To the casual observer, there may not be much reason for any real excitement about Rutgers basketball this year. Last year's Scarlet Knights, in their first year under Fred Hill, finished 10-19, and failed to make the Big East tournament. Moreover, Rutgers loses two key starters from that squad: team MVP Adrian Hill, and Marquis Webb, a four-year starter and the unquestioned team leader. Also, the Scarlet Knights will be without backup center Frank Russell, who graduated, and reserve forward Ollie Bailey, who transferred out. The fact that three of the four departed players are either forwards or centers leaves Rutgers perilously thin in the frontcourt, a situation that Coach Hill readily acknowledges (more about that later).
Not surprisingly then, RU has been picked by most writers to finish somewhere around fifteenth in the sixteen-team Big East. However, despite the inauspicious forecasts, there are real, legitimate reasons for optimism about Rutgers basketball, and they began to unveil themselves last Saturday in an exhibition game at the RAC against Northwood, a team coached by the legendary Rollie Massimino. For starters, there were genuine concerns going into the game; Northwood is not your typical cupcake-type opponent, and in guard Marvin Owens and forward DeSean White, the Seahawks boast two extremely talented players (talented indeed, as they scored 39 of Northwood's 57 points).
Most concerns, however, centered on RU: how would the Knights handle the departures of Hill and Webb, whose losses not only deprived the team of physical talent, but perhaps just as importantly (as Coach Hill noted), of much mental toughness. Also, the lone addition to the Knights frontcourt this year is returning fifth-year senior Byron Joynes, who would be playing in his first game in an RU uniform in over a year. How would he handle his first live action? Then there was the matter of the newcomers: a team like RU that is going to see several freshmen log considerable minutes is always a cause for concern. How would they handle their first battle against an experienced squad coached by a Hall-of-Famer?
The answers to these questions, at least as far as Northwood was concerned, went from good enough to quite well. Perhaps the overall most impressive aspect of the game was that the Scarlet Knights held the Seahawks to 33.9% shooting percentage. In other words, RU played good defense. RU meanwhile, shot an even 50% from the field, and out rebounded the taller visitors 42-to-30. It also became clear that Rutgers is going to be a much quicker team this year, and also one that is going to score points more far more effectively than last years' group (which failed to reach 60 points in 16 games). The Scarlet Knights are not a deep team this year, however, with only 10 scholarship players, and now let's take a look at each one individually, beginning with the starting five against Northwood:
JR Inman: The 6'8 forward returns for his junior year after leading Rutgers in both scoring and rebounding as a sophomore. Like all the players on the team, he is much bigger and stronger than he was last year, and he will need the added muscle, as this year he will play more of a power forward role. During the summer, Inman ventured out to San Francisco to work out with personal trainer Frank Matrisciano (who has trained Gilbert Arenas, Aaron Affalo, and Leon Powe), in a boot-camp environment. Said Inman: "My parents have always emphasized that when you want something, you're going to have to sacrifice. As far as socializing and entertainment, this was the worst summer of my life, but as far as focusing on where I need to get to, it was the best. I want to take my game to the next level - physically, skill-wise, everything. The only way to do that was to rededicate myself solely to the game".
Jaron Griffin: Griff only played 14 minutes against Northwood after rolling an ankle in the first half, so it was difficult to get much of a reading from this game. He did, however, have a terrific summer, playing well at the Barn, and then playing well in a brief trip over to Europe. The 6'7 Griffin is now a much different player than he was coming out of high school, his game and his skills vastly expanded. He will be counted on big-time this year, and he appears quite up for the challenge. Said Griffin: "After we lost to Notre Dame in the last game, I was in the gym every day from then on, working out, doing a lot of things on my own, and that helped me so much with my confidence. By going overseas, that gave me a chance to showcase myself. That just proves to me what hard work can do My game is way different. I used to play center in high school, and Coach wanted me to play guard - and I knew nothing about playing guard, and it showed. I just see the game differently know. I'm just trying to be more efficient".
Byron Joynes: Byron's stat line in the exhibition was not terribly impressive (4 points and 2 rebounds in 17 minutes), but the fact that he was out there at all is impressive and inspiring enough. His career at RU has sadly been an injury-riddled one, and if he can play this entire year without sustaining any major bumps and bruises, it will be huge for this team. His ability to take up space and be physical and put a body on people down low is invaluable, as has been his ability to tutor Hamady N'diaye. As this season unfolds, expect his numbers to go up.
