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Despite player exodus, Rutgers staff is focused on important offseason

There is no doubt that the Rutgers Men’s Basketball 2023-24 campaign was deflating and very disappointing. The 2023-24 season will be one of the more forgettable ones in Steve Pikiell’s tenure at Rutgers.

At times throughout the season, this team was painstakingly unwatchable due to having one of the worst offenses in all of college basketball. Fans were promised an offense that could navigate the floor at high-speed, crack 80 points a night, and drain more three-pointers than ever before, but in the end this offense failed to crack 50 points twice this year, averaged a meager 65.4 points per game, and were near the bottom of the country in almost every offensive category.



To make matters worse, towards the tail end of the regular season when the going got tough, the tough failed to get going. Rutgers barely limped across the finish line as they were blown out in several home contests, including embarrassing double-digit defeats to Ohio State, Maryland, and Penn State, crushed in the First Round of the Big Ten Tournament, and registered just one win in their last eight games.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there was a mass exodus of players from this past season’s squad.

Antonio Chol was the first player to declare his entry into the transfer portal and he was soon followed by fellow 2022 recruits Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk.

Derek Simpson showed some flashes of greatness but failed to be a consistent shooter and distributor in the backcourt throughout his time at Rutgers. Antwone Woolfolk’s development never materialized during his two years in Piscataway. Antonio Chol rarely saw the floor except during garbage time in a few blowout wins. The 2022 recruiting class turned out to be Pikiell’s biggest miss of his era.

Mawot Mag and Cliff Omoruyi both announced their intentions to transfer on the same day just over a week ago. Both will leave Rutgers to finish their final year elsewhere and each walked out with Pikiell for the last time at Jersey Mike’s Arena on March 10th.

Last week in a stunning move, freshman Gavin Griffiths, the heralded fringe five-star prospect from Connecticut and hailed as one of the ‘purest’ shooters in the 2023 recruiting class, decided to enter the transfer portal.

It was a very disappointing and difficult first season for Griffiths, who finished the year averaging 5.8 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game, 28.2% from 3-point range, 37% on two-point shots, and 32.4% overall from the field.

Prior to this past season, there were modest expectations of Griffiths despite being a freshman. Fans were excited because they felt Pikiell found a player who could immediately provide the team with a lift on offense, but Griffiths’ shot never came to fruition. Griffiths’ decision-making on the floor was perplexing at times as he forced too many shots and poor passes. Also, Griffiths often struggled badly on the defensive end although he showed signs of improvement towards the end of the season.

But the staff and fans weren’t ready to give up Griffiths as they felt he was a player who could develop over time at Rutgers and become an integral piece for next season.

So, when he made the stunning announcement to enter the transfer portal, Rutgers fans took it to heart.

Many of the players that chose to enter the transfer portal were probably given very few options as to either stay or leave for next season because Pikiell wasn’t going to wait on them. Not this time around. Pikiell needed them to make a decision right away.

Pikiell learned his lesson from last off-season.

Last summer, Pikiell got burned by waiting for players to make decisions and wound up losing two of his best players without a solid contingency in place. The Rutgers roster was surely tampered with last off-season as Cam Spencer bolted from Rutgers for greener pastures at Connecticut that included a hefty paycheck. Paul Mulcahy bailed at the last moment in June, and left Pikiell with very few options to replace him.

Pikiell and his staff knew how critical this upcoming off-season was going to be. Pikiell and his staff knew they had to hit the transfer portal immediately on March 18th and start contacting the players whom they felt would be the right fit to complement a star-studded 2024 recruiting class that includes five-stars Dylan Harper and Ace Bailey.

TKR’s very own Richie O’Leary recently detailed that Pikiell and his staff need to be concerned with finding players who aren’t just talented offensively and defensively, but guys who aren’t selfish and are willing to play off one another and support each other.

O’Leary went on to explain “this is going to be arguably the most important thing the staff has to factor when adding players this off-season, because you can add all the four-star and five-star guys you want, but if they don’t mesh well, it won’t work.” Pikiell has never been attracted to players who want to know how many shots they are going to take in a game, but he’s rather attracted to players who play team concept basketball.

Pikiell has always branded himself as a guy who can find hidden gems, develop them, and build them up into great players, just like he did with Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell, and Myles Johnson. Those guys put in their time, hard work, and dedication, but in today’s college basketball world with the transfer portal it’s likely finding those types of players who are devoted to development will be rare. Even though it is a little disheartening, fans shouldn’t lose their faith in Pikiell.

Pikiell and his staff have adapted to the new world of the transfer portal era.

In all honesty, Pikiell has always had a leg up on the transfer portal before it truly has become a thing of today. Pikiell utilized the transfer portal in the past and reeled in quality players in Jacob Young, Akwasi Yeboah, Candido Sa, and Cam Spencer to help turn Rutgers from laughing stock to respectable, proof of how Pikiell knows how to navigate the complex roads of the transfer portal.

Pikiell and his staff are also well-aware that this past season’s team was a horrific offensive unit, and he and his staff are surely going to work hard to find players to help correct major deficiencies and weaknesses.

Almost immediately as Pikiell and his staff hit the ground running, they landed their first commitment from the portal in a player that was one of the nation’s most prolific scorers. Assistant coach Marlon Williamson was able to secure a commitment from graduate transfer Tyson Acuff.

This past season Acuff was eighth in college basketball for scoring as he averaged 21.7 points per game at Eastern Michigan. Acuff also has averaged a steady 81.2% throughout his career from the free-throw line, a career 51.8% from mid-range, and shoots an average of 43.9% overall from the floor. Pikiell and Williamson easily recognized Rutgers’ mid-range shooting deficiencies from this past season, especially with Derek Simpson shooting a dismal 31.3% on two-pointers, and were able to bring in Acuff to fill that void.

With the addition of Acuff, Bryan DeNovellis of the Tri-State College Basketball Podcast pointed out the 2024-25 backcourt just got an upgrade, more depth, and are much taller with Dylan Harper at 6’6, Jeremiah Williams at 6’4, Acuff at 6’4, and Jamichael Davis at 6’2.

Pikiell and his staff’s commitment to improving the roster for next season is unrelenting as they have landed Zach Martini

Securing a commitment from Martini, not only is a big boost to the team offensively, but he brings valuable postseason experience and veteran leadership.

Regardless of who Pikiell and his staff target in the portal, they are bound to pick up quality players with more talent, experience, and leadership. They won’t make the same mistake they made last off-season.

Trust me. Pikiell and his staff are making calls and reaching out to players. They aren’t just sitting back waiting for players to come to them. And even if Rutgers’ name doesn’t appear in posts on Twitter about which ‘teams that have reached out’ to a particular player, it doesn’t mean Rutgers isn’t involved. Pikiell and his staff operate strategically and covertly as they keep information close to the vest.

Transfer portal news can be exciting but also very nerve wrecking and overwhelming at the same time, leaving some worried Rutgers fans constantly wondering what is this staff doing amid everything? You have to allow this coaching staff to identify the right players in the transfer portal and exercise patience. Everything will play out naturally.

Pikiell and his staff know this off-season is important, perhaps more than ever because next season will be a special one in Piscataway, and they are doing their best to make it happen.