We have covered the new Rutgers men's basketball coaching staff on the recruiting trail this week. They have hit the ground running and are making a point to target top in-state high school powers, as well as prominent AAU programs. It will take time to effectively measure their success in landing the right players at Rutgers, as recruiting remains the biggest question mark regarding the staff. They have all had varying degrees of recruiting success in the past, but can they land top players at Rutgers? We will wait and see, but it's encouraging how active and strategic in recruiting circles they have been thus far.
One aspect that is a major strength of this staff is each coach has extensive player development backgrounds. They will be tested right away in getting more out of the current roster heading into next season. However, with a full offseason to implement coach Pikiell's strength and conditioning program, as well as have time to evaluate and work out the players on the roster, some progress should be expected.
Regarding the roster, recruiting rankings are not an exact science, but the idea that last season's Rutgers basketball team was devoid of talent is false. Every scholarship player on the roster last season was a former 3-star recruit, with the exception of Omari Grier who was not rated and Corey Sanders, who was a 4-star recruit. A major problem was getting steady improvement from the players and for them to play well together in a team concept. In fairness, these have been issues with the Rutgers program for many years.
What excites me the most about this staff is their experience in developing players and coaching in big games before. Steve Pikiell, Karl Hobbs, Brandin Knight, and Jay Young have all won conference regular season titles and conference tournament titles as coaches. They have all coached in the NCAA tournament, with Hobbs and Knight being part of teams that advanced to the Sweet 16. In Hobbs case, he has been an assistant on two national champion teams at UConn. That type of experience is something that has not been seen on the Rutgers bench before.
The current roster, which I covered in detail here, should have seven players next season that were rated 3-star recruits, along with 4-star Corey Sanders and all-state and former Roselle Catholic star Matt Bullock. Depth is a major concern, with four open scholarships at the moment. However, there is talent on the roster. A backcourt of Sanders, Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson, and Mike Williams is a solid core. Frontcourt scoring will be an issue, but Deshawn Freeman and Jonathan Laurent have major upside. The coaching staff must get more out the players than the previous regime did the past couple of seasons, and there are reasons to believe that will happen. Let's take a look at the player development backgrounds for all the coaches on the Rutgers men's basketball staff.
Pikiell comes to Rutgers with a reputation of being a strong tactician and has a good reputation regarding player development. As an assistant at both Central Connecticut State and George Washington, Pikiell brought in three recruits who went on to play in the NBA. They were Corsley Edwards, the first draft pick ever for a player from CCSU, and Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu from George Washington.
As head coach at Stony Brook, three players won the America East Player of the Year award five times in the past seven seasons. Muhammed El-Amin won it for 2009-2010 season, Tommy Brenton won it in 2012-2013 season, and Jameel Warney won it the past three seasons in a row. El-Amin was a JUCO transfer, Brenton was not rated by most recruiting services and Warney was rated either a 2-star or 3-star recruit with just a handful of offers.
Hobbs earned his reputation as a great developer of talent at UConn in the nineties, mentoring the likes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, and Khalid El-Amin. Allen went on to become one of the best shooters in NBA history and is quoted in Hobbs bio from when he was coach at George Washington, saying he is a "terrific guard coach who helped fine tune his fundamentals." Hamilton and El-Amin, along with Caron Butler, who Hobbs recruited with with them, formed the core of the 1999 national champion team. Here is quote from Hamilton, a 14 year NBA veteran and 3-time all-star, from the GW bio:
"Coach Hobbs makes you feel very comfortable and without Coach Hobbs, I would not have gone to Connecticut," Hamilton said, reflecting on his recruiting experience with Hobbs. "He's an excellent coach. When things weren't going as well as I wanted them to go and I was struggling, he would watch a lot of tape with me and bring me into the gym for extra shooting. Even when things were going well for me, he was the type of coach who really stayed on me and never wanted me to settle for anything less than greatness, and I owe a lot to him," Hamilton added.
It is not often that great players become great coaches, but Knight has become both. Knight is credited in helping in the development of former Pitt players such as All-American Sam Young and All-Big East guards Levance Fields, Ashton Gibbs, and Travon Woodall. All four players were rated between 3-stars and 4-stars coming out of high school. Knight helped them all fulfill their potential and become key players at Pitt under former coach Jamie Dixon. Pitt went to the NCAA tournament six times during their careers dating back to 2008, including one elite eight appearance.
Young is known as a master defensive strategist and was in charge of developing frontcourt players at Stony Brook under Pikiell. His bio from the school credits him with the development of Dallis Joyner, a 3-star undersized forward who left Stony Brook an all-conference player and second all-time in rebounding in program history. Of course, Young also coached Jameel Warney, who became Defensive Player of the Year twice, after beginning his career as the America East Rookie of the Year, in addition to his three consecutive America East Player of the Year awards.Warney said in this article what a great relationship they have and how he values Young's opinion "more than anything in the world." Warney is expected to be selected in the upcoming NBA Draft.
What Could Be At Rutgers
Pikiell, Hobbs, Knight, and Young have all had success developing players in the past, both those under recruited and 3-star & 4-star recruits who went on to fulfill their potential under their guidance. There is a solid core of talented players at Rutgers, but it is extremely raw and undisciplined. This staff could not be more prepared in taking on the challenge of molding the talent that is on the roster and getting the most out of them. Succeeding with that type of challenge helped develop Pikiell's reputation as a coach who can win consistently without landing top rated recruits. If he and his staff can get those same type of results at Rutgers, the road to respectability for the program will come sooner than most expect.
It's a tremendous opportunity for the players, and is a major reason star Corey Sanders is expected to return. Playing for this staff is his best chance in developing into an NBA talent and hopefully he can blossom next season under their guidance. Of all the players on the roster, I am most excited to see how Mike Williams and Jonathan Laurent develop under the new staff. Incoming recruits Issa Thiam and Matt Bullock will be interesting to watch, as both have major potential. To win consistently, his staff has to prove they can recruit at a Big Ten level at Rutgers long term. However, making the current players better and improving results on the court will go a long way into making people believers on the recruiting trail. Based on the backgrounds of the current coaching staff, there is reason to believe they will get the most out of the roster next season.