Why Rutgers' Caleb McConnell came back for 1 last season with Scarlet Knights

Why Rutgers’ Caleb McConnell came back for 1 last season with Scarlet Knights

MINNEAPOLIS— Caleb McConnell tested the NBA draft waters this offseason, pursuing the path toward the professional career he’s always dreamed of while leaving the door open for a return to college. As the days winded down and the deadline for his decision approached, he ultimately had “an easy decision” to make.

The guard elected to return to Rutgers for a fifth and final season, taking advantage of the free year of eligibility he earned in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic for one final run in Piscataway. He does so with two main goals: help lead the Scarlet Knights to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, and defend his title as the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year.

“Rutgers is always home for me,” McConnell said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. “I tried the draft (process), everything went well in that, but I thought it was the best for me to return to Rutgers. It’s easy for me to come back and play for (head) Coach (Steve) Pikiell, an awesome coach, with these awesome guys. I knew we had something special coming back and I knew I could further my resume even more here.”

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McConnell admitted that the opportunity to sign name, image and likeness (NIL) deals — a new reality in college sports — also played a factor in his return, albeit a minor one.

Shortly after he publicly revealed his decision to return to Rutgers, he announced a deal with ‘Knights of the Raritan,’ a collective owned by Rutgers boosters. He since inked a deal with The Knight Societyanother collective operated by his former teammate Geo Baker.

The guard made various posts on his social media platforms promoting KTR and participated in a photo session with KTR members prior to a Rutgers football game this fall.

“That was probably the lowest reasons (on the list of why I came back), but it definitely played a part in it,” McConnell said. “I knew I could take advantage of the NIL landscape and see what I could do with that. That was one of the reasons. … In a way, I knew that if I went pro, I was going to have to fight and fight and fight to get something like that, maybe a two-way (contract), or to get onto a team or even make it into a training camp. I knew that was more of a fight versus going to a place where I know I’m loved, where I know I can play and I got great guys to play with and I know I got an opportunity for NIL. For me, it’s not about the money, it was more about the opportunity and what I can do with that.”

On the court, McConnell sees an opportunity to expand his offensive production while remaining a premier defender in the Big Ten. He averaged 7.1 points on 39.7% shooting; 44.4% on 2-pointers, 27% on 3-pointers, 66.7% on free throws.

McConnell flashed some of his capabilities on that end in the biggest game of the season last year, scoring a team-high 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting in a loss to Notre Dame in an NCAA Tournament play-in game. It was a performance that surprised many, but not McConnell.

“Those are all things I haven’t shown but are things I can do,” he said. “I could’ve been doing that, but those are things I wanted to build off of. I want to carry that momentum into the offseason and work on my game.”

Much of the time he spent refining his game came back home in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the first time in his college career he was able to spend an extended period of time with his family, he said, because he spent most of the summers early in his career rehabbing injuries back in Piscataway.

Pikiell thought nothing of allowing his senior leader to be back home, saying he never worried about McConnell. He joked that McConnell works “100 hours a week,” so missing the four hours per week that the coaching staff is allowed to work with the players in the summer was not a big deal.

“It was really important, and I was very grateful to coach Pikiell to allow me to be home,” McConnell said. “This was my first summer that I got to spend at home and spend time with my family and work out and do my own kind of regiment. I’m so grateful to Pike because most coaches wouldn’t allow that. I got a chance to spend some quality time back home and I think it was worth it.”

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Pikiell seems to agree, saying McConnell came back to Piscataway “a better player and in great shape.” He believes McConnell can not only repeat as the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, but become the national player of the year to boot.

Pikiell expects continual growth from McConnell on the offensive end, too. The opportunities will be there for him, too: with leading scorers Baker and Ron Harper Jr. moving on this offseason, there are an average of 24 shot attempts per game up for grabs.

“Every year, he’s grown (offensively). He’ll grow again this year,” Pikiell said. “He’ll have more opportunities. He’s a good player. He was our leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament (against Notre Dame), he was our leading scorer and rebounder when we beat Clemson in the NCAA Tournament, so he’s performed in some high-level games.”

But for Pikiell, the greatest thing about McConnell is that he can spend one more year coaching him.

“I’m just thankful he’s back, quite honestly,” Pikiell said. “He could be in a million places; he picked to stay at Rutgers and help us continue to grow this program.”

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Brian Fonseca may be reached at bfonseca@njadvancemedia.com.

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