PISCATAWAY – In the Rutgers basketball team’s annual intra-squad softball game a few weeks back, veteran guards Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy served as captains and chose the sides.
With the first pick, McConnell selected Cam Spencer.
The transfer from Loyola-Maryland did not disappoint. He belted an inside-the-park home run, finishing it off with a head-first slide into home.
That’s right: With nothing at stake but pride, Spencer dove for the plate like Pete Rose. And he scored with room to spare.
“He has that competitive mindset and that’s the thing that puts him over the top,” McConnell said. “People talk about his shooting, but his competitive mindset is the best thing he has. It pushes him, and it pushes other people to compete better. It just raises the bar.”
That mindset was on display during Friday’s practice. In a five-on-five drill, when Spencer drove the lane and delivered a behind-the-back pass that missed the mark, he cursed himself almost loud enough to be heard in Dunellen. Later, when he drilled a corner 3-pointer, he not only sought out and fist-bumped the teammate who got him the ball (Mawot Mag), but the other three guys on his side as well. At the practice’s end, as he walked off the court, Spencer grabbed a ball off the rack and -- half-facing the water cooler in the corner, his feet not even remotely set -- swished a 3-pointer.
He had to leave on a good note.
“I hold myself to high standards,” he said. “And when I don’t meet those standards, I get mad at myself.”
Spencer is not the Scarlet Knights’ top player (that would be center Cliff Omoruryi) and he’s not their top guard (he projects to start alongside the proven McConnell and Mulcahy) but his 3-point marksmanship could determine if Rutgers’ offense hums or stalls this winter.
“He’s that piece we’ve been missing the last four years – a knock-down shooter,” McConnell said. “He’s definitely plugged that hole for us.”
Over three seasons at Loyola the 6-foot-4 Spencer shot a rock-solid 38.8 percent from deep. The key is: Can he get his shot off with bigger, faster players closing out?
“I’ve worked hard all summer and fall trying to get a little bit of a quicker release,” he said. “But it’s mostly the same thing for me as far as trying to play at my own pace. The length is a little different, so you have to speed up in certain areas.”
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said Spencer has made 66 percent of his live-action threes in practice this preseason. On Friday, Pikiell paired him with freshman guard Derek Simpson during five-on-five.
“I wanted to see those two guys playing together,” Pikiell said.
That’s partly because Simpson, a promising Lenape High School grad, looks to be emerging as Mulcahy’s backup at the point. It also helps Spencer, with the likes of the 6-foot-11 Omoruyi closing out, to practice finding his shot without the crafty Mulcahy setting him up in the open. Off the ball, Spencer cut and spaced like a savvy guard should.
“He knows how to play,” Pikiell said.
It’s not just hoops. During the team’s recent golf outing, Spencer (an estimated six- or seven-handicap) bested everyone, including assistant coach Karl Hobbs (no small feat, apparently). As for softball? Spencer reached base every at-bat, but only hit one round-tripper.
“I didn’t do as well as I would have liked,” he said. “I’m going to practice before next year’s game.”
1. Antonio Chol, wow
Aside from the ever-dominant Omoruyi, the best player on the court Friday was the last addition to this season’s roster.
Antonio Chol, a 6-foot-8 forward who committed in late July, was draining threes, finishing in the lane and crashing the boards. Pikiell said this was not an anomaly; Chol has surprised the heck out of everyone since arriving in late August.
A three-star prospect who grew up in Buffalo, Chol originally committed to Loyola-Marymount. St. Bonaventure, Akron, New Mexico and Buffalo were his other scholarship offers. Rutgers assistant T.J. Thompson pursued him, and now it’s clear: Chol is looking like a regular rotation piece instead of a 12th-man insurance policy for the frontcourt.
2. Mulcahy taking charge
After Pikiell and assistant coach Brandin Knight, Mulcahy’s voice was the most-heard on the practice floor Friday. And he wasn’t whispering. Although he did pull a few younger players aside for friendly instruction, the Bayonne native exhorted the team at high volume several times.
Once, when he perceived guys were not pushing hard enough in wind sprints (Mulcahy led almost all of them wire to wire), he let loose with a, shall we say, firm and colorful directive to up the effort level.
Mulcahy also made himself heard during a two-on-two box-out drill. To reinforce the point, he slapped one rebound out of Omoruyi’s hands, then outran Omoruyi and another player for the loose ball. As the ball skidded off the court, Mulcahy dove across the floor to corral it and nearly slid into the side-court wall.
Mulcahy’s always been intense, but he was not this level of vocal here in the past, when he deferred to older guys like Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. This is new.
3. Injury update
Two players shot around Friday, but did not participate in the practice. Sophomore guard Jalen Miller recently had his left knee scoped for what Pikiell termed “some loose stuff” and wore a light brace. Although Pikiell didn’t give a timetable for his return, it doesn’t seem like a long-term issue. And sophomore forward Dean Reiber is making his way back from a bruised bone in his foot; he’s expected to return to action next week or shortly thereafter.
4. Mag continues to impress
Four of the starting spots appear to be set: Mulcahy, McConnell and Spencer in the backcourt and Omoruyi in the middle. Mag, a 6-foot-7 junior, is making a strong push to join them.
Hampered by injuries over his first two seasons, Mag is hitting stride as a versatile defender, dogged rebounder and unselfish offensive presence who can pass and finish but won’t force shots. He looked good Friday, as he did when media attended a workout in August.
5. Hard week
Pikiell pushed the team hard this week. In particular, he had them running a ton — lots of wind sprints and fast-break drills. The players also added some extra mileage by missing make-or-run free throws; aside from the three main guards, they were spotty in the foul-shooting department Friday.
At one point, Pikiell got on McConnell to crank it up a gear (a rarity). In the final, practice-closing wind sprint, with everyone clearly gassed, McConnell blew out the field.
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.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers basketball practice: Cam Spencer, Antonio Chol, Mawot Mag