PISCATAWAY – A huge cheer arose from the 5,000 denizens of Jersey Mike’s Arena five minutes into Saturday’s game, when Caleb McConnell rose from the bench and checked in at the scorer’s table.
Those cheers turned into a roar moments later, when the substitution was introduced over the public address system.
That roar became an eruption a minute later, when McConnell converted his first touch into a bucket – an eight-foot running floater from the baseline.
Yes, Rutgers basketball fans fully grasped the importance of seeing No. 22 on the court for the first time this season. The fifth-year senior guard, who earns his bachelor’s degree in a couple of weeks, finally got cleared after suffering a left knee injury in early October. Wearing a heavy brace on his leg, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year came off the bench and logged 25 minutes during the Scarlet Knights’ 83-49 victory over Central Connecticut State. He tallied 4 points on 2-of-5 shooting and added four rebounds, three assists and a block.
“Man, it felt good," McConnell said. "It felt good to be back out there with my teammates, my brothers, and hear the crowd cheering.”
In fact, it was a voice from the crowd that helped him shake off some rust.
“I was just focused on making it down the floor and making the right plays," he explained. "I made a pass to Cliff (Omoruyi) and he didn’t see it coming; I was forcing things, and then I hear someone say, ‘Caleb, just let it come to you!’ After that I kind of relaxed. I was like, ‘You know, he’s right.’ I heard it from the crowd. I was like, let’s just relax and let it come to me.”
McConnell’s return comes at a crucial juncture for Rutgers (5-1), which enters the schedule’s biggest gauntlet: at Miami Wednesday, followed by Big Ten favorite Indiana at home, at Ohio State, and then home games against rival Seton Hall and Wake Forest.
“You saw the energy he brings," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "He’s got to get his timing back, but he causes major disruptions. I love the fact that I can play him at almost any position while our younger guys are figuring out one position. It’s great to have him – it gives me a lift.”
McConnell is one of three foundational veterans in the program, along with Omoruyi and senior point guard Paul Mulcahy. Mulcahy remains sidelined indefinitely by left shoulder injury; Pikiell said he's been cleared to practice but not for contact.
So how did McConnell look? As expected, rusty. His movement looked fine, although he seemed a gear short of his typical explosion. He adjusted the brace a few times, short-ironed a couple of shots, but did a lot of the dirty-work as usual – deflecting balls, altering shots, setting screens, making the extra pass.
“I wouldn’t say 100 percent, but definitely healthy," McConnell said. "I’ve been out these last six weeks and had just three or four practices. Game speed is different than practice; you can’t simulate any type of game speed."
Of the brace, he said, "It doesn’t hinder my game. It will eventually come off. Right now it’s there for some stability.”
Of course, he hustled. In a vintage sequence, he tracked down a loose ball under Central Connecticut’s hoop and fed an Omoruyi dunk with a behind-the-back pass.
“It’s a real morale booster to see Caleb on the floor," sophomore guard Jalen Miller said.
You can’t replace 114 games of college experience and the intangibles he brings in terms of leadership and basketball IQ. Everyone who follows Rutgers basketball knows that, and you could feel the appreciation in the stands Saturday.
"I love the fans, such a great atmosphere, a family feel, and I need that," McConnell said. "It was a tough six weeks for me. I appreciate the fans being patient with me and cheering me on and having my back.”
1. Took care of business
There’s not much to be drawn from beating up on an opponent ranked No. 339 in Kenpom, but the Scarlet Knights did make it through an injury-riddled November without taking a Lafayette-type loss. Don’t be surprised of the Blue Devils (0-7) remain on Rutgers’ schedule going forward. Head coach Patrick Sellers and Steve Pikiell were assistants together at Central Connecticut State for two years around the millennium. Pikiell actually got Sellers his first college coaching job.
So how good is Rutgers after six games?
“From top to bottom I think we’re good," McConnell said when asked to compare it to last year's NCAA qualifier. "And since we have such a different dynamic (in terms of personnel fit), I think this is actually a better team.”
2. Freshmen coming along
Freshmen Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk, who will be needed in Big Ten competition, have gotten valuable time and shown growth this month. Simpson, a point guard out of Lenape High School, finished with 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting Saturday and brought the crowd to its feet with a thunderous breakaway dunk. Woolfolk, the backup center, tallied 9 points on 4-of-4 shooting and added four boards and two steals. He also drew a charge and dished out a point guard-quality assist.
"We've been trying to let these guys know we need more from them with me and Paul out, and they’ve been bringing it," McConnell said.
3. Spencer on a roll
Cam Spencer (18 points on 6-8 shooting, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals) looks fully in the flow of Rutgers’ schemes. The senior guard has dominated low-major foes just like he did at Loyola-Maryland. Through six games he's been Rutgers' best all-around player this season. It will be fascinating to see how his hot hand translates to the upcoming spike in competition.
“He’s been as good a player as there has been in the conference," Pikiell said.
4. Career high for Miller
Sophomore guard Jalen Miller has been a defensive specialist to this point, but he broke out on the offensive end Saturday, scoring a career-high six points on 2-3 shooting to go with three rebounds. Rutgers doesn’t need him to produce a ton of points at the Big Ten level, but it’s important that he keeps defenses honest with the threat of scoring.
“It’s about me finding the right time and my spots in the game,” Miller said. “My teammates really helped me find my spots by sharing the game.”
Added Pikiell: “Real pleased with what he gave us – he’s been playing well for us in the absence of Paul and Caleb.”
5. Big test up next
Rutgers’ biggest test of the season is set for Wednesday with a trip to Miami as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The Hurricanes, who made the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight last season, are 5-1 thus far with a Kenpom ranking of 50 (Rutgers’ is 34). Led by a dynamic backcourt, Miami owns a 10-point win over Providence and suffered an 18-point loss to Maryland. Tip time is 7:15 p.m.
McConnell pronounced himself ready.
“I’m looking forward to these next couple of games because I know the competition is going to get better," he said. "And as a competitor, I’ve got to rise to the occasion.”
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: Caleb McConnell debuts in romp of CCSU