As Dave White discussed the importance of marketing the Rutgers men's basketball program moving forward, he highlighted a recent interview that head coach Steve Pikiell conducted with The Basketball Diary, a popular hoops site. Pikiell touched on a lot of topics in the interview, including his past history and the road that led him to Rutgers. What interested me the most though was Pikiell's answer regarding what type of style he preferred his teams to play. This is what he had to say:
"I want to get up and down the court, I want to play exciting, I want to throw alley oops passes, and I want to defend and be tough. That's how I want to play. Your roster dictates a lot of how you play, so until I have full control over the roster, we are going to figure out a way to win. And that's going to be the way we are going play early on here. I want to run and I want to press and I want my guys to have a lot of freedom on the offensive end but we play tough gritty defense on the defensive end."
The desired style of play for the program is obviously intriguing and something that will resonate with fans and recruits. Players want to be in a system that allows them to showcase their athletic abilities and allows them freedom within the offense. It is also a style that will lead to a 9-10 man rotation, giving a lot of opportunity to play. Pikiell had nine players average 10 minutes or more a game last season at Stony Brook. There was a tenth player who averaged almost 9 minutes a game. To play an up and down, pressing style, you need depth and quality on the roster in order to be effective with that type of system. Rutgers only has ten scholarship players on the roster for next season, so they simply aren't ready to play this way. The coaches are also still evaluating the talent level of each player and need to determine what style their individual skill sets are best suited for.
However, Pikiell also spoke during the interview about the importance of young coaches learning how to coach different styles, so they can figure out ways to win with the personnel they have to work with. This philosophy is very important, as it's clear the type of style he wants to play is not best suited for the roster as it is constructed today. The fact that Pikiell fully recognizes that fact is progress.
Let's acknowledge that playing a fast paced style with a free flowing offense and a pressing defense is something various coaches have attempted and failed to achieve at Rutgers over the past decade plus. A key failure during Eddie Jordan's tenure was his inability to make adjustments based on the personnel of his own team and how they matched up against their opponent. Rutgers continued to play man to man and pushed the ball up the court at times last season, despite playing with as few as six or seven scholarship players for several games. It was a recipe for disaster and the results were predictable.
Pikiell's track record indicates his approach will be different and he reinforced that by stressing during this interview that "we have to figure out a way to win." Pikiell spoke in the interview that he saw firsthand his mentor and coach, hall of famer Jim Calhoun, win on defense in the early years at UConn. He spoke of Karl Hobbs, his current associate head coach and former head coach at George Washington, win the Atlantic-10 with their offense. Pikiell himself won the America East on separate occasions by leading the league in offense and defense in different years, winning titles with both styles. The key now is for him and his staff to figure out what type of playing style would suit this team the best next season.
Realistically, I would bet the focus next season will be to become a strong defensive team that plays a deliberate, slow pace on offense. The odds of Rutgers having a full roster of 13 scholarship players for next season seems low, with three open spots currently. Pikiell might even prefer keeping 1-2 spots open for the 2017 recruiting class. Attempting to play a fast paced, pressing style when depth is an issue to start the season could lead to a nightmare beginning for Pikiell. With four players on the roster standing at 6'9" or taller, as well as a lack of shooters, Rutgers needs to utilize their new found size and focus on scoring points in the paint. Slowing down the game will allow their size to be a factor on defense as well.
It's a little less than five months away from the start of training camp. Pikiell and his staff have a lot of work to do, including rebuilding the perception of the program and making inroads on the recruiting trail. However, evaluating the hand they have been dealt with the roster, working to develop each player, and figuring out the best style for the team to be successful with next season is of utmost importance. This is why having such an experienced and well versed staff is so crucial for the future of Rutgers basketball. We have a coach that wants to win on the court anyway possible, regardless of his own personal preference. The staff will be open minded and determined to play in a style that gives them the best chance to win with the roster they have to work with. That fact alone is reason to be optimistic for the immediate future.
While the entire interview is worth watching, coach Pikiell specifically discusses style of play starting at the 20:20 mark of the video.