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HomeSportsRutgers and Steve Pikiell’s goal: Deep NCAA tourney run

Rutgers and Steve Pikiell’s goal: Deep NCAA tourney run


Steve Pikiell is tossing out the playbook.

Not the one where he draws up pick-and-rolls and half-court traps for Rutgers. The one shared by coaches in all sports that includes mind-numbing clichés like “one game at a time” and “it’s a process.” Every time Pikiell talks, it’s clear he expects a deep run in March as the sequel to Rutgers’ first NCAA Tournament victory since 1983, in its first appearance since 1991.

“I never hide from that stuff,” Pikiell told The Post. “I feel really good about this team. They practice the right way. They are together the right way. We haven’t been punched in the nose yet, but they know it’s part of playing in the Big Ten. This is their agenda, too. It’s not a coach coming out saying something. It’s what they want.”

In Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell, Rutgers returns three starters who have logged 6,673 combined career minutes — many of those together — over the last three seasons. Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi are part of the nucleus, too.

Three of the eight players in the end-of-season shortened rotation left the program in the offseason, but Rutgers should be deeper after adding two transfers and preparing Jordan Jones and Mawot Mag for bigger roles.

“I think we can win a national championship. Everyone’s mind is on the same goal,” Baker said. “We have a confident group of veterans. We understand that it’s up-and-down in a season, but we truly believe in ourselves, so to hear our coach say we’re a good team is going to help us.”

Motivation is drawn from blowing a nine-point lead with five minutes remaining against Final Four-bound Houston in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Baker re-watched only once the late-game turnover where he slipped and lost his dribble, but “I’m never going to forget a play like that.” Harper missed the final shot.

“We learned we can play with anybody in the country when we put it all together like that,” Harper said. “It’s just all about having that full-circle moment.”

Rutgers will hang a banner Wednesday night before its opener against Lehigh. It’s the first of seven sellouts so far at Jersey Mike’s Arena (formerly the RAC).

“I like that coach Pikiell talks like that,” Harper said. “It puts pressure on us, but pressure makes diamonds. Last year if we win that Round of 32 game, who knows? We could’ve played in the Final Four. We came here to bring greatness back to Rutgers, and this is the best team I’ve ever played for.”

Why Rutgers will make the NCAA Tournament

This team buys into the lost art of passing. It takes skill to space the floor and share the ball, especially in this age of isolation dribble. It also takes the chemistry, unselfishness and communication that comes with experience. “When everyone’s mind is on winning, you are always going to be better,” Baker said. “When you are not thinking, ‘I have to score,’ or I have to play more than him,’ then you are thinking, ‘How do I lift him up? How do I help him get a shot?’ ”

Why Rutgers will miss the NCAA Tournament

The Big Ten schedule is a bear. The conference earned nine bids in 2021 and probably would’ve earned 10 in 2020. Rutgers will count on 20 league games to bolster its strength of schedule because the non-conference schedule is weak again: The only three major-conference opponents are in contracted games (Seton Hall, Clemson and DePaul). There’s not a lot of room for error if Rutgers endures a multi-week slump.

Cliff Omoruyi
Cliff Omoruyi
AP

3 Key Questions

Is there any frontcourt depth behind Cliff Omoruyi?

Omoruyi, a sophomore with NBA potential, is a better offensive player than Myles Johnson, but Johnson’s low-post defense will be sorely missed as he continues on at UCLA. What if Omoruyi gets in foul trouble or misses games? San Jose State transfer Ralph Gonzales-Agee is a thick-bodied 6-foot-8, and teammates say seldom-used 6-10 Dean Reiber is maybe their second-best athlete to Omoruyi. Both are unproven in the Big Ten. “We’re better in the frontcourt,” Pikiell said. “That’s not a knock on Myles. We score better around the basket.”

Who can make 3s and free throws?

No doubt the Scarlet Knights can score in the open court or off dribble penetration. But they shot 31.2 percent from 3 and 63.6 percent from the free-throw line, to rank No. 13 and No. 14, respectively, in the Big Ten. Jones needs to be part of the answer. Mulcahy needs to be more willing to pull the trigger. But Harper is going to have the ball in his hands. “I think last year I had a hard time shooting when I got tired,” Harper said, “and that’s something I embraced the challenge of getting better at.”

How far can home-court advantage go?

The RAC offers one of the Northeast’s best home-court advantages because of noise-maximizing acoustics. Rutgers was 18-1 at home in 2019-20 before going 10-4 in an empty arena last season. The Big Ten is the hardest conference for winning on the road, so protecting home is a must. “Last year just didn’t feel right when it was Senior Night and there was nobody here except cardboard cutouts,” Baker said as one of his reasons for putting off a pro career.

X factor

Aundre Hyatt

The LSU transfer played in 53 games with 17 starts over three years in the SEC, including a double-double against St. Bonaventure in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The Bronx native nearly committed to Rutgers out of a Virginia high school and now joins with three years of eligibility remaining. Hyatt and Harper are banging bodies one-on-one on the wing in practice.

Games to Watch

vs. Clemson (Nov. 30)

It’s not a desirable ACC/Big Ten Challenge game. Matching up preseason media polls, No. 8 in each conference should’ve been Rutgers-Notre Dame. Former Big East rivals Louisville, Syracuse and Virginia Tech would’ve been more entertaining. But Clemson will be seeking revenge for its 60-56 loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

at Seton Hall (Dec. 12)

Something crazy always happens when these teams meet. And tensions will be running higher than ever after last year’s hiatus in the annual rivalry and a months-long dispute over where this year’s game should be played. Pikiell budged for the sake of metropolitan basketball crazies. For a change, Rutgers might have more at stake than reloading Seton Hall.

vs. Michigan (Jan. 4)

One obstacle Rutgers has yet to scale in its Big Ten climb is beating Michigan. The Wolverines are 14-0 all-time in the series, including 9-0 as conference rivals. It’s the third of three straight to open Big Ten play for Rutgers against the conference’s three-best teams (Illinois and Purdue).

Anonymous Coach’s Take

“Cliff is such a major key. Coming off Myles Johnson, everything he was able to provide as a passer, defender, he was really, really good. A lot of it is going to be about what kind of steps Cliff takes. Can he fill that role? Not the whole role, he’s not going to be Myles Johnson, but can he be solid enough? … Baker and Harper are going to have to score a lot of points. If those two guys can get 35 a game, it helps. … McConnell is solid, you know what Mulcahy is going to bring. Who can step up and help them? Depth-wise, that’s the key. Hyatt is one of those guys, you can’t rely too much on him. They’ve lost a lot of athleticism from last year’s group with Young, Johnson and Mathis. Young brought such a different dimension. He became a better shooter, he was so fast and athletic.”

Prediction

25-11, Fifth place in Big Ten, No. 6 seed in NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16 exit

Rutgers wants its next banner to be for some sort of title, but not long ago this program’s mark for success was merely qualifying for its own conference tournament. Baker has the steel nerves to make the big shots featured in a “One Shining Moment” montage. “I just want to win the game so badly,” Baker said, “so if I believe there’s a chance I can put it away then I’m ready for that and excited to do it.”



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