Rutgers named Sports Illustrated's Most Improved Team

For the Rutgers men’s basketball team, transitioning from the Big East to the Big Ten, a powerhouse league where the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin reign supreme, has been challenging to say the least.

Before their fifth season in the Big Ten commenced, the Scarlet Knights were projected to be the 14th seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the last place spot in one of the nation’s most competitive Power 6 conferences. 

But upsets over then-No. 16 Ohio State and then-No. 22 Iowa, including a close win at Miami, were just several factors for Rutgers to garner Sports Illustrated’s Most Improved Team accolade.

In head coach Steve Pikiell’s third year on the Banks, the Knights compiled seven Big Ten wins, the highest the program has amassed since joining the conference five years earlier.

But, before Pikiell became the head coach, Rutgers was struggling to find its footing in a conference that boasts 288 national championships.

In 2014, their inaugural year along with Maryland in the now-14-school Big Ten, the Knights finished with a 2-16 conference record. In that season, graduate student center Shaquille Doorson was averaging 1.6 points in 29 games, a freshman at the time.

After a 2015-2016 season, where Rutgers took a step backward with a Big Ten record of 1-16 (0.056 wins percentage), the program decided to fire former head coach Eddie Jordan and hire Stony Brook’s Steve Pikiell, who had guided the Seawolves to their first NCAA Tournament berth. 

Pikiell, a four-time America East coach, more than doubled the Knights’ overall win total in his first season at the helm of the program. With three players averaging over 10 points per game, including former guards Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson along with alumnus forward Deshawn Freeman. Rutgers earned three wins, including its first Big Ten road victory over Penn State.

Just looking at the record in Pikiell’s second year in Piscataway (15-19, 3-15), the win totals remained the same as the year before. But, the team’s growth was certainly noted in its Cinderella-esque Big Ten Tournament run.

As the No. 14 seed in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament, the Knights knocked off No. 11-seeded Minnesota, out-rebounding the Golden Gophers by 21.

Rutgers would then play the role of Cinderella and defeated No. 6-seeded Indiana on Sanders’ 28-point night at Madison Square Garden, in the Tournament’s second round. Plenty of the Scarlet faithful were in attendance at the Garden, the Mecca of collegiate basketball.

This season, without Sanders as a point guard, Pikiell inserted four freshmen — redshirt center Myles Johnson, forward Ron Harper Jr. and guards Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell — into the rotation along with graduate student center Shaquille Doorson and sophomore guard Geo Baker.

Harper and Mathis are the first pair of Knights to garner a four-star rating in the same year since 2008.

In Big Ten games, the freshman backcourt excelled in its first season in collegiate basketball. Mathis averaged 10.2 points per game in conference match-ups, with his best game of the season coming against Nebraska on Jan. 21, a 20-point and nine-rebound outing, both career highs.

Harper Jr., a former four-star recruit by and Don Bosco Prep graduate, averaged 7.8 points per game. In his first appearance donning the Scarlet jersey, he put up 15 points against Fairleigh Dickinson, going 7-8 from the field.

McConnell played minutes off the bench and, like Harper, gradually found himself playing lengthier minutes. A 6-foot-6-inch guard, he has proven himself as a versatile passer. 

Johnson, who redshirted during the 2017-2018 campaign, has averaged 17.5 minutes in his first official playing season. In Rutgers' upset over the Cornhuskers, the same game where Mathis put up career highs, Johnson also picked up career highs in points (13) as well as minutes played (25) and shot 6-8 from the field.

Coming off a freshman campaign including 15 and 25-point performances against Indiana and Purdue in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, Baker was the veteran in the backcourt this season. The Derry, New Hampshire native averaged 4.1 assists per game this season, almost doubling his amount from his first season on the Banks.

Next season will be the Knights' sixth season in the Big Ten and there is reason to believe that Pikiell's young group will increase its win total. Junior guard Jacob Young will be eligible to play after redshirting this season. The transfer from Texas brings NCAA Tournament experience to the Banks.

The highly-touted recruit from Gill St. Bernard's School, Paul Mulcahy will arrive to Rutgers for his freshman season, bringing a wealth of high school accolades to join Baker, Mathis, sophomore guard Peter Kiss and Young in the backcourt.

Mulcahy averaged a triple double this season (18.1 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game and 10.1 assists per game) and carried the school to four straight Somerset County Tournament titles.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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