career. I think he can give some inside scoring punch from the bench, but how he defends in the Big Ten is a big question mark. It’s not his forte and he played for a terrible defensive team at San Jose State last season as they were ranked 338th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
Rutgers was 16th and if they want to stay close to that range, it’s crucial how Omoruyi and Agee defend themselves in Big Ten play.
The key to taking the next step
One theme that you’ve heard many times and that I’ll talk more about later this week is the focus for this team to recover their identities. That means we have to go back to what Pkiell’s early teams relied on most and were known for. Defend and bounce back. Although Rutgers was a top 20 defense last season, they sometimes played terribly at that end of the floor in big games. It was linked to their inability to recover from quality competition, which ended their season against Houston in March.
Pikiell has instilled in this team that in order to take the next step, they need to be a better rebounding team. If they can and can maintain a high level defensively, they should be in every game and win a good number of them. On nights when they click offensively at the same time, Rutgers can play with almost anyone. On the other hand, if their defense diminishes and the rebound remains mediocre, it will put too much pressure on the attack for them to be successful.
Pikiell has cited that chemistry is at an all-time high and that this is his best team yet. That gives him confidence that he is fully convinced that this group will be bought in both defensively and on the glass, and that he can play at a high level in both areas.
- Mulcahy looked like the team’s top three-pointer, a year away from shooting a 39.3% team from behind the arc. He was the first Rutgers player to reach that level of accuracy on over 50 tries from deep since Omari Greer shot 40.5% in the 2015-2016 season. Mulcahy made nearly every shot he took along the perimeter in practice on Friday. His release and form are smoother, making it clear how much he put in during his stroke. But it is his confidence and assertiveness in shooting that stood out on Friday and gives hope that he will be even better this season.
- Oskar Palmquist was in training with a sprained ankle. He was clothed and took part in a side shoot. I think he will have a hard time cracking the rotation this season, but he could hit the ground running if he can prove himself as a three point shooter.
- New assistant coach TJ Thompson, who played for Karl Hobbs and Pkiell in George Washington, took part in certain drills as a player in training. The NCAA rule has now changed there and his size and speed will only help the players prepare for Big Ten play. He was also mentioned by several players as a reason why they got better because he spends extra time with them.
- Brandin Knight has expanded into his role as a vocal assistant at the practice. Jay Young was the coach who really got into instruction through practice in the early years with Pkiell before leaving to become head coach at Fairfield. Knight has stepped up and was very active in Friday’s practice. This is a good thing because Knight was not only a great player and an experienced coach, he also has the full respect and ears of the team.
- On Friday there was a great program feeling during the training. I’ve been attending training sessions since Pkiell’s first season and the atmosphere has just heightened. Leaving the RAC for the APC is part of it, because the environment is great. Having a huge support staff with many student managers is also part of that. But most striking is the way everyone carries themselves now. It’s not in an arrogant or arrogant way, but they know they belong and also know what work it takes to get even better. The competition and the level of talent within the program has greatly improved, which translates into a higher level of practice.
- Rutgers is scrambling in Villanova on Sunday, as first reported by Jeff Goodman. This is a significant improvement over the past few years after multiple scrimming against Yale, a very good Ivy League program and a solid mid-major in Towson two years ago. Jay Wright’s squad is a consensus team in the top five preseason and it will be a fantastic test for the Scarlet Knights. If there was any doubt that Pikiell truly believes his team has the potential to achieve great things this season, scheduling this scrimmage should put that problem to bed.
Watch Steve Pkiell’s press conference on media day here: