Rutgers holds media day prior to start of 2018-2019 season
Eight months after ending its season in the quarterfinals of the 2018 Big Ten Championships, the Rutgers men’s basketball team held Media Day at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on Tuesday.
Head coach Steve Pikiell spent nearly 20 minutes giving his take on how the Scarlet Knights will perform this season. Coming off a thrilling showing at the conference tournament last season, fans are more intrigued then ever in the team.
“I’m real happy and excited. I’m thrilled about this year,” Pikiell said on Tuesday. “We’re undefeated in the month of October and November.”
Rutgers has had a major roster shakeup over the last eight months and almost look like an entirely new team, with a majority of the squad now being underclassman. The loss of alumnus forward Deshawn Freeman and guard Mike Williams, and former Knight Corey Sanders surely take away some maturity and experience from the team.
But, the team has retained a number of key pieces from last year’s group, while also adding a number of new recruits to the mix.
The biggest name returning to the court this season for Rutgers is sophomore guard Geo Baker, who will surely be one of the leaders on this team after filling in the starting point guard spot last season and averaging 10.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
“I just want to get better in every category,” Baker said. “I think I’m really the leader of the team this year and I have to come out and be that way no matter if I’m playing well or if I’m playing bad, I have to stay level headed. I think last year if I was missing shots, I’d get a little down on myself, so that’s something I’m really focusing on.”
Baker will need to kickstart an offense that had a hard time getting things going scoring points last season. The Knights were at the bottom of the conference in points per game, free throw percentage, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, 3-pointers per game and assists per game last season.
Two players to look out for to spark Rutgers offensive output are junior forward Issa Thiam and sophomore guard Peter Kiss.
Thiam, who has started 54 of the 65 games he’s played in, improved on his points per game average from his freshman to sophomore seasons by more than 3 points, going from 3.9 points to 7, and he looks to rise up even more this season.
I’ve seen more progress in my play. I’ve been working on my dribbling, my shooting,” Thiam said. “We’re going to compete hard, practice harder every day, give everything we have and pushing ourselves, because we need it.”
Kiss will hopefully be making his debut for the Knights this season after transferring to Rutgers two seasons ago from Quinnipiac and sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer guidelines.
In his only season at Quinnipiac, Kiss averaged 13.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, and managed to push his way into the starting lineup for the final 20 games of the season.
"A scorer, really a scorer, an exciting guy, 40-inch vertical. Brings a lot to the program in a lot of ways,” Pikiell said about Kiss. “Can score in three ways, can shoot pass and dribble. Another guy like that, that we needed in the program.”
Pikiell will need the likes of his co-captain duo of junior forward Eugene Omoruyi and graduate student center Shaquille Doorson to pick up the slack for a Knights defense that was one of the best in the Big Ten last season.
Omoruyi was the team’s second leading rebounder after Freeman, averaging five per game. The 6-foot-7-inch forward also had 24 blocks last season despite only starting in seven games.
Doorson, who graduated last May with a degree in human resource management, is the lone fifth-year player on the team and is also the only 7-footer. He can expect to have the biggest season of his career, with the front court in need of a big body to protect the paint and grab boards.
And similarly to the rest of his team, Doorson has the NCAA Tournament on his mind as a serious goal for the team this season.
“That’s our goal, to go to the dance of course,” Doorson said. “And if we are able to do that this year, that would be the ultimate goal.”
Rutgers has one of the toughest schedules in the nation by just being in the Big Ten, but the conference teams aren’t the only ones to watch out for. Facing St. John's early and heading to Seton Hall for the Garden State Hardwood Classic will certainly be games circled on the schedule by Pikiell.
Four Big Ten teams made it to the NCAA Tournament last season, with Michigan making it all the way to the Championship game before falling to Villanova. The Knights have a long season ahead of them, but it should be another exciting year of basketball.
“We have unbelievable chemistry right now,” Pikiell said. “… these kids love Rutgers.”