Friday, December 29, 2023

"On The Call" with Danny Breslauer (from Knights of the Raritan)

Stream the latest episode of "On The Call" with Danny Breslauer (from Knights of the Raritan) on YouTube or Spotify. 

  • "On The Call" with Danny Breslauer - Episode 3, 12/29/2023 - Rutgers Hoops Insider interviews Danny Breslauer from the Knights of the Raritan and discusses the recent Rutgers loss to Mississippi State in Newark from last Saturday, the upcoming "get-right" game against Stonehill, expectations going forward into Big Ten play, Aundre Hyatt as Rutgers' most consistent player, future scheduling, and the work done by the Knights of the Raritan in helping Rutgers athletes with NIL.

All episodes of "On The Call" by Rutgers Hoops Insider are now streaming on YouTube and Spotify

As a reminder, tune in weekly to "On The Call" for the latest discussions of Rutgers Men's Basketball.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

True freshman Jamichael Davis providing a big boost for Rutgers Basketball

photo courtesy of The Knight Report

by Mark Remsa

It felt like yesterday when Rutgers freshman guard Jamichael Davis was inserted into the starting lineup by head coach Steve Pikiell for the first time in his career, and may I add, in arguably New Jersey's biggest college hoops rivalry, the Garden State Hardwood Classic.

How did Davis respond?

In 32 minutes, he played brilliantly as he registered 11 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. But one statistic that may have gone unnoticed in the game was how many turnovers he committed. Zero.

Continue reading this article at The Knight Report on Rivals.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

"On The Call" by Rutgers Hoops Insider now streaming on YouTube and Spotify

All episodes of "On The Call" by Rutgers Hoops Insider are now streaming on YouTube and Spotify

Tune into "On The Call" for the latest discussions of Rutgers Men's Basketball.

Latest episodes:

  • "On The Call" with Richie Schnyderite - Episode 1, 12/16/2023 - Rutgers Hoops Insider interviews special guest Richie Schnyderite (of The Knight Report) and discusses recent 5-star hoops commit Dylan Harper's recruitment, the 2024 recruiting class and beyond, Rutgers' win over Seton Hall in the GSH, the upcoming neutral site game with Mississippi State, the Big Ten schedule, and much more.
  • "On The Call" with Richard Kent - Episode 2, 12/19/2023 - Rutgers Hoops Insider interviews special guest college basketball guru Richard Kent and discusses Rutgers recent performance and expectations, the underwhelming Big Ten, the Big Ten slate, Princeton's Xaivian Lee versus Rutgers, difficulty scheduling opponents, the NET strength-of-schedule (hint: Richard puts the SWAC Commissioner & the Chair of the Selection Committee on notice), Mitch Henderson & Princeton to visit The RAC?, high-profile/must-see game ideas for 2024, and much more.

Weekly Big Ten Power Rankings Challenge (thru games played 12/17)


The teams at Rutgers Hoops Insider and Gopher Crew continue their season-long Weekly Big Ten Power Rankings Challenge. Currently, Gopher Crew (@GopherCrew) and Rutgers Hoops Insider are tied in the challenge, 2-2.

Each week on every Monday, Rutgers Hoops Insider will post the rankings to the Rutgers Hoops Insider Twitter account. Please vote for which power rankings you prefer.

This is the fifth set of published power rankings by the Rutgers Hoops Insider and Gopher Crew

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Q&A with Tri-State College Basketball's Bryan DeNovellis

The Rutgers men’s basketball team may have turned a corner this season and for all the right reasons after the Scarlet Knights walked into The Rock and thoroughly dominated the Pirates from start to finish in a 70-63 win.

With glue-guy Mawot Mag returning to the lineup and providing the team with a big boost on both sides of the basketball, Rutgers is poised for a solid December finish and are ready to take on a very challenging January slate when Big Ten play resumes.

To help gauge this team’s current status, the upcoming schedule and to discuss some hoops in general, I turned to college hoops expert and sports journalist Bryan DeNovellis.

Bryan is a long-time sports journalist and podcaster with more than 30 years of experience in television and the sports broadcasting industry. Since 2021, Bryan has hosted and produced the Tri-State College Basketball Podcast, which covers collegiate programs across the New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut Tri-State area. For the last 12 years, Bryan’s been a Television Production and Editing Teacher at Holmdel High School in Holmdel, NJ.

Bryan’s journey in the sports broadcasting career began at ESPN in 1993 as a production assistant, where he worked behind the scenes on SportsCenter and College Basketball Studio Shows, as well as two Final Fours in 1994 and 1995. As a television sports anchor, Bryan has worked at places like News 12 New Jersey, WFSB-TV in Hartford, CT, and Time Warner Cable in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Bryan is a graduate from Seton Hall with a BA in Communication, where he met his wife Cathy.

Please follow Bryan on his Twitter page at @bryandeno and please tune into his podcast at


Rutgers Hoops Insider (RHI): Bryan, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this Q&A with me today. I’m really excited to do this with you because you’re a big-time hoops connoisseur for the entire tri-state area. You currently run a fantastic podcast called the “Tri-State College Basketball Podcast”, covering teams from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and you’ve also featured a slew of guests, including journalists, analysts, commentators, and coaches. So, let me ask, as far back as you can remember, when did you develop a passion for college basketball? And what made you decide to start a podcast covering college hoops in the tri-state area?