Anthony Farmer: After a strong freshman season, most people did not realize that Farmer was hampered by various injuries for all of last year. Now he's mostly healthy (although he did sustain a bad ankle sprain playing at the Barn during the summer which is not quite 100%), and he's also in the new role as an elder statesmen and a team leader. Farmer is tough, strong, fearless, and solid, and he doesn't turn the ball over. On his role this year as being a leader on this team: "It was something I had to get used to, I wasn't always the vocal leader, it's something that I grew into on my own. Some guys are naturally like that, it's something that I had to learn and grow into, and you know, one day it hit me and I turned the corner. It's not something that happened overnight, but it finally came around". When asked if the competition in the backcourt, with newcomers Corey Chandler, Mike Coburn, and Earl Pettis now in the mix, is pretty intense: "Definitely, that's what happens every day in practice (guys bringing out the best in each other) That's what it takes to have a good program - guys are pushing each other and getting better every day in practice, and with the good talent that we have in the backcourt now, we're pushing the veterans to stay on their toes and compete and stay ahead, and it teaches those young guys where they have to get to, and how hard they have to play at this level".
Courtney Nelson: The fact that he's a starter now, combined with his performance against Northwood (a team high 16 points on 6 for 8 from the field , and 3 of 4 from behind the arc), has apparently surprised some, but perhaps it shouldn't have. After all, he was a Star Ledger First-Team All-State performer who was chosen as their Player of the Year, and last year he too had nagging injuries. Now he's healthy, and a veteran. On how things are this year, he said: "I thought I was excited last year to get going and playing after having a year off. This year I'm very excited to get back going. I've learned a lot from Coach Hill, and I know the system. Now, knowing what he wants and how to do things, puts me in that much more of a comfort level".
Coach Hill on his performance against Northwood: He's a junior and we had some seniors last year, Marquis Webb, a veteran, a leader and he gave us some toughness. This is Courtney's opportunity. We always talk about it, how you never know when you are going to get your opportunity, and you want to make the most of it. He played outstanding today; he gave us some leadership and some veteran play. So he is a transfer so he is like a 4th year junior. He's a veteran guy and that is what I expect out of my guards and that is what I expect out my veterans".
Now the reserves:
Hamady N'diaye: Hamady is only in his fourth year of playing organized
basketball, and although his two points and six rebounds in 23 minutes may not
seem overly impressive, it's clearly evident he's a much-improved player. Hamady
is now bigger and stronger (to go along with the terrific athleticism he naturally
possesses), and he appears much better able to hold his ground out there now.
He's still a ways away from being able to do a Hakeem Olajuwon imitation offensively,
but he's just a sophomore. He's also the biggest beneficiary of Byron Joynes's
return, and he had this to say about working with Byron: "Byron and I are
friends off the court - on the court we just go at it. He knows I'm still so
new, just my fourth year playing basketball. I need to learn as much as I can.
Having him around as a fifth-year senior, there's so much I get out of every
practice with him. We are so physical at practice. He's ready to do anything
to get me ready for the season, and I try to do the same.
He's so strong - at first he was really was a pain. I used to get mad. I thought, how can I do this? But the more you go at it and the more you learn the more you know what you're doing - and after you get used to it, it just makes you feel better to know that you can go against a man like Byron. He gets you ready for things".
Corey Chandler: It will be interesting to see how long Corey Chandler continues to come off the bench. The gifted freshman from Newark East Side is the jewel of this year's recruiting class, and one of the most promising players to ever enter the Rutgers program. Already the most explosive player on the team, Chandler gave RU fans a tantalizing glimpse of what's in store with 14 points in 25 minutes against Northwood. He seems destined to become one of the all-time RU greats.
Earl Pettis: Perhaps, along with Courtney Nelson, the biggest surprise of the game - but also, like Nelson, perhaps he shouldn't have been. Pressed into more minutes because of Jaron Griffin's injury, Pettis stepped up with 6 points in just 11 minutes (actually they came in just 4 minutes, on two three's in the first half), and he also grabbed 5 rebounds. Earl is a player that can do it all, and as improved as Griffin is, Pettis will see time regardless, for as Griff himself said, "Earl has a lot of skills. Earl's going to be a heck of a player". And Earl, on going head-to-head with Jaron in practice: "We go at it pretty hard. But when I was in prep school it was the same type of competition. I'm used to it from prep school. I'm kind of used to going my hardest in practice now. I just want to help him get better. I try to make it so that it won't be so hard for him on the court if it's not been so easy in practice. I'm just trying to help him get better".
