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McConnell's play on offense, defense contributes to recent wins

When sophomore guard Caleb McConnell played a 2018-19 season-high 30 minutes in the Rutgers men's basketball team's 5-point overtime loss at Illinois on Feb. 9, he contributed 25 points on an 8-for-10 shooting night.

Now in his second season on the Banks, McConnell has not skipped a beat from last season. Head coach Steve Pikiell continues to tap the sophomore as a consistent starter. Averaging 20.3 minutes through the Scarlet Knights' (6-1) first month of game action, he has cracked the starting lineup along with fellow guards junior Geo Baker and sophomores Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis. 

Consistency on both the offensive and defensive sides of the court is necessary to elevate a college basketball team's play. When individual players go above their expected roles, coaches will go back to them in rotations and insert them into starting lineups.

McConnell brings a versatile skillset to Rutgers' lineup. Standing at 6 feet 7 inches, he embodies a guard and small forward combo similar to his teammate Harper Jr.

Harper Jr., who is averaging 10.4 points per game, has transitioned from a guard role during his freshman season to a forward role that can stretch Pikiell's offensive plays. 

A reason for Harper Jr. and McConnell's versatility has been the loss of former forward and last season's leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi. Omoruyi, who was a junior last season, transferred to Oregon where he has not seen the court.

Since the season opener against Bryant back on Nov. 7, the combo has been Pikiell's go-to guys for scoring on the wing. Both Harper Jr. and McConnell bring a sharp three-point shot to the hardwood. 

McConnell has proven to be an asset in the paint as well as behind the arc. When he scored a season-high 16 points against Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 20,  the guard was 5-of-9 from the floor. 

In that game where McConnell was the team's leading scorer, he drilled a shot in the paint. From three-point land, he was 3-of-5, an area of strength for the sophomore.

He currently paces the team in three-point percentage, shooting 47.1% from beyond the arc. McConnell's best game from behind the three-point line was a 2-of-3 night in Rutgers' blowout win over NJIT before Thanksgiving break.

Last season at this point, McConnell averaged less than 2 points per game. Part of this was due to a lack of minutes. He came off the bench for a good portion of the season before cracking the starting five in the latter half of the season. 

Through seven games as a consistent member of Pikiell's starting five, McConnell is averaging 8.9 points per game, fourth on the Knights' scoring list. He has surpassed double digits four times this season, scoring a season-best 16 points against the Lumberjacks. 

His charity stripe numbers resemble his consistent three-point shooting numbers. McConnell is 82.4% from the free throw line, which is third on the team. Against St. Bonaventure in Toronto, he was a perfect 8-of-8 from the charity stripe. 

Last season, the team struggled as a unit to shoot free throws, finishing Pikiell's third season at the helm shooting 63.7% from the foul line.

"That's always been a struggle for us," McConnell said on the team's free throw shooting following Rutgers' win over Drexel on Nov. 13. "That's been a real big emphasis on trying to shoot more free throws, getting more and more guys in the gym to shoot free throws. And it shows."

Defensively, McConnell has continued to elevate his game to guard the team's top players. He plays the role of a lockdown defender, tightly guarding his man. 

Against Stephen F. Austin, he grabbed six rebounds, two shy of sophomore center Myles Johnson for the team lead in that game. He is averaging approximately four rebounds per game this season.

"This offseason and ever since the season started, I made a big emphasis on getting better on defense and locking up my player," McConnell said on Nov. 13. 

While Pikiell's 2018 recruiting class consisted of former four-star recruits Mathis and Harper Jr., McConnell signed as a three-star out of SPIRE Institute in Ohio. 

A Jacksonville, Florida, native, McConnell was named the ninth best recruit by 247sports.com. He was still an active defender in high school, averaging six rebounds and two steals per game.

"(Caleb) has come a long way," Pikiell said about McConnell on Nov. 13. "I feel like all of our guys have improved."

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

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