When you want to talk New Jersey hoops, there's one man to go to: Jerry Carino. Carino works for Gannett News Services, specifically the Asbury Park Press and his own blog New Jersey Hoops Haven. With his ear to the ground, there's no better perspective than Carino's to get a feel for how new Rutgers head basketball coach Steve Pikiell's first few months have gone.
Also, he gives a few pointers to fans on what they should look forward to for the future of Rutgers basketball.
On the Banks: Pikiell has been on the job for about 3 months now. What are some of the major changes he's made going away from the Eddie Jordan era already?
Jerry Carino: First of all, he has a more accomplished, better-positioned staff. Part of that is because Rutgers finally opened the checkbook for men's basketball instead of treating the sport like a pimple on the athletic department's buttocks (another example: air conditioning, finally!). It's also because Pikiell is connected in the college game whereas Eddie came in cold from the NBA.
The second big change is in conditioning. The S&C program under Jordan was woefully inadequate, perhaps the single biggest shortcoming of his regime. That's changing in a big way. You're going to see stronger, more durable players this season and in the years ahead.
OtB: With Issa Thiam, Matt Bullock and Candido Sa commited, the Rutgers roster is at 10 players. Do you expect them to add at least one more eligible player?
JC: They had better. Entering the season with 10 scholarship players is asking for trouble. You're two injuries away from being depleted. I expect Pikiell to roll over at least one, probably two scholarships. He's been pretty clear that he'd rather play the long game in terms of scholarship allocation. Smart thinking, but adding one more body is a must in my opinion.
I've been asked: Why doesn't Rutgers go the graduate transfer route? It's been explained to me like this: It's become so enticing to rent an experienced, academically sound player for the low-commitment time frame of one year, that the grad transfer market has become incredibly, ridiculously competitive. Most of the quality grad transfers looking to upgrade want to play in the NCAA Tournament, and Rutgers is not a realistic option in that sense.
OtB: After flirting with the NBA, Corey Sanders is back. How good can he be in 2016-17, and what does he have to do to improve his game?
JC: Corey Sanders has the skill set to be an All-Big Ten player. The determining factor will be how well he responds to a different, more demanding brand of coaching. To be clear: I haven't heard of any problems between Sanders and the new staff. But everybody is always cool in May and June. In December, if some losses mount and Pikiell is pushing Corey hard -- which, of course, he should -- how will Sanders respond? There's no way to predict that right now. Corey can be as good as he wants, but I doubt he's ever been pushed like he will be over the next year.
OtB: What current players do you consider sleepers on the team right now? Who might surprise next year?
JC: Good question. I have to see some workouts before I can give a more definitive answer. But I am curious to see what Pikiell can do with a versatile, promising young guy with a good attitude like Jonathan Laurent. I'll definitely be watching him early on.
In the bigger picture, I suspect that Rutgers isn't as devoid of talent as most people think. Sanders-Freeman-Laurent-Nigel Johnson is a decent nucleus. Depth is more of an issue that core talent. When Freeman got hurt, the entire house collapsed last year because there was zero depth.
I was disappointed to see D.J. Foreman transfer out because he's a talented, hard-working guy who could have benefited tremendously from the new staff. I suspect guys in that mold -- Laurent comes foremost to mind -- will prosper under Pikiell.
OtB: In your opinion, what has to happen for Steve Pikiell to have a successful first year (not just first season)?
JC: To answer this question, let's go back to Eddie Jordan for a minute. I know there's a sentiment out there that Jordan mailed it in. I disagree. Eddie cared deeply and believed in what he was doing. It's just that he was unable to make the transition from fine-tuning NBA stars on the offensive end (his niche as a highly regarded pro assistant) to all that goes into running the modern high-major college program.
Pikiell and his three assistants have won a ton of college basketball games. To me, these are reasonable expectations: to see a team that is improved on defense, that is prepared schematically, that is stronger and better conditioned. I won't be ready to forecast how that might translate to Ws and Ls until November (no one in their right mind should expect an NIT bid out of the gate), but if you watch a lot of basketball, you know these things when you see them.
Recruiting is a tougher question because of its sausage-factory nature (you don't want to know how the sausages are made). Until Pikiell wins some games, it's going to be hard to shake the albatross that decades of losing have yoked around the program's neck. If the program shows improvement on the court, it won't hurt.
OtB: With momentum growing toward building a practice facility and Pikiell being able to hire a high level staff, do you think Rutgers is finally committed to building a winning basketball program?
JC: Yes I do. I loved the Pat Hobbs hire from day one because Pat is a basketball guy. He's moved quickly to undo a lot of the damage Uncle Bob (Mulcahy) inflicted on the program. He's also convinced Barchi to care, or at least to spend. That's no minor feat. Barchi couldn't tell a pick-and-roll from pork roll. From a hoops perspective Pat's done everything right. That should give long-suffering Rutgers fans optimism.
OtB: Is Rutgers truly still a "sleeping giant" still, or has the program been too broken after the past decade? And, depending on your answer to the first question, what is the ceiling for Rutgers basketball over the next decade?
JC: Somewhere in the middle. It's not a sleeping giant but it's not hopeless. The program was very close to taking off under Kevin Bannon and Gary Waters. I don't think it's a stretch to see Rutgers back at that level under Pikiell -- winning 18, 19 games and contesting for NCAA bids. I don't think anyone can reasonably predict Sweet 16s and Final Four runs within a decade, but I suspect the 10-year streak of losing seasons will end sooner rather than later.
Big thanks to Jerry Carino. Make sure you check out NJ Hoops Haven on a daily basis!