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Cliff Omoruyi is the bridge to the future for Rutgers basketball



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

With the departure of Paul Mulcahy, the longest tenured member of Rutgers men’s basketball is now Cliff Omoruyi. He is only a week plus removed from withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning to Rutgers. It was decision that went down to the wire and was the biggest win of the offseason for head coach Steve Pikiell. Omoruyi’s presence is larger than ever within the program now.

What does Big Cliff mean to next season’s team? In a word, everything.

He gives Rutgers an elite rim defender and is arguably the most athletic big man in the country. Omoruyi also has the most Big Ten experience on the team. He is now the face of the program as well.

When it comes to Rutgers basketball, Omoruyi is at the top.

He was the first major recruit of the Pikiell era at Rutgers. Omoruyi was high 4-star recruit and it was a major coup in landing him in the 2020 recruiting class. His pursuit produced a seminal moment in the RAC with the Rutgers faithful chanting his name.

It might be harder to remember now, but landing Omoruyi signaled a change in the trajectory of the program. A few weeks after Rutgers won 20 regular season games for the first time in decades, Cliff committed.

The central figures of the core group that were the key to rise of Rutgers basketball were all underrecruited prospects. Geo Baker (Kansas State), Ron Harper Jr. (Nebraska), and Caleb McConnell (West Virginia) only held one other high major offer apiece. Myles Johnson had none. Additional key contributors were more acclaime Mulcahy was a high 3-star recruit with almost a dozen high major offers, but was outside the top 150 nationally. While Montez Mathis was a legit 4-star recruit, his national ranking was No. 130. Jacob Young was also a 4-star ranked No. 111 in his class, but transferred after two pedestrian seasons at Texas.

Omoruyi was ranked No. 51 nationally and No. 5 in New Jersey in the 247 composite rankings. He turned down Kentucky and highest rated recruit to come to Rutgers since former McDonald’s All-American Mike Rosario over a decade earlier. The 6’11” center raised the ceiling of the program, both literally and figuratively.

His freshman season in which he was the backup to Johnson, he averaged 3.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game. As a sophomore, he was entrenched as the starting center and became one of the nation’s most prolific dunkers. He averaged 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3blocks in 28.7 minutes per contest.

Last season, he made the leap everyone hoped he would. Omoruyi became the first player to lead Rutgers in scoring, rebounding and blocks since the great Keith Hughes did it 32 years prior. He averaged a team high 13.5 points on 51.5% shooting along with 9.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 30.3 minutes per game last season.

In Big Ten play in 2022-2023, Cliff was third in league action with 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. He was named an All-Big Ten Defensive Team selection along with being named SecondHis Team All-Big Ten by the media and Third Team All-Big Ten by the coaches. The former 4-star recruit was 22nd nationally with a 9.1% block rate and 1st in Big Ten play at 9.4%. He was also 52nd nationally with a 24.5% defensive rebounding rate and 126th with an 11.5% offensive rebounding rate.

Cliff brings Rutgers balance on the court with his physical presence on both ends of the court and has been an unselfish player his entire career. He also now marks as the true bridge in a crucial transition period in the Steve Pikiell era. He is now the last member of the core group of culture changers that made Rutgers a winning program. It feels appropriate. The first highly ranked recruit that Pikell brought in is now part of ushering in a new phase of his tenure.

Gavin Griffiths now arrives as the highest rated recruit at Rutgers since Rosario, with a higher ranking then Cliff at No. 44 nationally and a slightly higher player rating (0.9839 vs. 0.9813). In addition, the program is in the process of putting together its highest rated recruiting class in modern history in the 2024 cycle per 247 Sports composite rankings.  With No. 3 Ace Bailey and No. 85 Lathan Sommerville already committed, No. 108 Bryce Dortch likely to join on Tuesday and No. 2 Dylan Harper the ultimate prize deciding this summer, the trajectory of Rutgers basketball continues to climb.

