The 2017-18 season may still be going on for some teams (we’re looking at you Michigan and Purdue), but for the rest of the Big Ten it is time to look forward. What was done this season is done, it’s time for lessons to be learned and new season’s to begin.
For 12 of the 14 programs the offseason and attention to next season begins now. So, we’ll do the same here with a series looking ahead to 2018-19 and what each program looks like heading in to the offseason and what we believe you can expect from them in the coming year.
Up first is the team that has seemingly occupied the No. 14 spot in the Big Ten standings since it joined the conference a few short years ago — Rutgers.
After coming off back-to-back three-win seasons in Big Ten play, what will year three of the Steve Pikiell era have in store for everyone?
Reason to be Optimistic: The Right Track
Sometimes the feeling you get from a re-building program matters more than the results at first. Such is the case with Rutgers, which was left in shambles due to scandal, administrative issues and incompetence of the highest order. Pikiell’s hire as head coach seems to be the right one. He’s gotten the program playing hard, playing together and most importantly believing in itself once again. A win over in-state rival Seton Hall in December was a huge milestone, while making a run to the Big Ten quarterfinals was also a positive sign of change for the Scarlet Knights.
Recruiting has been getting better and Pikiell has brought stability to the program overall. Just how much do others believe in what he’s done in two years at Rutgers? There are rumors of his name being associated with the opening at former national powerhouse UConn.
We doubt Pikiell jumps at that opportunity or in the seriousness of UConn’s interest, so don’t be afraid Rutgers fans, you’ll have the guy there to see the plan through a third year. Oh, and there’s something about the little $5 million buyout that Pikiell has in his new contract that was signed in January of this year. We’re pretty sure Pat Hobbs knows what he has and took steps to keep Pikiell in place for a while longer.
Reason to Worry: Life Without Corey Sanders?
As bad as the records have been the last two years, can you imagine where Rutgers would have been without the most underrated player in the Big Ten — Corey Sanders? It’s a frightening thought, and one that could be a reality as Sanders explores his NBA options for a second offseason. It would be a miracle if he came back for his senior season if you ask me.
That would mean replacing 15.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and over 40% shooting from the field, not to mention the leadership that he provided. Watching him literally will Rutgers to a win over Minnesota late in the season was a thing of beauty. Rutgers simply doesn’t have a replacement for him in the wings, and that is reason to worry about a program that couldn’t win much even with Sanders in the fold.
Player to Watch: Geo Baker
If life after Corey Sanders isn’t as bad as the pundits make it out to be, look no further than Geo Baker to be the reason for that. Baker’s debut season for Rutgers was a huge success, averaging 10.8 points per game and starting 29 of 31 games on the season. The 6-4 guard led the team with 54 made three-pointers and shot a good 36.1 percent from beyond the arc overall. He took the second-most shots on the team, and will need to improve his overall shooting this offseason though. Shooting at a 38 percent clip from the field isn’t going to cut it when you don’t have Sanders to help you out on the perimeter and being able to slash to the basket.
If you need any more proof that Pikiell is on the right track, just look at the 2018 recruiting class that is being brought in. Sanders may be leaving, but Pikiell targeted and got 4-star shooting guard Montez Mathis in the fold.
He also added the No. 7 ranked JUCO player in the country in 6-9 power forward Shaq Carter and New Jersey native Ronald Harper out of powerhouse Don Bosco Prep.
It appears that Pikiell is making great strides in the talent-rich state of New Jersey and most importantly outside of the state. This could be a class that helps change the perception of the program and could make an early impact.
Yes, Steve Pikiell’s teams have finished with the exact same three-win seasons in Big Ten play during his first two years in Piscataway, but something felt different in 2017-18. Rutgers was more competitive overall and played much better as a team. Baker showed plenty of promise in his first season, but is the only returning double-digit scorer on the team. Given the slow growth of this team, don’t be surprised to see others step up to the challenge next season thanks to the foundation that was laid over these last two years.
The good news is there are strong building blocks in place for a long-suffering basketball program. Will year three be the big turnaround year? It’s unlikely we’re going to see the Scarlet Knights post a winning Big Ten record, but there’s certainly the pieces for more than three wins in B1G play. Don’t be surprised to see Rutgers competing to get off the bottom of the conference barrel for the first time in the Pikiell era.