Early Look at Rutgers Men's Basketball 2008-9

Fred Hill enters his third season as head coach at Rutgers with by far his most talented team - even if most of it is quite young. This year's four-man freshman class, the highest-ranked in school history, has helped generate some excitement about the program. Hill came to Rutgers with a reputation as a strong recruiter, and he seems to be living up to it. That also brings with it expectations.

Those expectations, it should be said up front, need to be kept modest. Hill took over a program that has no tradition or history to speak of, one that last made the NCAA tournament in 1991. On top of that, it plays in the Big East, a league that is bigger and deeper than the ACC, far more physical, and at least as talented. Rutgers has also never finished above .500 in it.

By now it's become obvious that Hill, entering his third year, was given ample time by his boss Bob Mulcahy to begin turning things around. Rutgers has gone 21-39 in Hill's first two years, and, with the exception of a modest two-game winning streak last year against Villanova and Pitt, the majority of the most significant wins Hill's program has achieved so far have come off the court in the form of recruiting victories.

Incoming freshman Greg Echenique, Christian Morris, Pat Jackson, and Mike Rosario join sophomores Corey Chandler, Mike Coburn, and Earl Pettis, and junior Hamady Ndiaye, as talents that have migrated to Rutgers under Hill (though Ndiaye arguably would've still come had Gary Waters remained as head coach). They are rounded out by the group often referred to by the acronym FIG - for Anthony Farmer, JR Inman, and Jaron Griffin, the three seniors who are the only Gary Waters recruits still left on the team.

Those eleven players (along with Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell, who must sit out this year, along with walk-ons Kofi Genfi, Mike Kuhn, and Tomasz Kokosinski), comprise a roster that is significantly deeper and more talented than any that Hill has had so far. Thus, although no one expects the Scarlet Knights to come close to competing for the Big East championship this year, some modest improvement is expected.

To put it another way - a way that is in fact harsher and could be deemed more critical - Hill has begun to amass some talent, and now needs to prove he can coach it. He often refers to the famed class he played a large role in helping to assemble at Villanova (Jason Fraser, Curtis Sumpter, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye), a group that didn't reach the NCAA tournament until their junior year, as a model for just how long it takes in this league for talented young players to become successful.

If all goes well this year, it is difficult to fathom how this team does not possess at least the potential to become a significantly improved unit as the season progresses. Over the past two seasons, Hill had often struggled to find enough healthy bodies to even run a full practice. Now, the only player from last year's group that does not return (at least on the court) is center Byron Joynes.

Joynes, although a player of limited talents offensively, was a quiet leader whose rebounding, help defense and ability to draw charges will be greatly missed. Christian Morris (just a freshman, but arguably the strongest player in Rutgers history) seems particularly suited to help fill that role, and has been spending significant time watching films with Joynes in an attempt to learn how.

The consecutive four-year stints of Rutgers legends James Bailey and Roy Hinson, the two greatest centers in school history, still stands as the greatest years in school history for quality play down low. However, although no one player on this year's team could match either Bailey or Hinson in terms of individual greatness, the trio of Morris, Greg Echenique, and Hamady Ndiaye might be reasonably expected to come close.

Last year SOR interviewed Abdel Anderson, a freshman forward on the famed '75-'76 Final Four team, who went on the become one of the better players in the programs history. When asked what he felt Rutgers needed to compete in the Big East, he said "They've got to get some big bodies in there. They need some beef". The additions of Morris and Echenique serve as a testament to Hill's abilities (along with those of assistant coaches Craig Carter and Jim Carr) to capably fill that need.

The fact that Rutgers now boasts a frontcourt that is filled with players that, at least on paper, seem to be true Big East-level talents, is a striking and significant development. Echenique would most undoubtedly have become Rutgers second MacDonald's All-American this year had he not been able to leave St Benedict's a year earlier than had been expected. Right now he is spending most of his time in practice learning the power forward position, but expect to see him playing both center and power forward this year.

When JR Inman returns from his suspension (which is now going to be a lot shorter than first thought), Rutgers will have (in Inman, Ndiaye, Morris, and Echenique) the most talented quartet of power forwards and centers that the program has ever had in its history. JR has become unfortunately a bit more well-known lately for his inability at times to seemingly be on the same page with his head coach, but that appears to be a situation that is thankfully resolving itself.

Another member of this year's class, Pat Jackson, comes in to also help give Rutgers unprecedented talent at small forward. Jaron Griffin is the returning two-year starter at that position, but he too is temporarily sidelined because of a suspension. The often-overlooked Earl Pettis has been getting starter's minutes at that position so far in practice, and once again, the trio of Pettis, Jackson and Griffin combine to Rutgers more depth and talent at another position than it possibly has ever had.

The abundance of riches spreads to the backcourt as well. The skillful Pettis is also capable of playing shooting guard (as is Pat Jackson), but probably won't ever play there much. That is because Corey Chandler and Mike Rosario are competing for minutes there. Chandler has been learning the point in practice, but should still see ample minutes at the 2. Anthony Farmer is the returning starter at point guard, and expect Mike Coburn to fill in often at both guard spots.
However modest they may be, the situation Rutgers faces this year is one of heightened expectations. Yes, most of the talent is young and inexperienced, but there's more of it on the roster now than ever before. This staff needs to show it can begin molding them into a unit that will eventually compete for a Big East championship. High school coaches are watching, and so are the talented recruits Rutgers is looking to add down the road. Perhaps it's a bit unfair, but in a league like the one Rutgers plays in, the time is now, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

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