One can’t help feel all the pieces are falling into place in order to revamp a long-suffering Rutgers basketball program. The Scarlet Knights hired a proven, new head coach in Steve Pikiell. No small feat, as he took Stony Brook University from obscurity to the NCAA tournament this year. His first move as coach was to hire Karl Hobbs, a reputable UConn recruiter, for the associate head coach job. Fellow Stony Brook coach and defensive mastermind, Jay Young, has followed him to Piscataway. Also, Pikiell was able to retain long-time RU recruiter Greg Shoes Vetrone and bring in famed Pittsburgh recruiter Brandin Knight.
New Jersey has not seen the likes of such sports acumen in one room since the days of Bill Parcels and Bill Belichick.
November can’t come fast enough.
No one expects Pikiell to turn the Scarlet Knights into NIT tournament material overnight, but his style of highly disciplined man-to-man defense should make an immediate impact. Taking a look at this season’s numbers, Pikiell’s former Stony Brook team ranked 59th in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency measurement, assigning the unit with a value of 98.4 – which means the defense allowed this many points per 100 possessions. Since Pikiell assumed the coaching position for the Long Island college, his defenses surrendered on average 101 points per season. To be fair, initially, the coach was tasked with taking a former Division III school and turning it into a Division I competitor. Such a transition takes a few years, to say the least. Eliminating the 2006 – 2008 seasons the defense improved to surrendering a seasonal average of 99.28 points per 100 possessions. This translated into a defense that consistently ranked in the top 103 defenses in college basketball on a seasonal average. This is a vast improvement from the Eddie Jordan defenses that gave up an average of 104.23 points, and a slight upgrade from Rutgers defenses since 2009 that averaged 100.46 points surrendered.
Looking a little deeper, Pikiell defenses call for the guards to pressure the ball and wing defenders to stay in the gaps, rather than trying to deny passes. This cuts off driving lanes and avoids leaving defenders one-on-one with the ball handler. The result during the 2015-2016 season for Stony Brook was that they limited opponents’ offensive rebounds to 26 per 100 possessions, ranking an impressive 35th in the NCAA Division 1. More astounding, the Seawolves limited opponents’ free-throw and field-goal attempts to 27.6 per 100 possessions, ranking 20th among NCAA teams. Opposing teams’ effective field goal percentage, which adjusts field goal percentage by accounting for the extra value from 3-pointers, was only 47.6% placing Stony Brook 68th place among Division 1 teams, while the defense also produced 150 turnovers ranking 158th.
Compare those figures to Jordan’s 2015-2016 squad at Rutgers, in which opponents managed nearly 36 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions while shooting 52% in effective field goal percentage. The Scarlet Knights were dismal in turnovers managing only 16%. The only bright spot was Rutgers holding opposing teams’ free-throw and field-goal attempts to almost 30 per 100 possessions.
Of course, readers’ first reaction is to point out Stony Brook competes in the American East Conference, a mid-major level of play. Then there is the Big Ten. Night and day, apples and oranges, David and Goliath. The point of illustrating a statistical comparison is it reveals Pikiell will make improvements to a beleaguered Rutgers team by instilling discipline with emphasis on defensive play. Looking at statistics over time shows the growth from a Division III school to a Division I NCAA tournament caliber unit that ranked 59th in defense efficiency, which is quite remarkable. The Seawolves kept games close at points with major competition this year when matched up with Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
There is a great probability that Rutgers will increase defense efficiency in limiting opponents’ 3-pointer attempts, which will keep games closer, and force more turnovers. Pikiell likes to run a deep rotation of players where transition defense is stressed. This will push players to hustle, which will display a stark contrast to last season’s lackluster efforts. Fans can count on more than 7 victories in the 2016-17 season, with defense being the main reason why.