There are still a handful of decisions out there to be made…IU’s guards have to decide whether to turn pro or not, Dylan Ennis is still a possibility for Illinois, Minnesota is still recruiting a cast of thousands from the JUCO and transfer ranks to fill a couple of spots, etc. However, with Russell deciding to turn pro officially and Damion Lee opting for Louisville and not Maryland, I feel as if I’ve got enough to sort out an expectation for myself as to where teams slot in heading into next season, at least on paper as we sit here in April. Just a note…when I reference a class year for returning players, I’m talking about what their status will be next season, not the just completed one.

As an overall thought, this is going to be one of the most competitive Big Ten races we’ve seen in a long time, IMO. It’s not just that there are a lot of teams (if you squint hard and include Minnesota and Northwestern, it’s 11) with legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes but that so many of them can also make a case for having the kind of quality necessary to make a deep March run as well, and I’d say at least three (maybe one or two more when we’re done) can think seriously about a Final Four and even a national title. There isn’t a Kentucky 2015 type group looming out there, and probably not even a Duke 2015 either. When I look at the landscape at the moment nationally, even with some late HS decisions to come, I see a balanced situation where a lot of teams can consider themselves to have a shot. That will go for the Big Ten race as well.

So, we’ll go in reverse order of my anticipated finish with this thing. That’ll also allow for a couple of situations (like IU’s) to sort out before I get to them, just in case we have any surprises. We start at the bottom with the same group which occupied that slot last season, the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers. Because Rivals now limits the number of characters you can use in any one post, I’ll have to split them up for each team in categories…so it’ll be Last Season and Returning Players in one post and Newcomers and Overall impressions in another.

LAST SEASON – Unlike their fellow Big Ten debutants at Maryland, RU got a rude awakening to life in the Big Ten in their first season of play. Rutgers went 2-16 in the league and 10 of those losses were by double digits, so it’s not even as if they could claim they were close or “just needed to learn how to win.” They weren’t close to being competitive, not at all. However, their season did have one big highlight, when they beat a Kaminsky-less Wisconsin team on January 11 at the RAC. That was a decidedly cool moment for the program…coach and RU alum Eddie Jordan was overcome with emotion in the post-game presser and you could see what it meant to him. Unfortunately, that was the last great moment in the season, as counting the BTT loss, the Scarlet Knights lost their next 15 games to end the season. Rutgers was weak in almost every component of the game…transition defense was a disaster. Halfcourt defense was rough. They didn’t handle the ball well, nor did they shoot it at an acceptable rate. They were terrible at the line (65%) and got outrebounded on the season. They were bad in every way a basketball team can be. On top of that, Jordan loses the only two guys he had to average double digits in scoring in guard Myles Mack and big man Kadeem Jack. He also loses 6’7″ sophomore forward Junior Etou, who was 4th in scoring and the top rebounder on the team…he elected to transfer. Can Jordan figure out a way to get Rutgers to be competitive going forward? This is an athletic department in some chaos in terms of funding decisions, facilities, etc. Jordan has an NBA background but this is an uphill climb, no question.

THIS SEASON

RETURNING PLAYERS

Things start with 6’3″ senior guard Bishop Daniels. He was third on the team in scoring at 8.4 ppg and a distant second to Mack in assists at a bit over 1 per contest. Daniels is not a great jump shooter (sub 30% from deep) but he is dynamic…was third on the team in FTA and was decently effective going to the rim in general. I’d expect him to play a bigger role this season than last (his first at RU after transfering in from a JUCO) but to be asked to do the same sorts of things…play a combo role, but more off the ball than on it.

6’2″ sophomore Mike WIlliams showed some flashes as another guy who could play on or off the ball, but I think they see his future as a bit more of a point guard. He came in with a great shooter’s rep but struggled badly from deep, hitting only 24% of his threes. However, that number likely will rise as he gets more comfortable at this level. What he has working for him is good quickness and some playmaking instincts (34 assists to just 20 TOs). He was also something of an active perimeter defender when he got playing time. He’s got a chance to improve as his career moves forward and may yet become a solid contributor.

Greg Lewis is a 6’9″ 250lbs senior post player who returns as Rutgers’ leading rebounder at 4.5 per game. He was also a decent finisher at the rim and provides needed experience, leadership (he’s a team captain) and size, giving RU some shot blocking presence in the paint. He’s a guy who’s fought through injury issues over his career and will be a likely starter once again, coming off a season in which he started all 32 games for RU as a junior.

DJ Foreman is a 6’8″ 230lbs sophomore who showed flashes in a combination of power and athleticism inside. They think over the long run he’s got a chance to be something of a versatile big man, with the potential to be able to step away from the basket and be effective. For now, though, it’ll be size, athleticism and motor which will get him on the floor.

Shaquille Dorson is a massive individual, checking in at 6’11” 275lbs. As a freshman his minutes were limited but he is a classic example of a program taking a flyer on a physically gifted but raw big man, hoping they can turn him into something before his time is through at the college level. Dorson isn’t just big, he’s also decently athletic for a man his size. Expectations would be for his role to grow a bit this season, likely still as a reserve but perhaps getting more than the 10 mpg he earned as a freshman. Long term, they think at a minimum he can become an effective defender and rebounder with his size and good work ethic.

Ibrahima Diallo is a 6’10” 240lbs big man who redshirted last season due to academic issues. He’s seen as roughly similar to Dorson…a guy with size and some athleticism to go with it, but not a ton of playing experience. At a minimum, he further bolsters an RU frontcourt which will be able to roll out some legitimate size in a year where that could well prove to be a necessity in order to compete.

Ryan Johnson is a 6’6″ redshirt freshman forward who was in the same boat as Diallo in terms of academics. They see him as having some versatility to his game, with good length and athletic ability but also enough ball skills to perhaps see some time on the perimeter as well. He’ll have a shot at competing for a rotation spot.

Justin Goode is a 6’2″ redshirt freshman guard from Hargrave Military Academy who actually enrolled at RU in January. His leg up in terms of getting that half season of practice in at this level might help him carve out a role. He’s primarily seen as a deep shooter, something RU desperately needs, so he might get into the rotation as a specialist if nothing else.

Jordan is right in the thick of the recruitment of 6’5″ New Jersey wing Malik Ellison, son of Pervis “Never Nervous” Ellison who won a national title at Louisville. Others such as Minnesota and St. John’s are in that race as well but there has been speculation that Pervis wants his son to stay home and that Rutgers would be the likely choice. St. John’s is a very recent entrant into that recruitment, so that might be a viable option along those lines as well. Ellison looks to me to be a classic example of a late signee who’s importance gets blown up a bit simply because there aren’t many uncommitted players left available. I would think if Rutgers got him he’d have a chance to earn immediate playing time but I’m not sure that he checks in as a significantly better prospect than Johnson or Laurent.