With the Steve Pikiell era about to tip-off in just a few days now, we all hope for progress on the court this season. After watching practice on media day, it’s obvious to me that the coaching staff has this team far better prepared for this season than last year’s team. From improved strength and conditioning, a greater emphasis on defense and rebounding, a more talented roster, and a clear focus on how the coaches want this team to play, I am encouraged better results will follow this season. However, it’s only year one under Pikiell and it’s clear more talent is needed for the program to make big gains in the future.
Of course, the coaching staff fully understands that and have done a great job organizing and setting their plan, as well as building relationships in many recruiting circles. Making local high school and AAU programs a focus in recruiting is a no-brainer, but sadly something that has not been a priority in recent years at Rutgers. The new staff has been successful in getting many of the top recruits in the country that are from New Jersey and New York City in the classes of 2018 & 2019 on campus the past few months. However, they desperately need to show the team is making significant progress on the court this season to continue the positive momentum they have created by sheer will and being relentless on the recruiting trail.
Of the twelve scholarship players on the team this season, only freshman Matt Bullock is from New Jersey and only junior Mike Williams is from New York City. That is something that needs to change in a big way in the future, in order for Pikiell and this staff to guide this program up the ladder of the Big Ten. I was able to speak with Bullock, Williams and walk-on Khalil Batie, also from New Jersey, on their thoughts on Rutgers having more success in bringing local players to the program.
I asked Batie about how much pride he takes in being from the garden state and what that helps him bring to the team. He had this to say:
I’m very proud. Guys like me, Matt (Bullock), and Jake (Dadika, also a walk-on), we all come from Jersey and like you said, there haven’t been a lot of local kids that have stayed in Jersey. Whether that’s them staying to play for us, Monmouth, whoever. We definitely try to carry that chip on our shoulder every day in practice, in every game and bring whatever we can to the team to help us win.
In speaking with Mike Williams, he had some clear opinions on why top recruits from the city should consider Rutgers in the future:
My thing is you don’t have to go that far. You don’t have to go to the big schools like Kansas and Kentucky, you can go somewhere where things are rebuilding and you can be that piece that can help the program improve and become great, That’s my thing and I feel like the benefit of that is greater, you know in making a less successful team better.
It will take a certain type of player who can succeed at Rutgers. They will need to have the right attitude to fight through adversity and help build the success of this program from the ground up. It’s clear that coach Pikiell feels he found one in Matt Bullock, the first team all-state player from Roselle Catholic, who was the first recruit to sign for him at Rutgers. I asked Bullock about what the message was from coach Pikiell in his recruitment and how that has compared to his experience so far with the program.
I saw what his vision was for on the court and off the court and saw his long term goals. He really put it all together. If you work hard, you shall receive, no matter what it is.
It’s gone pretty well, I’m getting challenged every practice. There is no day off. In the scrimmages, I am getting challenged. He is really pushing me. I see that he wants me to be better and he is making me work for it.
In Bullock being the only scholarship guy on the team from New Jersey, I asked him how much pride he takes in that fact and what is his hope for the future in building this program.
I take a lot of pride in being from New Jersey and having my family close coming to support me. I encourage people from my home town that we can be something. You don’t have to go anywhere else, just stay in Jersey and build your own success here.
SNY’s Adam Zagoria joined our conversation and asked about the impact the new facilities will have in recruiting top recruits like Bullock’s former teammate, 5-star center Naz Reid, as well as the importance that winning has in Rutgers having any chance to land the talented big man. Bullock had this to say about those topics:
The new facility shows what Rutgers is becoming in the future. If guys want to come here, they understand it’s a program that is still building. At the same time, building the new facility will bring a lot more people and shows a big investment. But you have to win to get those recruits, if you want the top players, you have to win.
Bullock mentioned he talks with Reid about once a week and was asked by Zagoria if he is confident players like him will consider Rutgers more if the current team shows progress on the court this season.
Yes, that’s the main reason I was recruited (to Rutgers), to show guys that you can be something in New Jersey. You don’t have to go out of state to be on the best team. Let’s be the best team in Jersey. That’s why I chose to go here.
It’s based on this team we have right now, we have to make a statement with winning. If you win and the guys see that you are winning, they come to winning teams.
Bullock told me he was working on a couple former teammates at Roselle Catholic to consider Rutgers in their recruitment. He is the most important recruit for Pikiell at this point in his tenure. If he can develop Bullock, who didn’t have any other high major offers coming out of high school, Pikiell will show his ability elevate players at the Big Ten level in a similar manner he made Jameel Warney a star at Stony Brook. Warney was also a bit under recruited at Roselle Catholic, but became a three-time conference player of the year under Pikiell and assistant coach Jay Young. Warney is now playing for the Dallas Maverick’s Developmental League team this season.
When I spoke with coach Pikiell at Big Ten Media Day, he gave some great insight on his thoughts in recruiting locally, as well as the importance of a player like Bullock, who has bought into his vision for the future of the program.
The great part of Matt Bullock is he believed in Coach Pikiell and our vision. He is from a great program up the road (Roselle Catholic). I want kids that believe in me too. I want them to believe in Rutgers and the great place that it is. And the good people and the program that we are going to be. I’ve got to get people who can look down the road a little bit too. Everyone can look right now and tell you where we are, but I can also tell you Jim Calhoun, they (UConn) were in the 8/9 game every year, so we needed guys that appreciated his vision of where the program could be.
I think its a great place for local players and hopefully they’ll come and see, which they’ve done. They’re taking a look now at the place, and then I’ll get some of them to buy in and believe in my vision and they’ll want to come play for me. If they want to come play for me, I’m going to do a great job by them. They’re going to develop, they're going to graduate, they're going to have a great opportunity to play on national TV and play in front of the most fans of any league in the country, that’s the Big Ten. And all the exciting things that can happen if they stay in New Jersey, their home state and play for the state university of New Jersey. I’m excited about that.
Jameel Warney could have went anywhere. He believed in us and we believed in him and he just kept growing and growing and then end of his career he could play anywhere and now is in the NBA. Part of that is he believed in us and when kids believe in you and your program already, and say yes to you when they have other choices, that’s humbling and a responsibility on my part that I give that kid all that I can give and my staff too gives all that they can give, so I'm excited about this challenge.
Coach Pikiell is brimming with passion, is a proven program builder, and has a clear vision for the future of Rutgers basketball. A major challenge for him is getting top players from the area to choose this program over more established, winning programs that come knocking for the best talent in New Jersey and New York City. Getting those players to believe in him and the positive changes that are occurring at Rutgers is a big task for sure. If Pikiell is to turn this program around and make them a consistent presence in the postseason, he will have to land some top local players and win some recruiting battles over programs with more of a winning pedigree.
Having players like Williams and Bullock on the current roster and developing them, as well as showing progress on the court with this team this season, are all major factors in helping to land some players from a loaded 2018 class locally. After having so many elite recruits visit campus recently, it’s clear they are now finally looking into what Rutgers basketball has to offer. That’s because of coach Pikiell and there is reason to believe it’s only a matter of time until he recruits at a level that will elevate this program to heights we haven’t experienced in decades.