Bryan DeNovellis (BD): Mark, first of all I want to thank you for this interview. It's a pleasure to be talking with you. You do a terrific job with your blog. I grew up in Connecticut, the heart of UConn basketball.  But I also grew up in a time when UConn wasn't the UConn we know today. Not even close. I was 9 years old when the Big East began in '79-80. The Huskies were coached by Dom Perno and led by guys like Corny Thompson and Mike McKay and Chuck Aleksinis. They were good, but not in the Big East. They typically finished at the bottom of the conference for most of the first decade. But I rooted for them. They were Connecticut's team. My father went to UConn and he took us to games at the Hartford Civic Center. I watched every UConn game on TV, and any Big East game that I could find. I knew all the Big East stars: Eric Santifer, Leo Rautins, David Russell, of course Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. Michael Adams was from Hartford. And I rooted for John Pinone who was from Wethersfield, CT and played at South Catholic High School, where I later played. I grew up with the Big East. I was hooked! What made me start a college basketball podcast? My love for college hoops. I love to tweet about college basketball, and would tweet a lot about Seton Hall, Rutgers and the Big East. Then one night after I was tweeting, my good friend and former colleague at News 12 New Jersey, Taso Stefanidas texted me and said, "Hey, if you tweet so much why don't you just start a college basketball podcast?" I said, "No way." There were already enough podcasts. There were Seton Hall podcasts and Rutgers podcasts. There was one New Jersey college basketball podcast and a number of Big East podcasts. I tried to think of a podcast no one had. I needed to different and have my own brand. So I came up with a "Tri-State" podcast which would cover New Jersey, New York and Connecticut teams. No one had that brand. So in March of 2021 I started the Tri-State College Basketball Podcast, and it just so happened that was the year Rutgers made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years. It ended up being a very good March and the podcast got off the ground.

RHI: You clearly have a lot of experience and have been in the sports journalism business a long time, so how hard is it to juggle your full-time duties as a high school teacher and running the podcast? I mean you’re covering so many college basketball teams across the tri-state area! Do you get a chance to get out to a lot of games during the season?

BD: It's a challenge Mark. No question. Running the podcast is like having a second job. From November to March I'm watching as many games as I can. I will admit, I mostly watch the four major teams in the Tri-State: Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John's and UConn. Rarely do I miss one of those games. If I do, I'm following the scores on the ESPN app and of course on Twitter. As for the other D-1 teams in the Tri-State, I watch when I can on TV or ESPN+. But that's where Twitter comes into play more. I do follow a lot of beat writers, podcasters, bloggers and what I'll call "superfans" of the mid-majors in the Tri-State, so I can get updates or little nuggets of information. I'll also comb through the box scores after games and the following morning and take notes on the players and stats. I've always been a stats guy, so it's fun. I also read a lot of the game recaps from beat writers or the teams themselves online. And I also keeps tabs on women's programs and the D3 programs in the Tri-State because they're part of my footprint too. I also make it a point to attend games in person. That's huge. I love going to basketball games. I have credentials to Seton Hall, Rutgers and St. John's. Because I live in New Jersey, it's easier for me to get to Rutgers and Seton Hall. So this year for instance, I am attending 7-8 Rutgers games, 7-8 Seton Hall games and 3 St. John's games. So that's almost 20 games and that doesn't count the postseason. I'm also trying to pick a few more games in New Jersey like a Princeton or an FDU or St. Peter's. But those will be more spontaneous. It's so important to get to these games in person because I'm able to build relationships. I'm big on that. I learned that from covering sports in New Jersey all those years. You can't build relationships from the studio or sitting on your couch. You need to get out to the games and talk with the media relations people, the writers, reporters, broadcasters, coaches and players. You need to build their trust. The more they see you, the more they'll get to know you and vice versa. I love talking with people, so it's not difficult. And the conversations can often lead to interviews on my podcast. I'm not getting rich off the podcast, but it doesn't matter. I'm having a blast!  

RHI: I’ve noticed you’ve had a lot of guest features on most episodes of your podcast, except only a few times when you’re recapping a game. Oh, and by the way, your most recent episode recapping the Rutgers-Seton Hall game from last Saturday.. excellent! But, have you ever had a favorite guest feature on your podcast and why?

BD: Thank you. I think it's important for my podcast to have guests. I'm not a well-known commodity or national broadcaster with hundreds of thousands of followers like Jon Rothstein or Andy Katz. While there are fans around New Jersey who do remember me from my days of covering sports at News 12, many don't. So in my opinion college basketball fans are more likely to listen to my podcast if I have a well-known guest like Dan Hurley, Steve Pikiell, Shaheen Holloway, Bill Raftery or Seth Greenberg. I know for a fact people want to hear what those guys have to say. But at the same time, I do know college basketball. I've followed the game for 45 years. Eventually my hope is that if fans like the podcasts with interviews, they'll start to subscribe to my pod and then they'll start to listen to my recaps and "Around the Tri-State" portions of the episode. So to answer your question about my favorite guest, I can't say I have a favorite. I've had some really cool and interesting interviews with people like PJ Carlesmio and Bill Raftery. Tobin Anderson is a lot of fun to talk with becasue he's full of great stories. My recent conversation with the Fairfield Coach, Chris Casey was fun too. But I would have to say the first time I had Dan Hurley on the show was pretty epic. I was texting and hounding him for weeks to come on the pod, and he never responds. He and I go back to our days at Seton Hall, and I covered him a ton when he was at St. Benedict's and Wagner. But now he's the head coach of UConn, so he rarely responds to my texts. I get it. So two years ago, UConn is in the middle of rebuilding the program and they're getting hot. It was before they hosted Villanova at the Hartford Civic Center in February of 2022. I text Dan and said "If you beat Villanova, would you come on my podcast the next day." He actually texted me back. I was shocked. But he said "If we beat Villanova, I'll come on." This was the game, if you remember, when Hurley gets ejected in the first half. He got one technical and then immediately got a second when he was inciting the crowd. That only fired up the crowd even more. Hurley's gone, and UConn goes on to be beat 'Nova. At the time it was Hurley's biggest win and a signature win for the program. Of course after the game, about an hour or so, I text Hurley to congratulate him and ask him, "What time are you coming on?" He texted me back in the morning and said, "Can you do 10:30?" No way was I going to say no! We had a 25-minute conversation. It was great. I was the first podcaster/reporter to interview him outside of the UConn reporters. I even got him before Jim Rome. I was pretty pumped about that. 

