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Rutgers has versatile options in replacing Mawot Mag




No 24 Rutgers lost to No. 18 Indiana 66-60 on Tuesday night in their first game without starter Mawot Mag. The junior forward was declared out for the season earlier in the day to a torn ACL in his right knee. Head coach Steve Pikiell started sixth man Aundre Hyatt and then rotated in five reserve players in the first half as he tinkered with finding the right combination. In the second half, Pikiell tightened the rotation and used three subs.

What should first be said is that Rutgers can’t completely replace Mawot Mag. The combination in his production on both ends of the court along with the toughness, physicality and edge that he plays is unique. That makes him irreplaceable. However, there are several players who will gain more opportunity to contribute more now. The Scarlet Knights will be different without Mag, but they are still a good team. The starting five is still one of the best in the conference. How this team evolves as a whole in replacing Mag will ultimately decide their final destination.

How Rutgers will use its bench moving forward remains to be seen. There are versatile options that can give this team different contributions based on the situation or matchup. Pikiell did a good job trying different combinations out in the loss to Indiana that gives hope moving forward.

“Obviously we only had a couple of days to figure things out without Mawot,” Pikiell said after the game. “He’s been a huge part of what we’ve been trying to do. I feel awful for him. The guys love him too. He certainly would have helped us on the backboards today with our defense, but we have to make adjustments and haven’t had a lot of time to work on some of the things without him. We have to spend a little time here in the next couple of weeks getting life adjusted (without him). I did think Oskar (Palmquist) came in and gave us some great minutes and Derek Simpson did too. That bench is going to be important to us moving forward now that we moved Aundre (Hyatt) into the starting lineup.”

The most natural thing was to simply slide Hyatt from his sixth man role into the starting lineup to replace Mag. They were actually playing almost the exact same minutes. Hyatt could increase his production with more minutes.  He can be explosive offensive option who can defend and rebound. However, he’s two inches smaller than Mag and not as good of a defender and rebounder. That’s not a slight, just that they do offer different skill sets.

In starting against Indiana, Hyatt finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 26 minutes. He is now tied for third in scoring average on the team at 9.4 points with Caleb McConnell and fourth in rebounds with 4.2 per game. So he essentially delivered his average production with slightly more minutes. After a strong first half, he didn’t register any stats in 9 second half minutes and missed all three shots. Hyatt has produced big in the second half in recent games against Penn State and Iowa.

Hyatt can stretch the defense with his perimeter defense and is more of a driving threat at the rim as opposed to put backs and being fed on the block like Mag. He’s also one of just three primary shooters from behind the arc. Hyatt has been up and done at times this season but hopefully more time will help his consistency. Putting together more complete games now as a starter will be key. No matter what his importance is even greater now without Mag.

Derek Simpson has now played down the stretch against Michigan State and Indiana with Mag out. He performed well in both situations.

Simpson subbed in with 11:56 to play against the Spartans with RU trailing 36-33. He hit a 18 foot jumper with under eight minutes to play and made two free throws late. Simpson never left the floor as Rutgers outscored MSU 28-19 for the 61-55 victory.

On Tuesday, he checked back in with just over nine minutes to play with Rutgers trailing 54-45. A minute later, Simpson scored for the first time in the game with a three-pointer. With RU down 7 and under six minutes to play, he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a pull up jumper. Simpson then cut the Indiana lead to 59-56 with 3:29 to play on a baseline drive layup. His offensive outburst was key in getting the score back to a one possession game. He added 3 rebounds and an assist, finishing with a team high +/- of 6.

“He can go by people with his speed and quickness and he can defend too,” Pikiell explained in regard to increased minutes. “I felt like today he had to go in a little bit and he can bother the basketball. He brings us another defender too now that Mawot’s out. He’s got to keep getting better because he’s an important part of this thing moving forward.”

The other aspect of Simpson is his improvement on the defensive end. He struggled in November adjusting in his first month of college basketball. As the stretch run of the season approaching, he’s become a reliable defender for Rutgers. He has the highest upside of any player coming off the bench because of his ability to produce on both ends of the court. Simpson also allows Pikiell to play a smaller lineup, which could create matchup problems depending on the opponent.

