rutgers basketball
Jerry Carino / USA TODAY NETWORK

ESNY’s Rutgers Men’s Basketball Preview for the 2021-22 season

The RAC is back and the rest of the Big Ten is on notice. The rowdy Rutgers fans will be back to provide one of the best homecourt advantages in college basketball for the sixth year in the Steve Pikiell era.

It’s a fantastic time to be a Rutgers fan.

The Scarlet Knights lost major production to the transfer portal, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Two NBA Draft hopefuls — Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker — decided to return for one more go. After making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2020, Rutgers is ready to take another step forward in establishing itself as a consistent winner.

Let’s take a closer look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights with a look at the returning players, newcomers, departures, and more.

Rutgers Basketball Returning Players

Name — Position
Geo Baker — G
Ron Harper Jr. — G/F
Jaden Jones — G
Mawot Mag — F
Caleb McConnell — G
Paul Mulcahy — G
Luke Nathan — F
Clifford Omoruyi — C
Oskar Palmquist — F
Dean Reiber — F
Aiden Terry — G

Newcomers

Name — Position — Last School
Ralph Gonzales-Agee — F — San Jose State
Aundre Hyatt — F — LSU
Jalen Miller — G — Frosh
Logan Stephens — G — Frosh Walk-On

Departures

Name — Position — New School
Jacob Young — G — Oregon
Montez Mathis — G — St. John’s
Myles Johnson — F/C — UCLA
Mamadou Doucoure — F — La Salle
Nick Brooks — G — Graduation
Daniel Lobach — F — Samford

Four Things on Rutgers

One Thing I Hate: Depth Concerns

The question marks surrounding Rutgers aren’t at the top of the rotation.

Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi are talented enough to take on starring roles with steady-as-they-come Geo Baker serving as the third head of the dragon. Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell are both experienced vets who Pikiell can trust.

The question is who will fill out the other three (maybe four) rotation spots? Transfers Ralph Gonzales-Agee and Aundre Hyatt are two prime candidates. Oskar Palmquist, Dean Reiber, Jaden Jones, and Mawot Mag will be in the competition for minutes as well. Even freshman guard Jalen Miller will have a chance to earn his stripes.

The Scarlet Knights need at least two of those guys to emerge as legitimate off-the-bench threats. If not, the starters better have the conditioning of marathon runners.

One Thing I Love: Steve Pikiell’s Slow and Steady Build

The fact that Steve Pikiell has slowly, yet steadily built a winning program in Piscataway should help ease the concerns about the team’s depth. The first two years in the Pikiell era were rough, with the Scarlet Knights finishing 3-15 in the Big Ten in both seasons. But Pikiell’s slow and steady build eventually paid off.

Even though the outbreak of COVID-19 robbed the chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament from Rutgers in 2020, they regrouped to make the Big Dance in 2021. Further proof that 2020 was no flash in the pan.

It’s impossible to ignore the transfers who left Rutgers for greener pastures elsewhere. Jacob Young, Myles Johnson, and Montez Mathis are the three that stand out the most.  It won’t be easy to replace the production from that trio, Pikiell has built up enough equity to get the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps this year’s team won’t be as good as years past, but it’s hard to see Rutgers falling off the map completely.

One Bold Prediction: Ron Harper Jr. Makes 1st Team All-Big Ten

Ron Harper Jr. is a tweener forward with guard skills. His offensive versatility presents a tough choice for opposing defenses. If he’s playing the three, he can overpower defenders with his size and physicality. But stick a power forward on him and he’ll lean on his offensive skill set and first step.

Most teams won’t have a defender who can match up perfectly against Harper. And if they do happen to have a guy that can match his versatility, it’s still no walk in the park trying to contain him.

Harper led Rutgers in scoring last year (14.9 points per game) and should eat more in 2021 after three of the team’s top five scorers hit the transfer portal.

After flirting with the NBA Draft, Harper decided to return to Piscataway for another year. With the keys to the offense and three years of experience under his belt, expect Harper to make first team All-Big Ten and give his draft stock a bump in the process.

One Question: Is This Cliff Omoruyi’s Breakout Year?

The Roselle Catholic product is going from understudy to a starring role in his sophomore season. Or at least, we think it’s his sophomore season. It’s hard to tell what year anyone is in with the adjustments to eligibility following COVID. But I digress.

Omoruyi will be entering the starting lineup, taking the place of Myles Johnson. Don’t let his pedestrian numbers from last season fool you. Omoruyi can be one of the best centers in the country if he can begin turning his potential into production. Rutgers needs him to be huge sooner rather than later.

A summer of working with the Nigerian National Team could only serve to help the young big man. Although he didn’t make the Olympic roster, Omoruyi was able to spend time training with NBA players and coaches.

This 6-foot-11 center is oozing with talent and opportunity knocks. With a very soft schedule in November, Omoruyi should be able to hit the ground running. We won’t know if he’s truly ready to break out until he starts Big Ten play. After all, it’s the best conference in the country for big men. Rutgers may have found theirs.

Still looking for more college hoops? Check out ESNY’s Big East and MAAC season previews as well.