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Wisconsin men’s basketball season preview: Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights finally broke their NCAA Tournament curse. What’s the next step in Piscataway?

Rutgers v Houston
Geo Baker is back for Rutgers.
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Team: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Location: Piscataway, Paradise on Earth New Jersey
Conference: Big Ten
Head coach: Steve Pikiell (six seasons, 80-77)
2020-2021 record: 18-10 overall, 10-10 B1G

Top returning players: 6-foot-6, G, Ron Harper Jr. (14.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.6 apg); 6-foot-4, G, Geo Baker (10.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.2 apg); 6-foot-6, G, Paul Mulcahy (5.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.9 apg); 6-foot-11, C, Cliff Omoruyi (3.8 ppg, 4.0, rpg, 0.2 apg)

Top newcomers: 6-foot-6, F, Aundre Hyatt (transfer from LSU) arrives with three years of eligibility and a 2020 stat split of 4.2 / 3.1 / 0.5; 6-foot-8, F, and former Last Chance U star Ralph Agee (transfer from SJSU) arrives with a split of 11.1 / 5.2 / 0.7.

Rutgers v Houston
Ron Harper Jr. is a beast and will provide the Scarlet Knights with a No. 1 scoring option.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

2020-2021 review: It’s safe to say it was a good year for the Scarlet Knights, who finally got the monkey off their back and made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in twenty years. The season started off well, as Rutgers easily brushed aside three mid-major non-conference opponents before ripping off three straight wins over future tournament teams in Syracuse, Maryland and Illinois.

But then things got a little choppier. January saw the Scarlet Knights lose five straight to start off the month (including three at home) before steadying things out and winning four straight. As the season slowly closed out Rutgers teetered on the bubble, but eventually pulled out the wins to finish .500 in conference play and earn a ten seed.

Come time for the Big Dance the Knights were tabbed as a potential sleeper Sweet 16 team and they didn’t disappoint. They upset Clemson 60-56 and then came agonizingly close to taking down eventual Final Four competitors Houston, falling 63-60.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 15 Wisconsin at Rutgers

As the stats above indicate, Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker were the driving factors in Rutgers’ return to March Madness. Though the offense featured other weapons like the slashing speed of Jacob Young, the centerpiece of just about any important Scarlet Knight did on offense was either the senior Baker or the junior Harper Jr., who have unsurprisingly become favorites among both Pikiell and the Piscataway faithful in their many years on the banks.

2021-2022 preview: It’s set to be an interesting year for Rutgers. While the Scarlet Knights added some solid pieces in the transfer portal, they also lost some key talent from the 2020 squad. Jacob Young, as mentioned above, was one of the conference’s best slashers and was a nightmare to matchup against on the perimeter. Big man Myles Johnson heads to UCLA, leaving Pikiell without the elite rim protector that was central to most of Rutgers’ success in the paint last year. And even the departure of Montez Mathis, though he never really was a top-level scorer, means the Scarlet Knights will be without another role player who played a lot of minutes in key spots.

The one positive is Rutgers’ roster and style of play is as suited to handle such losses as any. Pikiell prefers to play basketball as positionless as possible, and the loss of Johnson causing the Scarlet Knights to only have one proven option at center in Cliff Omoruyi shouldn’t be a big deal as it could be on other campuses a result. And, to Omoruyi’s credit, while he had an up and down freshman year, he was one of the most dominant high school players in recent New Jersey memory, and was considered to be arguably Rutgers basketball’s biggest ever recruiting win. If he progresses this season as many sophomores do, he’s going to create serious problems in the Big Ten.

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round
Cliff Omoruyi is the team’s only true center with the departure of Myles Johnson.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Other than Omoruyi, the starting lineup Pikiell will likely put out will be made up of experienced veterans who could cause some interesting matchup issues. Though point guard Geo Baker is a standard 6-foot-4, and Omoruyi doesn’t tower over many centers at 6-foot-11, the players between those two both in the starting lineup and down the depth chart all are in a word: tall.

Pikiell’s grit and grind style is already tough to play against, and it gets worse when you have to figure out not just how to handle 6-foot-7 Caleb McConnell and 6-foot-6 Paul Mulcahy checking into the backcourt, but also how to stop Ron Harper Jr. from slamming the ball through the hoop with the force of a man who can’t find a good Jersey slice on the road in the Midwest. 11 of Rutgers’ 13 scholarship players stand above 6-foot-6, and that depth and versatility in how Pikiell sets his team up will be sure to cause some headaches.

But arguably the biggest factor that Rutgers will have on their side this year is the return of fans and their home court advantage at the RAC. Dubbed (fondly or angrily depending on who’s referring to it) the Trapezoid of Terror, the concrete atrocity that is the Rutgers Athletic Center has developed a notoriety over the last several years for being one of the hardest environments in the Big Ten to play in.

The building’s blessing and its curse is its design. While the sloped grey walls that give it the trapezoid moniker make the RAC a horrific eyesore to look at (basketball stadium or nuclear bunker, you make the call!), it does an incredible job of keeping the noise in the building packed in and reflected down on the court.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 15 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Riot Squad, Rutgers’ student section, is about as close to the court as you’ll see from any stadium in the conference, and they bring the heat every game. I should point out- when Rutgers was the laughing stock of the Big Ten, the RAC was still an incredibly loud arena. Now that The Scarlet Knights are a tournament team, it has a legitimate case for one of the best home court advantages in the country, and you can bet the students in Jersey will be fired up to be back behind the opposing basket coming off the most successful season for their team in years.

The Badgers will get a pair of games against Rutgers, one home and one away. The matchup should be an interesting test for Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who will have to adapt in-game and often as the Scarlet Knights shift their starting five around searching for mismatches.

Games vs. Wisconsin:

Game One: Saturday, Feb. 12, Madison, Wis., Kohl Center, FS1, 1 p.m. CT

Game Two: Saturday, Feb. 26, Piscataway, N.J., The RAC, BTN, 5 p.m. CT