After a career high 13 points against Minnesota, Palmquist got another chance against Michigan State last weekend. He didn’t produce much but responded well on Tuesday night. Palmquist was the catalyst for Rutgers coming back from a 30-16 deficit. After hitting a three previously, RU was trailing Indiana 30-16 with under eight minutes left in the first half. Palmquist coolly knocked down threes on back to back possessions to cut the lead to 8 points. It started what became a 19-8 run to end the half to trail by just 3 points at the break.

While he didn’t make an impact in the second half, missing his only three, his overall contribution was significant. The biggest concern with Palmquist is his defense.

His length and outside shot gives Pikiell a different look and new option to bring in for a spark. It’s likely going to be hit or miss at times as Palmquist will need to shoot a high percentage to stay on the floor with limited minutes available. In the last three games, he is now 6 of 9 from deep, but a larger sample size is needed before he can be counted on. Just the fact that’s even a possibility after being a non-factor for so long is extremely  encouraging. Palmquist making a contribution in this moment highlights how strong this program is from a culture and player development standpoint.

The rangy Dean Reiber has seen less minutes this season but could gain more moving forward. Other than Hyatt, he is the most experienced frontcourt option and can stretch the floor with his perimeter game. Reiber didn’t make an impact in 2 minutes against Michigan State. However, denying Trayce Jackson-Davis in the post at the end of the first half Tuesday was impressive. He came in cold and brought energy to the defense. In the second half, Reiber grabbed an offensive rebound and scored at the rim. He only played 5 minutes, but they were of the quality minutes.

Reiber is sort of a hybrid version that brings some of the same qualities Palmquist offers, while able to defend the post like freshman big man Antwone Woolfolk. The Wolf is bigger than Mag by two inches and about 30 pounds, but he is the best option if Pikiell wanted to focus purely on defense and rebounding. He isn’t as versatile a defender as Mag, but Wolf has shown really good footwork and a feel for defending in the low post. That being said, he’s a work in progress in his first season as all rookies are. He can’t be counted on and is still developing. The hope should be getting productive minutes out of him when you can, but not expecting him to be consistent.

Jalen Miller got a combined four minutes over the last two games. He hasn’t made an impact and appears to be on the end of the bench with freshman Antonio Chol, who hasn’t played since November. It’s possible he will get more chances, but as the stretch run progresses, the rotation could get tighter.

Rutgers isn’t the same team without Mawot Mag. However, they are still a good team that has a chance to finish in the top four of the Big Ten and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Mag was rapidly improving and gave Rutgers a certain dynamic that is absent now. This team will need to adapt and evolve. Having an experienced player in Hyatt to step into the starting role is a luxury not many teams have. However, his new role means the bench needs to step up as well.

The good news is Pikiell has several different options that give RU different looks that could make them harder for opponents to prepare for. Off the bench, he can use a smaller lineup with Simpson. The rookie guard is still developing and the more crunch time minutes he gets, the more opportunity he will have to make an impact. Palmquist could develop into a sniper off the bench while Reiber could provide stability. They’re the three most likely to gain more minutes moving forward. They combined to score 18 points against Indiana. That’s a lot to expect every game, but the did their job in putting Rutgers in a position to win.

There is a long way to go and their consistency as a group is crucial to the team’s success. However, if their contributions since Mag went down can continue in a similar way, Rutgers will have an opportunity to make a March run they’ve hoped for from the beginning of this season.

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  1. InPikeWeTrust

    February 9, 2023 at 12:38 am

    Let’s just say this right off the bat: Mawot Mag is a really good basketball player and is the perfect Pikiell player. Having to figure out how to replace him really does suck. That being said there are some interesting options for Pike.

    I would seriously consider going back to bringing Hyatt off the bench. The reason for that is because I would alternate between starting Oskar and Dean, depending upon matchups. Oskar, especially,would benefit running with the other starters. Oskar is definitely, from what I’ve seen of him, the weakest defender of any of our rotation players. Putting him out there with our best defenders will help him. He will also benefit playing with Paul and Cam. He’ll likely get more quality 3-ball looks. Dean can start if the opponent has a more offensive-minded 4 and Oskar if it’s more of a glue guy who doesn’t look to score. Hyatt is still the sparkplug off the bench, along with Simpson. Woolf can backup Cliff if Dean starts.

    After getting over the initial shock, I’m getting enthused about the opportunities these other guys are going to get. Another silver lining is this has occurred early enough that the team can figure this out before March. I trust Pike and staff to find a way.

