PISCATAWAY – Rutgers was the only high-major basketball program to offer Mawot Mag a scholarship.
He hasn’t forgotten.
The 6-foot-7 forward flashed potential as a sophomore last season, and when the transfer portal started buzzing, he tuned it out.
“This is a great fit for me,” Mag said. “It’s easy to go into the portal and run away from challenges. Coach (Steve) Pikiell really wanted me from the beginning, when I was in high school, and nobody else wanted me like that. So I want to see that through.”
Now the junior appears to be on the verge of a breakout season. During Friday’s media day practice, he attacked the rim, dished out several assists and connected on mid-range shots with impressive fluidity.
“His mid-range game is legit,” senior guard Paul Mulcahy said.
Mag already was known as a versatile defender, and he’s finally healthy after a spate of injuries and facial surgeries (he underwent eye surgery last month and endured his most recent dental implant over the summer).
“I’m feeling good, knock on wood,” he said.
‘It doesn’t feel right to me’
Dean Reiber’s only other high-major scholarship offered came from Penn State. His composite recruiting ranking in the Class of 2020 was 398.
Now the 6-foot-10 forward is the Scarlet Knights’ leading candidate to start at power forward. As a freshman last year, he opened more than a few eyes with an ability to hit from 3-point range and some real bounce in his step.
“Athletically, he is the one guy in the gym who can outjump me,” said Rutgers center Cliff Omoruyi, a preseason All-Big Ten selection known for his superior athleticism. “Sometimes when he gets the ball I move out of the way because I don’t want to get dunked on.”
Last spring, when the transfer portal came calling, Reiber’s phone was off.
“Leaving everything you know and restarting fresh, it doesn’t feel right to me, unless the situation you’re in is bad,” he said.
Pikiell’s way works
Much has been said about how the end of the transfer sit-out, coupled with the inducement of collegians being able to earn money from use of their name, image and likeness (NIL), is creating a wild west of free agency in college basketball – and how Rutgers is disadvantaged compared to its peers who are handing out gobs of money through flush alumni collectives.
Pikiell has been sure to remind everyone that Rutgers is one of just a handful of programs that didn’t lose a player to the portal last spring — and it wasn’t due to lack of interest.
“I was just happy guys all feel valued and have stayed,” he said Friday, during the team’s media day. “That’s going to be a hard thing moving forward. That’s just not the way it is anymore, but I’d like to keep it that way here at Rutgers.”
Pikiell’s methods are old-school, but he’s convinced that they still have a place in the current landscape.
“I still try to recruit great kids from great families,” he said. “I’ve said this to NBA people: Ron Harper – one high school, one AAU program, one college. Paul Mulcahy, too. These guys have stayed. Past is an indication of the future. I also think it’s an indication about how we treat our guys, how we’re up front with people from the beginning.”
Pikiell doesn’t promise starting spots or a specific number of shots to recruits. He does promise to reward hard work. After last season, to the surprise of some observers, he only reached into the portal for one player – sharpshooting guard Cam Spencer. He did not attempt to recruit over Mag and Reiber. He bet on their continued development, and they are intent on seeing it pay off.
And although he won’t say it out loud, you can be sure his current players are aware that the three guys who transferred out in the spring of 2021 didn’t exactly springboard into the NBA, whereas Harper signed a two-way contract with the Toronto Raptors.
“There’s a lot of opportunities now and there’s always someone in their ear telling them the grass is greener,” Pikiell said. “The grass is just different every place. It’s not always greener.”
For this year, at least, the message sunk in.
“That is the definition of culture,” Mulcahy said. “The reason I came here is because of the people. The reason I’m still here is because of the people.”
Spencer was on fire Friday, swishing just about everything in sight. He’s mostly doing damage off the ball, but his release is quick enough that he shouldn’t need a whole lot of room this winter to make defenses pay. He also closed practice by making 15 of 16 free-throw attempts, sticking around after everyone else had left.
2. Good ball movement
The Scarlet Knights passed the ball at a high level, especially the interior passing. During 5-on-5, most of the possessions featured three or more players touching the rock, and guys often passed up a good look for a teammate’s better one.
“We’re more of a passing team this season,” Reiber said. “Our passing has gotten a lot better.”
3. Injury report
Postgrad guard Caleb McConnell (knee) and freshman forward Antonio Chol (ankle) sat out with what Pikiell called “tweaks.” Chol said he’ll be back in a day or two. McConnell did not attend media day because he was getting examined, but indications are the injury is not serious.
Friday’s workout lasted just 90 minutes because the team is going hard on Saturday, scrimmaging intrasquad with Big Ten officials on the whistle.
4. Rotate coming into focus
This was Reiber’s first practice in a few weeks. He’s recovered from a bone bruise in his foot, and Pikiell immediately moved him with the first unit alongside Omoruyi. Mag filled in for McConnell, with Mulcahy and Spencer in the backcourt. These are the top six guys in the rotation.
5. Funny stories
Chol, who has turned some heads with his skill level, experienced a bit of a rude awakening with college-level strength and conditioning.
“The fist day Antonio Chol lifted weights with (strength coach) Dave VanDyke, the next day he couldn’t lift his arms,” Pikiell said.
Chol confirms this.
“I never really had lifted weights like that,” he said. “I was sore. It’s true – I could barely lift my hands. Pretty rough the first couple of weeks, but I’ve adjusted at this point.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.