Omoruyi also represents the bridge in regard to player development for the program. Despite coming to Rutgers as a high end recruit, he was raw having only played basketball for a few years. It would be a mistake to not recognize the developmental steps that Cliff has made under Pikiell and the staff year over year. That too signifies how he is key figure to the past, present and future. As the program brings in more talent, the staff’s ability to mold them into winners is ultimately the key. There is real hope that Omoruyi can take an even further step in his own development next season.

It’s been an offseason of change. Rutgers has lost three starters, including McConnell and Mulcahy, two of the old guard in addition to UConn bound Cam Spencer. One constant remains. Cliff Omoruyi could be prepping for the G League right now, but he’s back in Piscataway at the start of summer workouts instead. It’s a fact that should be celebrated and appreciated. He brings credibility and respect to Rutgers from the national media, opponents and opposing fan bases.

Despite Omoruyi’s freak athleticism and steady rise as a player, he’s never been the true torch holder for the program. His time has now come. And with all the recent success and positive future outlook with recruiting, a lot is now on the strong shoulders of Cliff.

The roster has some key pieces but is thin depth wise and it’s the middle of June. Even if holes are plugged with able contributors, Omoruyi’s responsibility to lead Rutgers back to the NCAA Tournament is greater than ever. His performance this season will play a critical role in keeping this team headed in the right direction. This season for Rutgers will also impact how well positioned the program is for the future.

For a player as talented and experienced as Cliff, he is prepared to hold the program steady and help bridge the winning culture that Rutgers has built into the future.

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  1. BataliBoli98

    June 11, 2023 at 11:25 am

    Even if Paul didn’t leave you could still have run this article. Some of Paul’s attributes can and will be filled by guys on the roster. No one on the roster can replicate what Cliff brings. Assuming he remains healthy, Cliff’s presence all but assures that at the least RU will be competitive yet again in the conference before hopefully taking off a year later.

    • thevinman

      June 11, 2023 at 1:35 pm

      Right on target!

  2. thevinman

    June 11, 2023 at 1:35 pm

    Great article Aaron.

  3. pj43

    June 11, 2023 at 3:16 pm

    There seems to be common agreement on Aaron’s comments regarding Cliff. If Woolfolk can develop quickly now that he’s focused exclusively on basketball, I think he’ll be a significant piece in the front court, particularly on the offensive end & on the boards. Add Mag, assuming good health and a relatively quick rounding into form before Feb, and maybe the team can get by without another transfer big man. From what I see on Choi’s tape, he’s a wing and I see Hyatt that way as well. I’m thinking that the wildcard here is Davis. You have to be impressed looking at tape on this kid. I won’t be surprised if he turns out like Simpson did last year – playing big minutes early & coming on stronger as the season progresses. Griffiths promises to be as advertised. Order you glass goggles early for RAC wear! Yeh, it would have been comforting if PM had returned but I’m getting more optimistic that the team we see in Feb may just be good enough to keep the program on track to a successful season. Speaking of PM, I’ll add my view on the speculation as to where Paul ends up. My vote is ND and its new HC, Shrewsberry. I think it would be a good fit and we probably wouldn’t have to see him unless it’s in the NCAA tournament. I’d like that!

    • BataliBoli98

      June 11, 2023 at 4:09 pm

      Agreed on PM to ND. It would allow him to work towards an advanced degree from an outstanding university and I am sure make some NIL money in the process. I disagree however that RU can get away without a big man coming in via the portal. As it stands, Woolfork almost has to start at the 4 with Cliff at the 5. That leaves RU with literally no one to back up Cliff or really Woolfork, until Mag returns, for that matter without going to a very small lineup for perhaps large chunks of the game.

      • Aaron Breitman

        June 11, 2023 at 8:31 pm

        A big man is coming soon.

  4. RU858

    June 11, 2023 at 5:38 pm

    Rutgers is fortunate that Cliff made the long-term decision to come back for another year – likely his last at the college level.

    This late in the cycle, is it not reasonable to expect Coach Pikiell to grab the best 3 or 4 in the portal that fit the program – regardless of position? Particularly if Mag is not available to start the season, Rutgers could benefit from more experienced hands, as the coaching staff already has more than enough developmental tasks.

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