RHI: We all know Rutgers started off the season with a loss to what is now turning out to be an incredible Princeton basketball team, but since then the Scarlet Knights have been able to beat up on some cream puffs, lost two big games to Illinois and Wake Forest, and defeated Seton Hall. They are now 6-3 overall and are 0-1 in the Big Ten. Now, the Scarlet Knights are preparing to head full steam into the Big Ten season, but before they do, they have two home games in December against LIU and Stonehill and a neutral site game against Mississippi State.

Of course, Rutgers needs to beat LIU and Stonehill to avoid landmine losses to those teams, but how important do you think the neutral site game with Mississippi State on December 23rd is going to be for the Scarlet Knights? Do you think this will be the measuring stick for Rutgers since they’ve gotten Mawot Mag back for the season?

BD: I do. A win over Mississippi State would really put Rutgers right back on track for an NCAA bid. I know it's not yet January, but a non-conference record of 9-2 with only a neutral site loss to a very good Princeton team and Wake Forrest on the road isn't bad. Mississippi St would count as a Quad 1 win and a neutral site win. That's huge. It would give them their first Quad 1 victory and first neutral site victory. I expect there to be thousands of Rutgers fans at the Prudential Center, making it feel like a home court advantage. 

RHI: Rutgers was very fortunate to get Mawot Mag back at the right time. Mag went through a heck of a journey while recovering from his ACL injury, and for him to announce he was returning to the hardwood for the game against Seton Hall was huge for this team. What did you see out of Mag in the game against Seton Hall that helped give Rutgers a big boost?

BD: I was really hoping Mag had returned sooner, like the St. Peter's game. But as things turned out, Mag returned at the right time for him and the team. He gave the team an emotional lift that you'll never see in a box score. He played terrific lockdown defense on Kadary Richmond like no one else on the roster could have played. Mag's size and strength neutralized Richmond's size and strength. He was able to body up Richmond and make it difficult for him to drive the lane, back him down and get to the rim. He contested everything. And Richmond didn't score his first points until Mag went to the bench at the 12 minute mark of the first half. In the end, Mag did what he does; he played excellent defense, inspired his teammates and chipped in with a 4 points and 8 rebounds. I don't think Rutgers wins this game against Seton Hall without Mawot Mag. He brought everyone's game up another level.

RHI: Everyone that’s covered or watched Rutgers basketball this season and last season has said Mawot Mag is the most important player to this team. Why do you think he is the linchpin to Rutgers’ success this year?

BD: Mag does things defensively that others can't. He can guard the other team's best player 1 through 5. Caleb MacConnell did the same thing. So when Mag is in there, it takes the pressure off of the other defenders and makes Rutgers a better all-around defensive team. He's also a great athlete. He'll give you 7-9 points and 5-7 rebounds and some steals. His leadership is also critical. He's been through it all, like you mentioned, on and off the court. When the going gets tough, Mag gets going like few others can. Nothing fazes him.

RHI: Rutgers looked like a totally different team on Saturday in their win over Seton Hall. The team looked like the Rutgers teams we’ve seen before under coach Steve Pikiell.

They were tough and physical. They were making shots. They pushed the tempo. They played stingy defense.

It was truly remarkable that we saw a completely different team than the one we saw get blown out at Wake Forest. In your opinion, what sparked this team to change and play better on Saturday against Seton Hall? Do you truly believe it was a Mag that helped invigorate this team? Was it Steve Pikiell’s tinkering of the lineup?

BD: First of all I think Rutgers turnaround began with Steve Pikiell. Few coaches around the country can keep their teams focused better than Pike. There's always some kind of adversity facing Rutgers. Just when you're ready to count this team out, they find the switch and turn things around. His teams are not affected by the outside noise. I don't know what he said following the loss to Wake Forrest, but whatever it was, the team responded. Now, it also helped that Seton Hall was their next opponent and the players were still stinging from the loss last year at Jersey Mike's. They didn't need to be motivated to play Seton Hall. They knew and understood the importance of the game. Having Mag back only increased their focus and energy. Just like the loss of Mag last February seemed to suck the life out of Rutgers, the return of Mag inspired them. If you ask me how in the world did Rutgers hit 12 3's against Seton Hall? Was it Pikiell? Was it Mag? Honestly, it was a combination of everything. They were so locked into this game, that once Hyatt and Griffiths hit 3s in first half, it just seemed to increase everyone's confidence. It was just one of those games where everyone seemed to be hitting shots. That hasn't happened too often in recent years with Rutgers.

RHI: I wrote an article before the season stating the freshmen, Gavin Griffiths and Jamichael Davis, will be key in helping Rutgers succeed this year.

It looks like Griffiths is coming into his shell and is starting to become more confident in his shot and he’s moving better defensively as the season progresses.

Jamichael Davis has been an absolute stud on the court, especially in the game against Seton Hall. Davis has committed few turnovers in the last 3 games and actually scored some big buckets against Seton Hall last Saturday.

What do you think Griffiths and Davis need to continue to do to help Rutgers to have success in the Big Ten?

BD: I loved Griffiths before the season. I predicted on my podcast he would be first team All-Big Ten freshman. Jamichael Davis, I didn't know much about him other than he was fast and had the reputation of being a strong defender. They just need to keep working hard in practice and embrace whatever role Pikiell has for them, whether it's in the starting lineup or coming off the bench. Griffiths will more than likely continue to come off the bench. That's where he's best served with everyone healthy. He needs to continue to come in and knock down shots, extend the defense with his shooting range. That will open things up for Cliff and Woolf inside. He's not a great defender, but Griffiths is getting better and getting stronger. His skill set and IQ is really, really high. Davis has potential to be very, very good as well. He followed up the Seton Hall performance with another excellent floor game in the win over LIU with a career-high 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. But what Steve Pikiell really loves about Davis is his assist to turnover ratio. In his 2 starts vs Seton Hall and LIU, Davis has 9 assists to just 2 turnovers. For the season he has 30 assists to 8 turnovers. That's almost a 4 to 1 ratio, which is outstanding for a point guard.

