By Tom Luicci
It’s a good thing Eddie Jordan is always up for a challenge because for his second year as Rutgers’ head coach he faces two daunting ones.
First there’s the school’s move to the Big Ten, arguably the nation’s deepest conference – and an unforgiving one. A year ago, seven of the 12 Big Ten teams won 20 games or more, six went to the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin made the Final Four and Minnesota won the NIT.
Then there’s the delicate balance of featuring two senior stars in big man Kadeem Jack (Queens, N.Y.) and guard Myles Mack (Paterson, N.J.) on a roster that is also rebuilding with six scholarship newcomers.
“Everything about this season is a tremendous challenge. But what competitor doesn’t want a great challenge?” Jordan said. “I love a challenge. I really do.”
Already, Jordan is embracing the underdog status his team will be dealing with this season.
“I love the fact that we’re David against Goliath,” he said. “I love that take on things. Obviously, we want to get better as a program. We have to do that. We’ll be measured against some of the best teams in the country every night in the Big Ten.”
The updates to the program go beyond the six newcomers (five of them freshmen), too. Jordan hired two new assistants in former NBA and North Carolina star Mike O’Koren and nationally-renowned recruiter Greg “Shoes” Vetrone, the former head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University. They will be part of Jordan’s brain trust along with Van Macon, the lone holdover on the staff.
O’Koren, brought in partly to help Rutgers re-connect with recruits in New Jersey, has served as an NBA assistant for Jordan at three different stops: With the Nets from 1999-2003, with the Washington Wizards from 2003-09 and with the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2009-10 season. He starred scholastically in the state at Hudson Catholic High School.
“I’ve always said New Jersey is a top recruiting priority for us, that we have to get the top players in the state to come to Rutgers,” Jordan said. “Now I have two guys that I view as Jersey guys. Mike O’Koren played here and Shoes has coached here and recruited here, as well as nationally. That’s a big priority for us.
“At the same time, they’re also well-known basketball people. Mike has been in the NBA a number of years and has been my top assistant. Shoes has a national presence.”
In the interim, Jordan knows this team will go as far as its two prominent seniors take it this season. Mack and Jack understand the challenges. Both insist they’re prepared. Their leadership off the court, they say, will be as crucial this season as their contributions on it.
“The way Myles and I look at is that we have to help lead all the new guys and be the ones who help spark the change at Rutgers,” said Jack. “Someday we want to be able to look back and say `we helped start the turnaround of Rutgers basketball.’ ”
Mack said he and Jack see their leadership this season as a major part of their legacy.
“We’ve both been here four years through everything that has happened,” he said. “We know things haven’t gone the way we planned when we first came here. But we’re seniors now. We’re older players. We’ve got to be leaders. We’re going to show the younger guys the way it needs to be done so they can carry that into the future.”
Their status as players makes their message an even stronger one to their teammates.
Mack led the Scarlet Knights last season in minutes played (30.5), 3-point shots made and attempted, free throw shooting (89.5 percent), assists (4.3 apg), scoring (14.9 ppg) and in steals.
A two-time All-MET selection, he enters his final year having played in 96 career games with 75 starts and having made an impact on the school’s career charts. Mack’s 1,228 career points rank No. 20 all-time at Rutgers, his 179 made 3-pointers are sixth all-time and his career free throw percentage of 86.1 is the third-best in program history.
Yet he still sees plenty of room to improve, just as he has done as a scorer, going from 9.8 ppg as a freshman to 13.6 as a sophomore to last year’s 14.9.
“There’s always room for growth,” said Mack, who will play both guard positions. “I work every day trying to get better in every aspect of my game. I feel there’s always something to add.”
His focus for improvement this year?
“My point guard skills. I’m still working on being more consistent with that,” he said. “And my passing is getting a lot better. Those are the two things I’m working on the most right now.”
Jack, a 6-9, 235-pounder who plays forward and center, parlayed his tireless work ethic into a one-year improvement that was one of the best in the country.
After averaging 1.2 points and 1.6 rebounds in an injury-plagued freshman year, Jack improved to 5.7 ppg and 4.7 rpg as a sophomore. Last year he blossomed by averaging 14.3 points and a team-leading 6.8 rebounds. He also led the Scarlet Knights with 41 blocks.
He expects even more of himself this season.
“I didn’t start playing basketball until I was 14, so there are still a lot of things I’m learning and working on,” Jack said. “I know there’s a lot more room for improvement almost everywhere in my game.”
For Jordan, that improvement doesn’t necessarily have to be as a scorer – although he feels Jack is more than capable of becoming a real offensive force.
“I want Kadeem to understand how to do things besides scoring 20 points a game – and I know he can get into the low to mid-20s,” Jordan said. “But he has to be more consistent, and I want him to be a better passer. He has to understand how to execute better on defense and how to be a leader.