Mike Coburn: The stare recruit from Mt. Vernon shot just 1 for 5 against Northwood, but also snared 5 rebounds and dished out a team-high 3 assists. The intense competition in the backcourt is only going to make him that much of a better player, and as poised and as savvy beyond his years as he already appears to be, it's also apparent that he's just scratching the surface. On being a freshman at RU, Mike said that, "It's been going great. I like it here. The guys are great, and it's been a good experience for me so far. The competition is intense".
Justin Sofman: The 6'4 sharp-shooter from West Milford, who prepped for a year at St Thomas More, is unfortunately sidelined with a broken jaw, which has left him unable to practice. Hopefully by the time the new year rolls around and the Big East season begins, Justin can resume working out with the team. His injury leaves RU with just nine scholarship players at practice.
The outlook for this year:
Rutgers is going to be an improved team this season. Every returning player is much-improved - bigger, stronger, more seasoned, and determined to keep better. There is veteran leadership at all positions, and there are talented newcomers that have made this team much more athletic and quicker. Points will be much easier to come by this year, and the intensity, drive, and will to win of this team will never be questioned. In short, RU has a group of extremely talented players that are going to play their hearts out and be fun to watch.
On the flip side, there are probably not enough of them. Depth is the team's single biggest problem, particularly (as has been pointed out numerous times) in the frontcourt. As Coach Hill said after the game against Northwood, when asked what his concerns were afterward: "Depth, our front court depth is certainly going to be a problem. We wound up winning the battle of the boards but at half time we were getting out rebounded. That is something that we have to do - group rebound, team rebound this year. We don't have a full deep line, we have Hamady, Byron and we've got JR". The strength of this team are the guards, and that is an area where this is depth. Said Coach Hill: "We've got young players and we have some things that we can do 'cause we have great depth. In the back there is great depth, up front we don't have great depth. The biggest concern I have right now is those guys logging minutes because JR is going to have times where he needs a break . So, how do I sub in the forward spots?"
On the freshman he said: "Well, you know, our freshmen are very good players. It's going to be nights where they look like freshman and there are going to be nights where they look very good. And, certainly tonight we got a little bit of everything. Corey did some great things and he also looked liked a freshman at times. Mike did some great things and he also looked like a freshman at times. Earl did some great things and he also looked like a freshman at times. That what freshman are, but they are an integral part of what we are doing. They are going to get pinched and they are going to get thrown into the fire. This is a great first opportunity and a great first test, and I was very pleased with the way they played today".
These newcomers are of course Fred Hill recruits, and recruiting is what Coach Hill built his reputation on. They are going to be good. They also are going to be the foundation of what is happening now with RU basketball under Coach Hill, and why it's going to be different with him as the head man. It is the reason why I predict that he will be the man who will take Rutgers back to the NCAA's for the first time since 1991, and why he will restore Rutgers basketball to the its most prominent position since Tom Young was the head coach. This is from Scarletknights.com, and it starts with a quote from Coach Hill:
""We are recruiting and mentoring young men to be true student-athletes,"
said Hill. "To develop great basketball players is a challenge. To develop
great players that are also fulfilled people is a mission. We are very proud
of what we have accomplished in this vain thus far. Last year, our team GPA
was the highest it had been in ten years. Right now, every young man in our
program is on schedule, or ahead of schedule, to graduate in four years. There
is still work to be done, but the leadership we are receiving, both on and off
the court, in the development of first-class people has been tremendous."
Hill's first season as head coach saw all six of his seniors earn diplomas. It marked the highest number of men's basketball graduates in the conference. The academic achievement continued this past summer, when the team achieved a 3.3 cumulative grade point average."
This is the reason why Rutgers basketball, regardless of whatever record this team posts this year - and they may very well finish next-to-last in the Big East this season, although I personally expect them to surprise a few people - is in its best shape in quite some time. There will be no more revolving door of players, no more recruiting classes that are entirely gone after a few years i.e., Manny Quezada, Dan Waterstradt, and Ollie Bailey, or almost all gone (remember Adrian Hill's classmates - Harry Good, Cortez Davis, and Calvin Wooten?). Combine that with the way Coach Hill and the staff has reached out to the area coaches, the positive support they have received, and the recipe for success becomes evident. It's evident in landing a recruit like Mike Rosario for '08, the first St Anthony's player RU has landed in over 20 years.
Fred Hill will get it done at RU, and he will get it done the right way. It may not be this year, but he will have Rutgers back in the NCAA's, and he will build them into a perennial top-tier program in the Big East. Bank on it.