RHI: Are there any players in particular that have impressed you this year? Are there any players you think Rutgers needs to get more out of on a consistent basis so they can continue to win?

BD: I think Davis has been the most impressive. Aundre Hyatt has probably been Rutgers most consistent player all season. You know you're going to get a guy who can score 11-15 every night. That's important. Oskar Palmquist has come in and done everything Steve Pikiell has asked. He hits the occasional 3 and plays good D. He's a nice piece off the bench. Noah Fernandes has had a couple of big games against St. Peter's and Seton Hall - 19 points in both. But I'd like him to be more a more consistent shooter and scorer. I don't think we've seen the best out of him night in and night out offensively.

RHI: As I stated earlier, Rutgers currently sits at 6-3 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten standings. Rutgers was blown out at home against Illinois and they have two road games at the beginning of January (1/6, at Ohio State; 1/9, at Iowa) when they resume Big Ten play. How confident do you feel Rutgers can win those games to avoid an 0-3 start in Big Ten play? Do you think Rutgers needs to at least split those two road games? Win both?

BD: Winning both is a lot to ask. Ohio State and Iowa are two very difficult places to win. Iowa was not a good matchup for Rutgers last season, either. The Hawkeyes shot them out of the gym both times. I would say this. I'm pretty confident Rutgers can earn a split. Somehow this team will find a way. Now look, it won't be easy. They could easily lose both games and start 0 and 3. Rutgers will be underdogs in both, so it wouldn't be a surprise. But like we said, Mag makes this team better when he's in the lineup. The record with him and without him is night and day. Davis is playing his best ball of his young career. Cliff has put together back to back monster games. It won't be easy to earn a split, but if any team can, Rutgers can. I think that's most likely result on that trip.

RHI: Listen, the Big Ten is down this year. We’ve seen some disappointing results across the Big Ten, including the lack of signature wins, struggles with lesser opponents, and losing out-of-conference games to lesser teams. Penn State found a way to lose to Patriot League bottom feeder Bucknell. Northwestern lost to the only D1 Independent team Chicago State, who never registered a win over a P6 team in the school’s history!

But it’s quite clear, Purdue and Illinois are the conference’s two best teams. But after those two teams, the Big Ten really seems unpredictable and is up for grabs.

So, where do you think Rutgers finishes in the grand scheme of things? Do you think this team has found its identity? Can they finish in the top half of the conference?

BD: I didn't think Rutgers could finish in the top 8 when the season began, but now, why not? It wouldn't surprise me if they finished in the Top 6. It's a combination of Rutgers getting better and the league itself getting worse. Like you said, after Purdue and Illinois, what team out there is great that you would say "Rutgers can't beat?" Right now I would put Wisconsin and Ohio State in the Top 4. I think Michigan State will turn things around, and I'd put them 5th. What a huge win over Baylor on Saturday! They blew them out. So maybe that sparks Sparty. Northwestern would be next in my opinion. Boo Buie is one of the best players in the Big Ten. Maybe they should be higher because they have one of the best wins in college basketball over Purdue, but it's hard for me to believe that Tom Izzo won't get the Spartans cooking soon. Then, what about Indiana? They don't scare Rutgers, and we know the Scarlet Knights' history of success versus the Hoosiers. So I do think after the Top 5 that Rutgers is right there with those teams 6-10. It's going to be razor thin like last year and could come down to tiebreakers. So to answer your question, could they finish in the Top half of the Big Ten? Absolutely, especially if they go 10 and 10 in conference because there will be a handful of teams right around 5 hundred. Everyone is going to beat up on each other this year in conference play. 

RHI: Give me three big keys for what Rutgers needs to do to get themselves into the conversation for the NCAA Tournament.

BD: Number 1 - Finish 9 and 2 in the non-conference and 10 and 10 in the Big Ten. 21 and 12 would be a strong resume and likely "IN" the Tournament. Number 2 - Improve their Quad 1 record. Right now it's 0-2 heading into the Mississippi State game. Win that and theyr'e 1-2. If they go 10 and 10 in the Big Ten, there are enough Quad 1 and Quad 2 opportunities to add to their resume. And Number 3 - They need to just continue to have their young guys like Davis and Griffiths improve. Derek Simpson too, but he's shown last March that he's capable. We don't know about Davis and Griffiths. They're going to need those two to help them in the Big Ten wars. There are 19 grueling games ahead. Those two will have to grow up and become like sophomores because it won't be easy. I would then add a 4th key and that's improve on 3-point shooting. We saw what happens when you hit 3's like they did against Seton Hall. Now listen, I'm not expecting 12 3s every game. That's not realistic. But 7-8 would certainly help.

RHI: Bryan, it was an absolute pleasure to do this Q&A with you. Let’s do this again. As a matter of fact, let’s get you On The Call with me later in the season. Thanks again!

BD: This was terrific Mark. It was a pleasure talking college hoops with you and espcecially Rutgers. You do a terrific job covering the program with your knowledge and interviews. I would love to come back on again. And I would also like to return the favor and have you on the Tri-State College Basketball Podcast. Thanks so much and Happy Holidays to you and your family and followers. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Q&A with NEC Insider Nelson Castillo

After two disappointing performances and back-to-back losses to Illinois and Wake Forest, Rutgers marched into The Rock and knocked off their in-state rival Seton Hall 70-63 in the Garden State Hardwood Classic, earning themselves their first win over the Pirates on their home floor in ten years. The victory for Rutgers serves us as a reminder that this team isn’t quite done yet, and not to give up on these Scarlet Knights.

Mawot Mag’s return provided a big boost in the win over Seton Hall and certainly helped showcase how tough this Rutgers team really is. The Scarlet Knights played with a completely different attitude, fire, and grit with Mag returning to the hardwood. After all, he is the most important player to this team, andhe showed why on Saturday night.

With Mag returning to the lineup and Rutgers playing solid team basketball in the win over Seton Hall, can the Scarlet Knights build some momentum for the rest of December and finish the month at 9-3 before they face Ohio State on January 3rd?

With three games remaining in the December slate, Rutgers will face Long Island University (LIU) next Saturday, December 16th at The RAC before facing Mississippi State in a neutral floor meeting at The Rock on December 23rd. Rutgers will round out the month with a home game against Stonehill on December 30th before the Scarlet Knights dive into their Big Ten schedule.

To help me glean more on Rutgers’ upcoming opponents LIU (12/16) and Stonehill (12/30) as well as to what’s happening around Northeast Conference (NEC) basketball, I reached out to NEC insider and guru Nelson Castillo.

Nelson Castillo is a passionate NEC basketball insider. He became involved in NEC basketball going back to his days as a student at LIU-Brooklyn as he followed the 1996-97 team that won the NEC Championship and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed falling just short to Villanova 101-91 in the First Round.

Since then, he has followed and covered NEC basketball for over 25 years. In 2021, he recently created his own web site called the NEC Hoops Insider, devoted towards the coverage of NEC basketball. Castillo also maintains a presence on Twitter as he posts updates concerning NEC news and NEC basketball games.

Check out all of Nelson Castillo's work on his web site at NEC Hoops Insider ( Please follow Nelson @NelCastNY.

Rutgers Hoops Insider (RHI): Nelson, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this Q&A with me today. I'm really glad to have the opportunity to discuss some Northeast Conference (NEC) basketball with you today. 

You're one of the most passionate NEC hoops guys I've known and you have done a fantastic job covering all news concerning NEC basketball this year, including scheduling updates, conference realignment, transfer portal news, coaching hires, etc. the list could go on.

But, let me first start by asking you, other than the great 1996-97 season LIU-Brooklyn had when you were a student there, what got you into covering NEC hoops for such a long time? And why are you so passionate about NEC hoops?

Nelson Castillo (NC): I was a sophomore at LIU back in 1996-97 and in the summer before that LIU added a controversial freshman in a guard from New York City named Richie Parker who had committed to play for Seton Hall a couple of years prior but was arrested for sexual assault while he was still in high school and Seton Hall walked away. He was getting a second chance at LIU after sitting out a year and I had known about his story and wanted to watch him play. Little did I know then, LIU also added a Rutgers transfer by the name of Charles Jones (who is currently assistant coach at LIU) who would turn out the be the nation’s leading scorer that year and the following year. LIU went to the NCAA tournament that season and I was hooked on LIU basketball pretty much ever since. Although I was a follower of LIU and NEC hoops for a long time, I didn’t start covering LIU until 2012 when I started a blog which was called Blackbirds Hoops Journal. I did that for five seasons until I had my daughter and I decided to stop writing full-time and closed down my blog. A couple of years ago, I launched a new blog site named NEC Hoops Insider more geared to the entire NEC which I write on a part-time basis. I do most of my coverage through the app formerly known as Twitter, now known as X. The NEC is a fun league to watch. It is more of a guard-oriented league since true bigs are few and far between but it features different styles of play, unique coaches and players, small gyms, and usually a lot of competitive basketball especially during conference play.

RHI: You were a student at LIU, and you're no doubt a really big fan of the basketball team, but do you root for all the NEC teams during the basketball season?

NC: Obviously as a LIU alum, my main rooting interest is LIU basketball but having followed the NEC for over 25 years, I like rooting for NEC teams to do well, especially during non-conference play. I like seeing NEC teams do well against other conferences. It is not at all easy. NEC schools have to play a bunch of road games during non-conference and a ton of buy games to bring in money for their athletic departments. When you see an NEC team finish at or above .500 after non-conference play, you know they are going to be in it to the end.

RHI: For those that don't know, the campuses of LIU-Brooklyn and LIU-Post recently merged together to form one LIU. LIU-Post used to compete as a Division II program but with the merger, athletics was dropped from Post and athletics continued at the campus in Brooklyn; however, the name Blackbirds was dropped and instead they were given the nickname Sharks. Do you like the new nickname or do you wish they kept Blackbirds? Why did they decide to do this?

NC: Back in 2018, the LIU administration decided as a cost-saving measure to merge the DII LIU Post Athletics with DI LIU Brooklyn Athletics. I also believe it was a strategic move. LIU Post sponsored football which LIU Brooklyn did not. By merging athletic departments, football was elevated to DI which helped add another football school to the NEC which is DI FCS. LIU also had plans to add DI women’s and men’s ice hockey out by LIU Post on Long Island. By merging athletics, all these programs would immediately become DI and avoid any sort of transitional period from DII to DI. The new Sharks mascot was picked out of three options by the LIU community. As a Brooklyn alum, the old Blackbirds name was near and dear to many and had been synonymous the LIU Brooklyn athletics since the 1930s. I didn’t like when they decided to make the change but I understood that they did not want to slight LIU Post athletics which was also losing their mascot which was Pioneers. After a few years, I’ve gotten used to the new Sharks mascot. I still would rather have the old Blackbirds mascot if I’m being honest.

RHI: Have you had the opportunity to travel and watch some of the other basketball programs in the NEC? Name the best arena/gym in the NEC. Best atmosphere in the NEC.

NC: I used to travel all the time for games but not as much recently since I’ve moved away from where most of these schools are based. I have not been to every NEC gym but I have been to a lot of them. The NEC has gone through a bunch of changes with teams coming and going the last few years so I have been out to any of the newer schools such as Le Moyne who entered the NEC this season from DII or Merrimack who entered DI a few years ago. Obviously, as a low mid-major conference, the gyms/arenas are pretty small especially when you compare them to any power conference school. Of the current NEC teams, I believe Wagner out on Staten Island has one of the best atmospheres. Their gym is compact but it holds sound well so it gets really loud during big games.

RHI: Last year, the entire college basketball universe quickly became familiar with Farleigh Dickinson (FDU) after they pulled off the most stunning upset in college basketball history, defeating 1-seed Purdue 63-58 in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. 

