Rutgers welcomes electric freshman guard with hopes of shifting program
In a school with over 48,000 undergraduates and nearly 10,000 students per graduating class, it can be hard for anyone to stand out at a University like Rutgers.
Personality is an important factor in determining which paths wide-eyed freshmen take when they arrive on campus in late August for the fall semester and the next four years of their lives.
In the time that Corey Sanders has been hanging around the spread-out campuses across New Brunswick and Piscataway, the kid from down by the Tampa Bay area in Lakeland, Florida, has been able to do that rather quickly.
As a true freshman guard on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, most of his classmates might see him as another athlete on scholarship to play sports at school.
But there is much more to Sanders than that.
Corey Sanders rides in style.
When he isn’t zipping through defenders on the hardwood, Sanders glides on his “hoverboard” scooter around Livingston campus. Standing at 6-foot-2, he skies over most of his classmates when he cruises up and down the sidewalks — and he’s hard to miss.
“Usually when I’m riding around, I got my little hoverboard now,” he said. “So I’m riding around and people are like, ‘Hey, Corey, can’t wait to see you, can’t wait to come to the games,’ and stuff like that. So it’s been real good having that love on our campus.”
His trademark baby dreads and gleaming Hollywood smile draw eyes to Sanders, but it’s his electrifying play on the basketball court that keeps the attention locked there.
“He has a wonderful personality, he is engaging and he does a lot of good things,” said head coach Eddie Jordan. “He’s defensive first, he’s a pass point guard first.”
While the former NBA coach in his third year back on the Banks knows a thing or two about how guards play the game of basketball — “Fast Eddie” logged seven solid years at guard in the NBA — much of the highlight tape for Sanders speaks for itself.
When his HoopMixtape hit the Internet, Sanders became a YouTube sensation. He even caught the eyes of Washington Wizards star point guard John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft, when Wall retweeted a link to the video to his million-plus twitter followers.
The recognition was surreal for Sanders, who has watched countless highlight reels of the two-time NBA All-Star as he attempted to mirror Wall’s game.
“Man, that’s a blessing to me because it just shows that my grind hasn’t gone unnoticed,” Sanders said of the tweet. “Just having that recognition from (John Wall), he’s a great point guard and he’s where I want to be. So just having him see that and giving me a little shoutout, that was great for my emotions and my hard work — it paid off.”
Second-year assistant coach Greg Vetrone, who coached Sanders in a club basketball tournament for Adidas at Rucker Park in Harlem, New York, didn’t need to watch him long to know that the talent he possessed was rare.
“You could tell from that day he was special,” Vetrone said, reflecting on the all-star tournament. “The first time he came to practice with me, you could tell he was special. A 6-foot-1, explosive, high-IQ, really likes to defend.”
The former Faireigh Dickinson head coach, who has more than 25 years of coaching experience at the high school and collegiate levels, said the talent goes past the tape.
“I know the YouTube thing — they see him flying in the air and he’s an athlete,” Vetrone said. “But when you dissect his game, he’s a real point guard package at the position.”
By the numbers, Corey Sanders’s initial verbal commitment to Rutgers looked huge.
A consensus four-star recruit ranked as the No. 62 overall prospect and No. 9 point guard in the ESPN Top 100 for the class of 2015, his decision to come up to Jersey lifted the spirits of a fan base dragging through a brutal recovery process left from the Mike Rice player abuse scandal.
But even with the positivity surrounding the highly touted recruit — he selected Rutgers over the likes of Memphis, Tennessee and Wake Forest, among other top programs — the Scarlet Knights struggled mightily in their first season among the perennial powerhouse programs of the Big Ten.
Rutgers even reached the level of national embarrassment.
With the second-longest losing skid derailing the program’s progression under head coach Eddie Jordan in his second year, namely after the largest upset in school history with the 67-62 shocker of an eventual Final Four team in then-No. 4 Wisconsin, Sanders could have reopened his recruitment as other coaches continued to call.
But Sanders put them all on hold — and for a reason.
“I didn’t wanna go somewhere where they were just known for always winning,” he said of his decision to come to Rutgers. “I wanted to go somewhere where I can really help put my brand onto a program and help us grow.”
To this point of his career, Sanders has won more than enough. Most recently, he almost single-handedly led his high school team at West Oaks Academy with a 32-5 overall record and state title with the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association championship.
Despite the allure and prestige of the programs that kept calling, Sanders knew his best fit waited up the east coast in New Jersey.
The biggest reason for that? Eddie Jordan.
“Really, it was just Coach Jordan and the coaching staff would get the best out of me — and I need that,” Sanders said. “I need a coach that’s gonna stay on top of me and a coach that knows the game and knows where I want to go and where he has been.”
Like everyone else, Jordan has seen sparks of the talent and explosiveness that named Sanders the “most entertaining hoops star” in the class of 2015 by USA Today High School Sports.
But without as much as a second of live action at the Division I level and in one of college basketball’s toughest conferences, Jordan has already seen corrections to be made in Sanders’s flashy game.
“Look, there’s a lot of things he has to sort of hone up in his game. He jumps a lot passing the ball, I don’t want that,” Jordan said. “Sometimes he gives me a look like, you know, one of those star looks. So he’s good, he’s coming along.”
Bishop Daniels knows an explosive player when he sees one.
Rattling the rim at the RAC from time to time, the transfer guard from Miami (Fl.) and ACA Academy brought excitement in spurts to the Rutgers offense in his first year on the Banks last winter.
So when Corey Sanders arrived on the Banks for good earlier in the semester, the senior guard has gotten an up close look at the highly touted freshman right off the bat.
“A lot of energy. The athleticism is there,” Daniels said. “He’s as advertised.”
When the Knights conduct intra-squad scrimmages, Eddie Jordan specifically pits Daniels and Sanders against each other on opposite teams.
The move is a designed one, creating a competitive dynamic in practice that Daniels said brings out the best in both up-tempo guards.
“We get a little jawing back and forth,” Daniels said with a grin. “Not just me and him, but it’s a lot of players and it helps out a lot because we’re pushing each other. We’re pushing each other to get better everyday.”
In the short time that he has been around Daniels, Sanders said he’s already learned a ton. While their paths to Piscataway were polar opposites, Daniels knows what it’s like coming over with expectations of learning a new system and making an immediate impact.
Be it a gritty one-on-one matchup or fundamental study in the film room, Sanders has picked the veteran’s brain and kept his ears open since working with and against Daniels in practice.
“It’s been great having Bishop because he’s been here and he know’s how this system goes. He knows the work ethic that it takes to be a D-I player,” Sanders said. “And just having him giving me pointers and stuff like that, it’s helped me because I’m young still and he just knows the game. So just having him around and having him be like an older brother to me is just been great.”
Immediately after Eddie Jordan wraps his press conference for Rutgers men’s basketball Day, the Scarlet Knights head down to the hardwood and gather for their 2015-16 team photo.
From there, they head to the locker room before shedding their black and scarlet Nike jumpsuits. Like the rest of his teammates, Sanders chucks up shots to get loose.
Then, the whistle blows and the team joins hands in a full circle at midcourt.
As heralded of a recruit as Sanders is — as much as the explosiveness and excitement beam off of his persona — it serves as a subtle reminder that he is 1 of 14 Knights looking to work together and turn this program around.
Sanders understands that the hype comes with the territory. But at the end of the day, he wants his coaches, teammates and fans at Rutgers to remember one thing.
“I think they should know that I’m gonna get after it every play. I’m a team player, I work hard and I just wanna help turn things around,” Sanders said. “That’s my goal — turn things around.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.