Here it is late July and the likelihood of head coach Steve Pikiell entering his first season at Rutgers with just 10 scholarship players grows stronger by the day. The lack of depth is a major concern entering next season. The rough and tumble Big Ten conference can be unforgiving to teams without a full roster, as Rutgers found out the hard way last season. Even so, I find Pikiell’s refusal to take players that are available, but who he doesn’t feel are Big Ten caliber, encouraging. It is part of his ethos as a proven program builder. There are no shortcuts. As coach Norman Dale said, “my team is on the floor.”
With that being said, there is some recent history with the program that should lend to some optimism for next season. There are many negative things remembered about the Mike Rice era at Rutgers. His ability to get the most out of his players on the court during games was not one of them. In Rice’s first season in 2010-2011, Rutgers had just 9 scholarship players on the roster. He led the team to a 15-17 record, despite having such little depth.
Now there are some major differences between what Rice inherited and what Pikiell has. Rutgers went an identical 15-17 the season before Rice entered the fold, the last of the Fred Hill era. As we know, Pikiell inherited a team that went 7-25 and was the worst power five conference team in the country last season.
Rice also inherited three seniors in Jonathan Mitchell, James Beatty, and Mike Coburn. Pikiell inherits none, although Deshawn Freeman and Nigel Johnson enter their fourth years as college students. However, Freeman has only played 7 games for the program after playing his first two years at JUCO power Hutchinson CC in Kansas. Johnson has yet to play a game in a Rutgers uniform, as he sat out last season after transferring from Kansas State. Their age and maturity is similar, but their program experience is far less.
Both Rice and Pikiell inherited bad defensive teams. Let’s use defensive rating as a measurement, which is points allowed per 100 possessions. Rutgers had a defensive rating of 104.8 the season before Rice took over, ranking 276th in the country. Rice made progress his first season with Rutgers finishing with a defensive rating of 100.8, which ranked 164th in the country. Pikiell has a much bigger hill to climb, as Rutgers had an abysmal defensive rating of 111.5, which ranked 336th in the country. The good news is that Pikiell and his assistants have stressed the need to make significant improvements in this area. Pikiell’s track record suggests major progress will be made.
Another similarity between the two rosters is both coaches brought in newcomers who needed to contribute from day one. Rice had a freshman class of forwards Gilvydas Biruta and Mike Poole, as well as guard Austin Carroll. Biruta was a legitimate starter, averaging 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game while leading the team in minutes played that season. Poole was a useful bench player who provided a spark at times, while averaging 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Carroll wasn’t much of a factor and averaged just 2.7 points while playing just over 10 minutes per game. Robert Lumpkins was also new to the roster, transferring from New Mexico State. He didn’t contribute much though, averaging only 3.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in just over 11 minutes per game.
Coach Pikiell is hoping he will get more out of his three newcomers, which include JUCO player Candido Sa, and freshman Issa Thiam and Matt Bullock. Pikiell spoke with Scout’s Sam Hellman this week and had this to say about the trio:
"They're multi-position guys, which helps us a lot. Candido can play three, four and five. Issa can play the one, two and three and Matt Bullock can play the two, three and four. They're multi-position guys, which is good. When you don't have a lot numbers-wise on the roster, you need guys that can play different positions on your roster and the three of them can shoot the ball. You saw our shooting percentages. We need some help in that area."
The versatility of Sa, Thiam and Bullock will be an asset this season, allowing for multiple lineups and for the coaching staff to have flexibility to create certain matchups against opposing teams.
Both Rice and Pikiell lost their leading rebounder from the previous season. Hamady N’Diaye finished his career at Rutgers the year before Rice’s arrival and was drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft. His rebounding and blocking was tough to replace, but Biruta helped ease the loss. Pikiell inherits a team that has seen last season’s leading rebounder D.J. Foreman transfer to St. Louis, following former assistant Van Macon to the Atlantic 10 school. Sa will have every opportunity to fill his shoes and then some.
One major plus in this comparison for Pikiell is that he inherits his top three scorers from last season, while Rice lost leading scorer in Mike Rosario, who transferred to Florida. Corey Sanders, Mike Williams, and Deshawn Freeman all return. In addition, Nigel Johnson will add some scoring punch as well.
Of course, one major difference is Rice coached Rutgers in the Big East conference, while the program enters its third season in the Big Ten with Pikiell now at the helm. Both leagues provide nightly battles, and other than more travel for Pikiell’s squad, the quality of competition is similar.
It’s never ideal to start a season three scholarship players below the maximum allowed. However, credit Pikiell for not panicking and filling a spot or two with a player the staff doesn’t feel is Big Ten caliber. They’ve chosen to develop the players they do have and work to make them better. Like Rice’s first season, one near certain result for next season is that Rutgers will be a much better team defensively. How much better involves a lot of variables, with health being a major one. There is no question Rutgers has far more size this coming season, with Sa, Thiam, Shaq Doorson, and Ibrahima Diallo all standing at 6’9” or above. Nigel Johnson should help defensively in the backcourt as well. Schematically this team will be more versatile and better prepared.
If they can defend, Rutgers will have a chance to win some games they will not be expected to at the start of the season. In the 2010-2011 season, Mike Rice inherited a team that finished the previous season ranked 151st by KenPom. Although they finished his debut season with the same 15-17 record, Rutgers finished 76th in the KenPom. Pikiell inherits a team that finished with the second lowest KenPom rating ever for a power five program at 291st. Progress isn’t measured just in numbers, but how far Rutgers climbs up the KenPom ratings this season will a be clear indicator of positive steps being made. The good news for Rutgers fans is that the #10Strong mantra of Chris Ash’s football team may translate on the hardwood this winter as well.