FDU entered that contest vastly undersized, an overall record of 19-15 with zero signature wins, and lost the NEC Championship to Merrimack but by virtue FDU made the NCAA Tournament because Merrimack was still in the NCAA Division I transition phase, thus not allowing them to compete in the NCAA Tournament. 

So, did you even remotely think FDU had a chance of winning that game last year? Just how big was that win for the conference?

NC: Honestly, no. FDU was a huge underdog and didn’t have anyone taller than 6’7” on their roster and they had to go out against 7’4” Zach Edey. Plus FDU they were fortunate just to be in the NCAA Tournament. Every year, the hope for the NEC team involved is to make it a game for as long as possible since for the past decade they had to play in the First Four in Dayton and if they survived, had to play a one-seed team. As I watched that game though, you can see FDU was the most confident team and they kept making play after play. It was stunning to watch. It was easily the biggest win in NEC history by a mile. It was the first non-First Four NCAA Tournament win in NEC history and being just the second 16-seed to beat a 1-seed made it even more special.

RHI: For years, the NEC has been looked upon by the high-majors as a conference filled with "punching bags" and in the world of NIL usually the high-majors win out in the recruiting/transfer portal battles because they have more money and resources, so what does the NEC have to do to keep its teams competitive in college basketball?

NC: The college basketball world was already tough for the little guys and now with NIL, it most likely only going to widen the gap. A lot of smaller schools are trying their best in this new NIL world by starting up collectives and looking at different ways to stay competitive in this ever- changing landscape. Unfortunately, schools in power conferences are always to have the financial backing of huge TV contracts, huge alumni bases with boosters who have deep pockets, and autonomy from the NCAA which helps gear everything towards them. It is tough being the small guys and it is likely going to get tougher unless some federal guidelines for NIL are established.

RHI: Recently, I heard the news Sacred Heart and Merrimack announced their departures from the NEC and they will join the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) for 2024-25 season. Were you disappointed when you heard this announcement?

In order for the NEC to continue to receive an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, the conference had to go out and find a replacement to keep the NEC at the required league minimum. The NEC decided to add Chicago State to the conference. What were your initial thoughts of the NEC's decision to add Chicago State to the conference? Are there any other schools that have expressed interest in joining the NEC, perhaps a Division II program looking to make the jump to Division I?

NC: The NEC has had a lot of movement over the last few years. Since the end of the 2019-20 season, the NEC has had four schools leave or plan to leave, three new schools added or will be added and one school terminated its entire athletic program. Merrimack and Sacred Heart are the newest schools leaving joining previous member Mount St. Mary’s in the MAAC. It is always disappointing to lose schools you’ve become familiar with. I was surprised to hear Merrimack was leaving after coming up from DII and just becoming fully eligible this season. The NEC gave them an opportunity in DI and they immediately bailed at the first chance. It is not very good optics for them in my opinion. It is sad to see Sacred Heart as they have been in the NEC for a while now and I’ve enjoyed covering them and visiting their campus. At the end of the day, every school is going to do what they feel is best for them. Their departures put the NEC in a bind with their automatic bid since it would leave them with only six full DI members as Stonehill and Le Moyne won’t be full DI members until they complete their transitional periods coming from DII and the NCAA requires a conference to have at least seven full D1 members for basketball. Chicago State as the lone DI independent school, it made them attractive to the NEC and it made sense for the NEC to invite them to join next season. Chicago State is not the ideal choice as they are in the midwest and in a bus league like the NEC, a flight to/from Chicago will now be required to play them and vice versa, it was a move the NEC had to make to keep their automatic qualifier. I’m fine with it. The next step for the NEC is likely looking back into DII schools in the Northeast and seeing if there is any interest out there. One DII school that has been long rumored is the University of New Have in Connecticut. There might be one or twoothers on their radar as well.

RHI: This is a new season in the NEC with some new faces, including coaches, players, and teams. When the NEC preseason polls were released in late October, Sacred Heart was projected to finished first followed by Central Connecticut and Farleigh Dickson. The two teams Rutgers will face from the NEC this year were projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference with Stonehill projected 6th and LIU projected 7th. Do you think the preseason polls appear to be accurate? Has there been any one team from the NEC that has surprised you the most so far this season? Any team from the NEC that has disappointed you? Or about as expected?

NC: My preseason projections were slightly different for what the NEC coaches poll put out. I agreed with the coaches having Sacred Heart at the top, although I picked FDU second and Central Connecticut third. I agreed with them picking LIU sixth and Stonehill seventh. Both teams are going through rebuilds this season so it made sense to have them near the bottom. For the most part, there wasn’t a huge difference from my projection to what the coaches put out in their preseason poll. The one NEC team that has surprised me so far is Merrimack. They lost three key starters from last season including the co-player of the year but they look like they are once again going to be pretty good this season. Also, pleasantly surprised by Le Moyne as they already got their first DI win and nearly had a second. Right now, Sacred Heart has been disappointing. They have been fighting through some nagging injuries but they added more depth to help overcome that but they haven’t been able to get this going yet. I still think they will be there at the end. I would also put FDU as a bit disappointing.

RHI: In head coach Rod Strickland's first year at the helm for LIU, the Sharks had an utter disaster of a season as they finished 3-26 overall and 1-15 in the NEC. The year prior to Strickland taking over the program, Derek Kellogg guided LIU to a record of 16-14 overall and 12-6 in the NEC. So why such a big drop off in Strickland's first year?

NC: LIU decided in late June 2022 to make a coaching change from Kellogg to Strickland although Kellogg had his best season since year one in which he took LIU to the NCAA Tournament. Once Strickland arrived, several key guys hit the transfer portal including three starters. Strickland was not left with many options with very little left in terms of quality in the transfer portal. Most of the guys he ended up getting were not very good. At least three players left the team during the season. He had to play walk-ons for meaningful minutes in games. They had a ton of injuries as well. But overall, it was a bad team hence they were the worst team in the NET and KenPom last season. Strickland rebuilt the entire roster this season. He kept just four players from last season and added three transfers (two of which are his sons Tai and Terell) and six freshmen.

