If you've been a fan of Rutgers basketball for the last 25 years, you've been through the wringer. There have been 6 coaching changes and a lot of promises that this time the program was going to be built back to its former (forty year old) glory.
A lot of fans think that rebuilding a basketball team is easy. There are only 13 man rosters. Stack it with talent and you're off.
But, as Rutgers fans have seen time and time again, talent is not enough.
So, Steve Pikiell, it's your turn. Step right up and build Rutgers basketball into something special.
Here are my steps:
1. Get the buy-in from the players currently on the roster. For a few of the former coaches, this first year was the easiest one. Gary Waters got his team to buy in in year one and so did Mike Rice. They had key seniors (Rashad Kent for Waters and the Beatty, Mitchell, Coburn threesome for Rice). These players wanted to win so badly, they did whatever the coach said. The rest of the team followed suit. This is going to be a bit more of a challenge for Pikiell. He has zero seniors on the roster. He, currently, has three juniors in Deshawn Freeman (assuming he gets a medial redshirt), Mike Williams, and Nigel Johnson. What does that mean? This isn't their last go around. It might be tougher to get the buy in (though Mike seems like a "do anything the coach wants" type of player). But this is the beginning of changing the culture. Change the current roster's culture and start laying the foundation here. Show recruits that your way works, and knock off a few teams. Here's where Fred Hill screwed up. He didn't sell the current roster, but instead tried to force them out. It set a terrible tone for his tenure. Eddie Jordan's first year was a struggle here too. And his second.
2. Bring in talent: This is the part that everyone in the media, every fan, and every pundit points to. If you want to win, you've got to bring in talent. Well, guess what--with varying success, every coach has brought in talent. Whether it's Eddie Jordan and the Corey Sanders crew, or Mike Rice's Magnificent Seven, or Fred Hill with Rosario and Echenique, Gary Waters and Quincy Douby or even Kevin Bannon with his roster. Talent has come to Rutgers. But it needs to be the right talent. Don't fool yourself. No matter what staff Pikiell puts together or how shiny the practice facility is, Pikiell will not be recruiting one and done's. That won't happen here until the AAU and high school power brokers see the program is changing. So Pikiell has to bring in talent that will succeed here and develop. Think Top 75-top 150 guys with maybe a top 50 sprinkled in for good measure. That's a foundation.
3. Get the buy in: Hey, wait, Dave, didn't you say that already? Yes, yes I did. But here is where Mike Rice and to an extent Gary Waters screwed up. Both seemed to struggle molding the kids to all be on the same page. Waters' second and fourth years were plagued by chemistry problems and players being told to wait their turn. It seemed that roles weren't clearly defined and players didn't want to share. The same happened with Mike Rice to an extent. There were many stories about Rice trying to mold Eli Carter from a "get mine" player to a total teammate. It probably kept him from more wins in year 2 and 3.
4. Keep the Talent: This can't be transfer U anymore. It would help if players knew their roles from day one and are not sold on a ton of promises that change from the day they get on campus. I don't know if that's happened at Rutgers, but not everyone can be the face of the program. Players who believe in the coaches, the system and the game plan will stay and get better. That leads us to step 5.
5. Develop, Develop, Develop: Players who step on campus on day 1 are rarely the same as they are as seniors. They grow, they get more muscular, faster and they get better. Good coaches can turn a good player into a great one. And great players can grow into all time players. Look at Douby from year 1 to year 3. His first year, he was just a shooter. By his junior year, his floater was unstoppable and his range was ridiculous. Too many players at Rutgers, however, plateaued or became stagnant. Hell, some even use the word regression. I bet that DJ Foreman, if he goes to the right place, becomes a heck of a basketball player. Coaching can do that. You can't win here without developing. Rutgers has to keep their talent on campus and get them to their senior year. And, even more important, have them get better year in and year out.
6. Have a Solid Game Plan: Here's what I'll tell you: I believe Steve Pikiell can coach. You don't have one of the longest win streaks in the country, no matter the conference, if you can't. And when the talent is on par or lesser than other teams, coaching matters. Pikiell and his staff will have to gauge other team's weakness and exploit them. The defensive plan will have to be masterful. It won't be easy. And there will be nights where Pikiell will be out-coached. It happens to everyone. Albany's Will Brown seemed to have Pikiell's number. But that's okay. No one goes undefeated anymore. But it can't happen every night. And you can't just roll the basketballs on to the court and say, "Go get 'em." There has to be a plan.
7. Get some program defining wins: It's always easier to believe in the rebuild when you're shocking teams on your home court. Pikiell will have to knock someone off early to keep the good vibes going.
This task will not be easy. Especially not at Rutgers. Many have tried and many have failed. Perhaps Steve Pikiell will be the one to break through. Landing Matt Bullock and hiring Karl Hobbs is a great start.
But there are many steps still to climb. And we fans won't know much until the first tip off next season. And even then there will be time for patience.
At this moment, however, the trend is a good one. With luck, the excitement will only continue to build. The fans have bought in. Hopefully, Pikiell will continue that trend with his players.
Dave White is the author of the Jackson Donne series of thrillers. They are set in and around Rutgers. Check them out at his website.