    • Aaron Breitman

      February 9, 2023 at 3:04 am

      I agree with you. I told Dave I thought Reiber should have started last night. However I wrote the article with the premise based on Pikiell saying a Hyatt has moved into the starting lineup. I love that each player option is different in how it will shape the lineup on the floor. Agree with what you said as well.

  2. BataliBoli98

    February 9, 2023 at 1:53 am

    Maybe I missed it in the article but Mag’s ability to get out on the break cannot be forgotten. He’s done better at getting himself under control and was a better finisher at the rim as the season was progressing. We saw last night that RU had very little action on the break. Mag’s versatility on D is what I think RU will miss the most. He could effectively defend point guards to power forwards which is a rare skill and RU had been lucky to essentially have two of those players. That said, so far here is what we have seen without Mag: RU beat MSU and played a great last twelve minutes. RU hung at IU in a game where IU couldn’t miss early and where RU got next to nothing offensively from Mulcahy and McConnell. Mag will certainly be missed but this team can/will find a way to not only grind out more wins but also win games because they simply have better players and a better coach. Go RU!

  3. thevinman

    February 9, 2023 at 4:44 am

    Mags was a demon on defense, especially in the backcourt press. We had a damn good chance to beat Indiana but Paul was non-existent on offense, even missing 2 key free throws on one and one in the second half. Another big issue was Caleb pressed on offense as he seemed to decide the offense depended on him. Hopefully we learn from it in time to take it to Illinois, which might be a tougher game than Indiana.

  4. Henry Rutgers

    February 9, 2023 at 1:03 pm

    Thought provoking article. Hyatt seems to me to be the kind of player that has to play to be productive. I agree with moving him into the starting lineup. However, going to the bench for Palmquist and Reiber is really interesting.

    I’ve been unimpressed with Simpson and Miller. The staff has proven the ability to develop talent though and I’m no scouting guru. Based on what I saw against Indiana this won’t start clicking again until Nebraska on Valentines Day. Meantime, I expect we’ll put ourselves in a position with Illinois where we can win if we keep our fouls to the minimum, if we make our foul shots, if Cliff makes his layups along with his dunks, if Cam gets hot from the arc, if Paul takes leadership and ownership and shoots with confidence, if Cliff doesn’t decide to shoot threes, if McConnell does anything better than 1 for 12, if Hyatt contributes at both ends of the court, if Palmquist continues to add bench points etc.

    • InPikeWeTrust

      February 9, 2023 at 4:51 pm

      Wow! Surprised you grouped Jalen Miller and Derek Simpson together as being unimpressive. I get Miller because he has proven to be offensively challenged up to this point of his career but Simpson has had flashes of brilliance. Granted they’ve been few and far between lately but he single-handedly blew up Indiana in pur win at home. He’s got another offensive gear that no one else currently on the roster possesses. He’s gonna be a good one. The staff raves about him if you listen to the telecasts when the broadcasters reveal their conversations with the coaches. Plus, the kid is fearless which you can’t teach.

      • Henry Rutgers

        February 9, 2023 at 5:05 pm

        When it comes to things like player abilities, I am always delighted to be wrong.

  5. pj43

    February 9, 2023 at 8:09 pm

    When you look at the remaining schedule, I would’ve said Rutgers would go a minimum of 5-2 with Mag and possibly even 7-0 if the offense could put it together with consistency. Some interesting comments by Aaron as well as others on the board regarding who starts depending on the opposing match ups. I’d like to think that Pikiell will make the necessary lineup adjustments and Aaron’s comment about shortening the rotation is most probable. It still appears that 5-2 down the stretch is doable which would make for 13 wins and a probable top 4 in the standings. 12 wins makes for an iffy top 4 in the standings, subject to head to head records. I can recall when talking about 10 wins in conference was a pie in the sky thought! Could it be that Palmquist, Reiber and Woolfolk in combination are able to rise to the occasion? With this team’s personality and makeup I’m thinking it just may be so>

  6. FlaRef

    February 10, 2023 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks for your insights on the options available to Pike, all good ones given the unfortunate loss of Mag. Good comments from the faithful on the different player combos too. It will be interesting to see how Pike uses the bench to find the best five in the offense/defense flow of the game while switching defenses to counter the opponents. This is a test for the coaching staff to come out of this season with a top four league finish and a nice run in the B1G tourney leading up to the dance! Looking forward to a 5 seed.

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