RHI: Now Strickland is in his second year with LIU, and already the Sharks are off to a 1-7 start. LIU has played some stiff competition but were non-competitive in losses to Air Force, UCLA, and Miami. LIU did show some fight in close losses to Northern Kentucky and Columbia and tallied their first win of the year against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi back in late November. 

From what you've witnessed so far this season, what does LIU do really well that impresses you? And what do they do that makes you scratch your head? And what do they need to improve on to have success this year?

NC: From an outside view, you see the 1-7 record and some of the final scores and say they are a terrible team. But if you compare this team to last season’s, you can tell right away this team has more talent on it than it did a year ago. The most recent loss to Miami was the one game they were non-competitive in from the tip. They had their moments in pretty much every game except for the Miami game this season. They were in it versus NKU and Columbia until late. One thing I do like is that this LIU team is better defensive than LIU teams in the past. Now, it is still not anything to write home about but it is improved. They had their struggles offensively and have gone through stretches where they’ve gone cold from the field. The competition they’ve played likely had something to do with that but it has been an issue. As has turnovers, they have turned the ball over a lot this season. LIU likes to play fast, probably to their detriment at this stage of their rebuilding process and will commit a lot of silly turnovers. Hopefully, as the season goes along and the level of competition eases up, these issues improve.

RHI: What does success look like in year two of the Rod Strickland era?

NC: After winning one game versus a DI team last year and a roster overhaul this summer, the bar is set pretty low. With a DI win already under their belt, they are already doing better than last season. They didn’t do themselves a ton of favors with their non-conference scheduling this season with a younger team, scheduling only two non-conference home games in between ten away games. It is tough to build confidence playing tough teams on the road. Before the season, I said ten wins overall would be a very successful season. I don’t think they are going to get there. If they can get at least five to six conference wins while developing a lot of these freshmen and sophomores, that would be a success and help get things back on track going into next season.

RHI: Who are the players from LIU to keep an eye on if you're Rutgers? What do they do really well?

NC: Two players for Rutgers to keep an eye on are Tai Strickland and Eric Acker. Tai Strickland is a grad transfer who is playing for his dad in his last season of eligibility. Tai is easily the oldest player on a team that features only four upperclassmen. He is more of a penetrating guard than a shooting guard but he will take open looks. Acker is a freshman who is LIU’s leading scorer. He has been very impressive at times with his shooting ability and his craftiness. But he tends to turn the ball over a lot especially when he is tasked to play point guard. He is still getting used to the speed and agility of the game at this level. Also, look out for sophomore RJ Greene, who has had some of his better games against higher competition.

RHI: Where is LIU most vulnerable?

NC: Right now, this team doesn’t have a ton of size. Outside of 7’ Nikola Djapa and 6’9’’ Gezim Bajrami, they don’t have any other player taller than 6’8” which hurts them on the boards. They’ve only won the rebounding battle twice in eight games this season. Also, as I mentioned before are turnovers. They have won the turnover battle only twice this season.

RHI: Rutgers has had a history of playing down to its competition, and playing in tight games against lesser opponents. I mean, take the loss to Lafayette in late November 2021 as an example. Rutgers let Lafayette hang around for most of the game and the Leopards delivered a huge blow to the Scarlet Knights with a buzzer beating three-point shot to pull off the upset. Do you see Rutgers-LIU being a close game or do you think the Scarlet Knights will blow the doors off the Sharks next Saturday?

NC: In light of Rutgers coming off their recent win at Seton Hall and the return of Magot Mag and LIU having lost by at least 20 to two power conference teams on the road they have played already this season in UCLA and Miami, I have to think Rutgers’ size and overall athleticism will take over at some point and be at least 20-point win for the Rutgers. LIU right now is not built for a major upset.

RHI: If LIU wants to dream of an upset against Rutgers, what do they have to do to pull it off?

NC: If they have any chance of winning, they need to hang with Rutgers on the boards, make at least 40% of their threes, limit their turnovers to single digits, limit Rutgers second chance points, and points off of turnovers. Also, get to the free throw line 25 to 30 times, and make at least 85% of their free throws. They need to do all that and hope Rutgers is having an off-shooting night.

RHI: Last year, Stonehill played its first year at the Division I level and the Skyhawks had some decent success. Despite being their first year in the NEC, head coach Chris Kraus guided the Skyhawks to a 3rd place finish in the conference with a 10-6 record, which is quite impressive considering they were projected to finish last in the NEC in the preseason polls. 

This year expectations are a little higher for Stonehill as they were projected to finish 6th in the NEC, according to the preseason polls. But they are off to a rough start. The Skyhawks are now 1-10 overall on the season and face four more out-of-conference opponents before they jump into the NEC regular season. Stonehill hasn't looked particularly good, especially in blowout losses to Connecticut, St. Joseph's, and George Washington, and to Division I newcomer Texas A&M Commerce. Stonehill registered its only win of the season against Army back in early November.

Now that you've seen Stonehill play 11 games, how do you think the Skyhawks will fare in the NEC this season?

NC: Year two in Division I is not off to a flying start for the Skyhawks (no pun intended). It was going to be difficult for Stonehill to have the same type of success they had in year one with the amount of experience and cohesion they lost to graduation. Adding to the challenge has been that Stonehill has had to deal with the injury bug during the non-conference portion. I had them projected to finish sixth in my preseason projections. I might have been a little too optimist about them but their head coach Chris Kraus wasn’t named NEC Coach of the Year last season for nothing. I think they’ll land around a 6th or a 7th place finish.

RHI: As Chris Kraus enters his 11th season at the helm and continues to guide Stonehill through the transitionary period, do you think administration will dial up the heat under his seat if they have a dreadful year in the NEC?

