As part of previewing the 2017-2018 Big Ten basketball season, The Big Ten Blog will preview each team in reverse order in which I predict they will finish. Coming in at dead last is the scarlet-haired stepchild of the Big Ten, Rutgers.
2017 Record(conference): 15-18 (3-15)
On a innocuously frigid Saturday afternoon last March, Rutgers hosted Illinois to wrap up the Big Ten conference slate for both teams. Rutgers had nothing to play for other than pride for its seniors that were soon to depart from Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights had only accrued five Big Ten wins, up to that point, since joining the Big Ten at the start of the 2014-2015 season. Illinois was entering the game firmly on the tournament bubble at 18-12, with John Groce coaching for his Illini life.
With just under 15 seconds to play and the game tied at 59, all Big-Ten point guard Corey Sanders dribbled toward his left, just inside the three-point line and passed off to Deshawn Freeman who had only shot 14 three-pointers all season. Freeman would hit an NBA-range dagger, Illinois' chance to equalize would go begging and just like that Rutgers had shot John Groce's coaching career and Illinois' tournament hopes into the Raritan River. A week later, Rutgers won their first Big Ten Tournament game by "upsetting" 11th seed Ohio State. IS optimism flowing into the 2017-2018 season after their first conference winning streak since joining the conference? Not exactly, but it's a start.
Rutgers has made bounds in head coach Steve Pikiell's first year whether the record shows it or not. They finished 115 and 144 spots better in the RPI and KenPom ratings at the end of the 2016-2017 from a year prior, respectively. They also went from the worst scoring defense to fourth best in the conference. None of this was is consolation as they finished at the bottom of the Big Ten standings for the third straight year.
Heading into the 2017-2018 season, the Cleveland Browns of the Big Ten will be without carpetbagging guard Nigel Johnson who was the team's second leading scorer. He's off to the greener pastures of Virginia to play for his third school in four years while center CJ Gettys' 7- frame will be missed due to graduation.
Who does return in the backcourt is the aforementioned honarable mention All-Big Ten guard Corey Sanders. Sanders flirted with the prospect of leaving school early to pursue dreams of the NBA but pulled his name out of consideration just before the deadline, much to the delight of New Jerseyans. Though the now junior led the team in scoring last year (12.8 ppg), his production was done by 3.1 ppg from his freshman year. This could be due to the methodical pace of Pikiell's offense - Rutgers was 266th in the nation last year in pace - that sets the tone for extended defensive possessions on the other end of the court. Sanders was frequently tasked with guarding the opposing team's best guard. Two debutants for the Scarlet Knights - JUCO transfer Souf Mensah and freshman Geo Baker - will add depth behind Sanders allowing him to be moved around the court, taking off some of the wear that's decreased his effectiveness.
Part of the Rebounding Renaissance can be credited to senior shooting guard Mike Williams. Though only 6-2, he snatched up 70 offensive rebounds. Williams is another guard whose production has been hampered by the slowed pace - averaging 2.9 less ppg from 2015-2016 - and only shot 31.9% from three. It's probably past relying on Williams to be an above average long-range threat.
Speaking of rebounding and trying to not think about scoring, Deshawn Freeman and his 7.8 rpg (6th in the Big Ten) are returning for his senior year. As the season wore on - and Illinois fans remember - Freeman was more than capable of hitting the occasional jumpshot and that development will be crucial if Rutgers wants to climb out of the metaphorical cellar.
The other returning starter from last year is Issa Thiam, the 6-9 guard/forward. Thinking Giannis in Milwaukee? Kevin Durant? STOP. Thiam took 129 shots last year. 99 came from 3-point range. *checks math* That's a high percentage. If his game evolves, he will take on a larger role in the offense.
Tall man (7-0) Shaquille Doorson will replace the size of CJ Gettys but has had health issues in the past. Side note: is everyone named "Shaquille" ginormous? Have you ever met a short Shaq? Cripes. Senior Candido Sa fits Pikiell's "defense first" philosophy as a 6-9 role player sophomore Eugene Omoruyi has experience (started the first 10 Big Ten games last year).
Though success is tough to see in the standings, Steve Pikiell does have Rutgers pointed up. It couldn't get any worse. Though Rutgers was fourth in rebounding and scoring defense last year, they were last in scoring, assists, shooting percentage and 3-point percentage. That's hard to do. They've lost 20 ppg from Johnson, Gettys and Jonathan Laurent departing. Too often will the Scarlet Knights be relying on Sanders to facilitate scoring. Rutgers will win games they shouldn't based on Sanders being the best player on the court that night. The future is, what's brighter than pitch black? Not pitch black? Worst-case scenario? They're Lickliter Iowa of the 2000s. Best case scenario? A bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament which is in the bustling center of Big Ten country, New York City. Home court advantage right?
14th out of 14 again.