“He is capable of all of that and a lot more.”
Jack’s frontcourt help will be a mix of youth and experience, with two freshmen big men helping to give Rutgers more of a low-post presence.
One is Ibrahima Diallo (Dakar, Senegal), a 6-10, 240-pounder, who hails from the same town that produced former Rutgers standout Hamady Ndiaye, the 2010 Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a second round NBA Draft pick. Diallo is rated as the ninth-best prospect in the state of North Carolina and the nation’s 27th overall center by ESPN Recruiting.
The other is 6-11, 275-pound Shaquille Doorson (The Netherlands), a late signee who arrived in Piscataway via the Canarias Basketball Academy in Spain. He is the No. 2-ranked 2014 prospect in Europe and the No. 16 center recruit overall according to ESPN.
“One way or another they’re going to have to contribute, whether it’s in practice by being a good practice player or by their play in games,” Jordan said.
Forward Junior Etou (Republic of Congo), a 6-7, 230-pound sophomore, will be counted on for more following a solid debut season that saw him average 5.3 ppg and 4.6 rpg while making 20 starts. Jordan also has high expectations for 6-8, 230-pound freshman forward D.J. Foreman (Spring Valley, N.Y.), a member of the 2014 Rivals 150 ranked as the No. 133 overall player nationally, who adds gritty athleticism.
Greg Lewis (Baltimore, Md.) will again be a valuable frontcourt reserve, with the 6-9, 245-pound redshirt junior having played in 40 games during his career. An understated leader, he served as a team tri-captain last season along with Mack and Jack.
Junior walk-on Stephen Zurich (Montvale, N.J.), a high-character player who comes from an athletic family with strong Rutgers ties, will provide additional frontcourt depth.
For wing help, Rutgers will look to veteran senior Malick Kone (Conakry, Guinea), junior Kerwin Okoro (Bronx, N.Y.) and Ryan Johnson (Greensboro, N.C.), a 6-6, 190-pound freshman. Okoro needed last season as a transition year after transferring from Iowa State. Jordan views Johnson, who scored over 2,000 career points in high school, as a possible shooting guard as well if the need arises. Kone has competed in 75 career games.
Mack’s backcourt help with ball-handling and running the offense will come from a pair of newcomers – junior college transfer Bishop Daniels (Raleigh, N.C) and freshman Mike Williams (Brooklyn, N.Y.).
Jordan says the 6-3, Daniels, who started his college career at the University of Miami and averaged 18.0 points-per-game at ASA College in New York City last season, brings “experience, tremendous leadership, quickness and athleticism.”
“He’s going to be a great addition for us, a guy we know we can count on even though he’s new to us,” he said.
The 6-2 Williams will provide another perimeter threat, something Jordan craves. He was a two-time New York Daily News First Team All-City and two-time First Team All-CHSAA ‘AA’ First Team selection at Bishop Loughlin.
There’s also a walk-on freshman guard with a familiar surname who can provide some backcourt help. Jake Dadika (Milltown, N.J.) is the son of former Rutgers guard Rick Dadika, who scored 1,023 points for the Scarlet Knights from 1985-1990.
The infusion of new talent has Jordan optimistic about this team.
“I like the fact that they’re good kids,” he said of his six-player recruiting class. “And we’ve got better size now, even in the backcourt, where a guy like Ryan Johnson can play some guard.
“I don’t want to put any pressure or great expectations on our young guys yet. But the reality is that we need help and they’re all going to get a chance to help us.”
Jordan claims he isn’t frustrated by the rebuilding project in front of him, saying he knew exactly what he was signing up for when he returned to his alma mater a year ago. One of the best players in school history, Jordan was the point guard on the Scarlet Knights’ 1976 Final Four team.
“We knew this would take time,” he said. “I think our fans understand that. I think they have compassion for the process and maybe for me a little bit. They know we’re facing an uphill climb and that we’re doing everything we can the right way.”
Jordan said he was especially encouraged the way last season ended, despite a lopsided final game loss to Louisville. Though the Scarlet Knights were 2-5 over their final seven games, four of those five losses were by six points or less. The Scarlet Knights out-rebounded opponents in four of its final six games, including a +9 margin at No. 19 UConn and +5 against No. 15 Cincinnati. In conference games, RU led the league in defensive rebounding percentage (.681). Rutgers also ranked third in the AAC in free throw percentage, shooting .707 percent.
“I don’t like predictions, but I don’t mind if people pick us for last in the Big Ten, which a lot of people will do,” he said. “It’s motivation. It’s incentive. But we really just want to get better.
“Certainly, the last few weeks of the season, with the exception of one game, we played good basketball. Most teams will do that. But we came from nothing. So to play that way in the final weeks after a tough season is something to build on. That’s where we’re hoping to pick up.”