NC: No, not at all. If that were the case, that would be a problem. I have to assume administrations understand how challenging it is for programs going through these NCAA- mandated four-year transitional periods. He is coming off a 14-win season in which they finished with ten conference wins and finished tied for second place. This team is on the rebuild now, it is going to take time. I don’t think Kraus has anything to worry about for the next few seasons.

RHI: Why is Stonehill struggling so much this season? Is it the offensive/defensive woes? Do they lack the talent?

NC: Last season’s team was older and had played together for several seasons at the DII level and came into year one at the DI level ready to play. Most of that group is gone this season and they’ve had to transition to a roster whose overall level of experience is not at the level of the team they had last season. They have one returning starter back in fifth-year grad student Max Zagarowski who is still currently starting for them. The majority are guys either new to the program or new to the role they are now having to play. Plus, they have struggled defensively so far this season. They are near the bottom in terms of defensive efficiency. They’re just having a tough time stopping anyone on the defensive end.

RHI: Are there any particular players that standout on this Stonehill roster that have impressed you this year despite this team's struggles?

NC: The player I believe every coach has at the top of their scouting report on Stonehill is Max Zagarowski. He is their top returning player. He had a great year for Stonehill in his first year with them. He shot 41 percent from three last season and 87 percent from the foul line. He was the perfect complement to Andrew Sims who they had last season playing mostly on the interior. He is now the guy this season. His shooting is off a bit from last season so far but he is overall play is close to what he did last season. VMI transfer Tony Felder who is the team’s new starting point guard this season has eased himself nicely to his new team.

RHI: What does Stonehill have to do to keep the game close or possibly win against Rutgers when these two collide in late December?

NC: Similar to LIU, Stonehill would need a lot to go right for them to pull off an upset at Rutgers. They would need a tremendous shooting night from Zagarowski and others. They would need an off-night by the Scarlet Knights which would allow them to hang around. Ultimately, Rutgers has too much size and athleticism for a team like Stonehill at their current stage to put up much of a challenge as long as Rutgers comes in not taking them lightly.

RHI: Nelson, once again, thanks for taking time out of your day to do this. It was a pleasure doing this Q&A with you today.

NC: Thank you so much. I appreciate the chance to give Rutgers fans a small glimpse into the Northeast Conference and a couple of their teams. Good luck to Rutgers for the remainder of the season.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

NET Rankings of Rutgers' Opponents (thru games played 12/8)

photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

NET Rankings of Rutgers' Opponents (thru games played Dec 8th)

Here are the NET Rankings of Rutgers' opponents for games played through December 8th. There are plenty of opportunities for Rutgers to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume but the Scarlet Knights need to turn around their season quickly as they have suffered two back-to-back blowout losses. 

Rutgers currently sits at 96 in the NET Rankings and they are 5-3 overall without a signature win on the season. It's still very early into the season; however, Rutgers is in a must-win situation headed into the weekend to save their out-of-conference schedule when they tip-off against Seton Hall in their annual rivalry, the Garden State Hardwood Classic, on December 9th at 8:30 PM (FS1). 

Rutgers will have a Quadrant (Q1) opportunity on December 23rd when the Scarlet Knights tip-off against Mississippi State in a neutral site game at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.

Currently, Rutgers has ten remaining Q1 games on their schedule with three at home, one at a neutral site, and six on the road. Also, Rutgers has six remaining Q2 games on their schedule with two at home and four on the road.

For a complete listing of the NET Rankings please click here.

Rutgers' Record in Each Quadrant
  • Quadrant 1: 0-2
  • Quadrant 2: 0-1
  • Quadrant 3: 0-0
  • Quadrant 4: 5-0
NET Rankings of Rutgers' Opponents
Nov. 6, vs Princeton*, L (10, Q1)
Nov. 10, Boston U.*, W (254, Q4)
Nov. 12, Bryant*, W (174, Q4)
Nov. 15, Georgetown*, W (222, Q4)
Nov. 18, Howard*, W (204, Q4)
Nov. 27, Saint Peter's*, W (163, Q4)
Dec. 2, Illinois, L (22, Q1)
Dec. 6, at Wake Forest*, L (105, Q2)
Dec. 9, at Seton Hall* (82, Q2)
Dec. 16, Long Island* (335, Q4)
Dec. 23, vs Mississippi State* (40, Q1)
Dec. 30, Stonehill* (358, Q4)
Jan. 3, at Ohio State (25, Q1)
Jan. 6, at Iowa (41, Q1)
Jan. 9, Indiana (103, Q3)
Jan. 14, at Michigan State (85, Q2)
Jan. 17, Nebraska (75, Q2)
Jan. 21, at Illinois (22, Q1)
Jan. 28, Purdue (4, Q1)
Jan. 31, Penn State (171, Q4)
Feb. 3, at Michigan (94, Q2)
Feb. 6, at Maryland (184, Q3)
Feb. 10, Wisconsin (21, Q1)
Feb. 15, Northwestern (57, Q2)
Feb. 18, at Minnesota (127, Q2)
Feb. 22, at Purdue (4, Q1)
Feb. 25, Maryland (184, Q4)
Feb. 29, Michigan (94, Q3)
Mar. 3, at Nebraska (75, Q1)
Mar. 7, at Wisconsin (21, Q1)
Mar. 10, Ohio State (25, Q1)
Q1 home games are highlighted in yellow
Q1 road games are highlighted in green
Q1 neutral site games are highlighted in blue
* non-conference game

Monday, December 4, 2023

Weekly Big Ten Power Rankings Challenge (thru games played 12/3)

The teams at Rutgers Hoops Insider and Gopher Crew continue their season-long Weekly Big Ten Power Rankings Challenge. Currently, Gopher Crew (@GopherCrew) leads the challenge, 2-1.

Each week on every Monday, Rutgers Hoops Insider will post the rankings to the Rutgers Hoops Insider Twitter account. Please vote for which power rankings you prefer.

This is the third set of published power rankings by the Rutgers Hoops Insider and Gopher Crew.