Tomorrow night, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell returns to the place he built from the bottom up, as he turned the Stony Brook basketball team into a perennial conference champion. After coaching 11 seasons at the America East school, he took on an even bigger challenge in taking over Rutgers. So far, so good, as the Scarlet Knights will play in front of their first hostile environment on the road all season, entering the game with an 8-1 record. (note: While playing at Miami was difficult, the crowd was not large, nor very loud.)
While Pikiell will be the focus in returning to Long Island, his current staff is stocked with former Seawolves. They include Bryan Dougher, now Director of Basketball Operations at Rutgers under Pikiell, who is the all-time leading scorer at Stony Brook.
However, it’s two trusted confidants of Pikiell for many years that have been the biggest change agents in dramatically improving the culture of Rutgers basketball under his direction. Assistant coach Jay Young, who served as associate head coach for Pikiell at Stony Brook, was passed over to replace him, as former Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals was hired instead. David Van Dyke oversaw the strength and conditioning for every Stony Brook athletic program and ventured to the banks with Pikiell. Together, these two personnel hires have been instrumental in helping Rutgers to exceed their win total from last season, two plus weeks before Christmas.
The backbone of the turnaround on the court this season has been fueled by major improvements on the defensive end of the floor, as well as with strength and conditioning of the players. Young runs the defense and Van Dyke has completely revamped the way the players train and prepare their bodies for competition.
Let’s start with defense. According to advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom, Rutgers is currently 3rd out of 351 Division I teams in opponent’s 2-point field goal percentage, 13th in block percentage, 13th in effective field goal percentage, 55th in steal percentage, and 112th in adjusted defensive efficiency. To give you a clear indication of how much this team has improved so far, last season 200th or worse in every category other than steal percentage, which they ranked 194th. Granted, Big Ten play has yet to begin, but it’s obvious Rutgers is a much better defensive team under Pikiell.
Young is his defensive coordinator and you can read about how Stony Brook’s success was built around that end of the floor here. He made a big impact on three-time America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney, who told Jerry Carino of the Asbury Park Press in this article that Young throwing him out of practice his sophomore season was exactly what he needed to help turn him into the player he ultimately became in his career. He also told Carino that Young has “brought toughness to that program (Rutgers). Those players are getting their attitude from Jay. You can see on the court, how tough and physical they are.”
Every time I’ve talked to players on the team, I ask about the emphasis on defense and the impact Young has had on them. I’ve been fortunate to have watched two practices and if you are a basketball junkie, seeing Young operate is pure bliss. His intensity and attention to detail is impressive. Mike Williams, who is playing the best basketball of his career under Pikiell and the coaching staff, had this to say after the Niagara game this season:
He has had a huge effect on the defense. We feel like coach Young, his style of defense, you can’t really go wrong with it and it makes a lot of sense to us. You don’t have to be perfect and we can still get stops. Imagine when you are perfect? We believe in coach Young, his system and defensive strategy. We feel like he is the best defensive coach in the country and we just try to listen to everything he tells us.
While Rutgers has made major strides defensively all season, as the numbers jump out in such a positive way, the impact of Young’s defense was never more apparent than in their comeback win over Hartford. This is what Nigel Johnson said to me after the game:
That’s our staple this year, that’s what we depend on every night. Everyday, you know you won’t always have your best shooting nights, and sometimes like today, the other team is going to have a good shooting night. But as long as you can just continue to do what you’ve been taught, the last six months Pikiell has been stressing defense saying, “we’re going to get stops, we’re going to rebound.” So at the end of the game the last five minutes, we strung together a lot of stops that helped us to a 20-5 run , so I mean when you can do that, even when the other teams scores because they’re hot, you always have a chance (with defense).
When Pikiell was hired, he spoke about being a good defensive team that could rebound. Young talked about that goal to RVision in a video I featured in this article on him over the summer. It’s easy to talk about it, but to see Rutgers vastly improved in both areas so soon into year one has been amazing. Williams said the biggest difference with rebounding has been the new coaching staff’s emphasis on every player making it a priority:
My coach told me this year, you need to rebound, he stressed rebounding a lot. It can’t just be the big men, not just Deshawn, CJ, and Shaq to get all the rebounds, it’s got to be everybody. I feel like that also leads to easy baskets. It’s always about the little things.
Another sign that Steve Pikiell is getting his message across: Rutgers is currently leading the country in offensive rebounds. All effort.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 6, 2016
In order for the Rutgers players to be so committed to defense and rebounding, as well as have the ability to put forth the effort necessary to improve dramatically in both areas, something had to be done with conditioning. Pikiell said at Rutgers Media Day that the group of players assembled during his arrival was the worst conditioned group he had ever been around in his entire career. Enter Van Dyke, who has transformed several of the players bodies before the season began and has enabled the entire team to have the ability to push harder than ever before.
No one made more of a positive change than 7 foot center Shaq Doorson, who missed all of last season due to a leg injury and had little impact as a freshman. One of Pikiell’s favorite talking points in the preseason was Doorson’s weight loss of 40+ pounds. While Dutchman is still working his way back into basketball shape after so much time off the court, he is starting to show flashes of his potential. This is what Shaq told me at Rutgers Media Day before the season started:
It’s really important to be prepared for the season. That’s the reason I lost all that weight, as coach Pikiell said, but it’s not easy. Having done that, I can see how far I’ve come. Knowing the advantages it has given me, if I hadn’t done that, I don’t know if I would be able to run and up down the court and be able to contribute to the team. So I’m really happy I did that. My goal for this season is to get as many rebounds as possible.
Team captain and the best frontcourt player on the team, Deshawn Freeman, also returned after missing most of last season with a leg injury. I asked him after the Hartford game how much Van Dyke has helped him this season, one in which he has registered the most double doubles this early on since Rutgers great Keith Hughes over two decades ago:
I give huge credit to our strength coach Van Dyke and also our trainer as well, going in there everyday. They are a great group of guys and they’re making me better everyday.
Van Dyke detailed a lot of the offseason workouts for the players on social media, which I highlighted here. Also trainer Richard Campbell came with him from Stony Brook as well.
Together, Young and Van Dyke have been a major reason for the resurgence so early on in Pikiell’s tenure at Rutgers. It allowed for the new head coach to focus on so many other areas that needed to be improved, as well as building relationships in the area and focus on the recruiting trail. If he didn’t come to Rutgers with two seasoned and trusted veterans, the transition would have been undoubtedly harder. Credit Pikiell with being such a quality coach and person for being able to convince these two to join him at Rutgers. It shows how much faith they have in him. Their relationships with each other has led to early success that has been a welcomed and long overdue change for Rutgers fans.