The Steve Pikiell Era truly kicks off 17 days, when college basketball teams can finally hold official practices.
The new coach and his exciting, experienced staff is the sixth new basketball coach since I’ve closely followed Rutgers hoops. Kevin Bannon, Gary Waters, Fred Hill, Mike Rice and Eddie Jordan graced the halls of the RAC and couldn’t turn this program into a consistent NCAA program. Bannon and Waters had their moments where their teams were on the bubble. But since then:
Fool me once.
Fool me twice.
Fool me three times.
Starting in 2006, each coaching transition brought a certain amount of excitement with it for me. I was always convinced that this was the guy who was going to get it done. Hill was the best recruiter fans had seen here in a while. Mike Rice was also a good recruiter and then he had one of the most exciting seasons on the court in recent memory. Even Eddie Jordan was able to pull together solid talent after the Rice scandal, and was about to put a team on the floor that looked athletic and versatile.
And all them had reasons they ultimately failed.
So, as excited as I am about the Pikiell era, I am bringing a healthy dose of cynicism along with it. I’ve seen excitement crumble in the middle of December. I’ve seen promising rosters fractured because of poor handling of chemistry. And sometimes, the basketball on the court hasn’t been recognizable anymore.
Now, the Pikiell era: Thus far everything has been good. Hell, it’s been great. There’s been an opening of the Rutgers’ wallet in order to hire the most exciting and experienced developmental staff in the past twenty years. These coaches have recruited high level talent to their previous schools, which brings hope for the future.
Pikiell filled the roster with players who, while not superstars, do have intriguing upside. Matt Bullock is a pure winner, the kid who led a powerhouse program while not being highly ranked on the recruiting trail. They beat out Pittsburgh and Texas for Candido Sa—who could be a defensive force in the middle. Eugene Omoruyi was recruited by Marquette and USC, teams on the rise, but still came to Rutgers once his eligibility was sorted. Issa Thiam is, by all accounts, a Big Ten player and, if he can hit the 3 from the wing, is a potential mismatch at 6’9”. And finally, CJ Gettys is late August icing on the cake. A 7 foot kid with NCAA experience to help group a big time front line.
And looking forward to the future? Currently, Rutgers has two open scholarship. They’ve filled one with a verbal commitment from Geo Baker, a combo guard targeted by mostly A-10 schools. Baker can share the ball, hit the three, and has length that will be an asset on the defensive end.
At the same time, they’re locked in a recruiting duel with Georgia Tech and hated rival Seton Hall for top 150 point guard Jose Alvarado. Landing Alvarado would help cure some of my cynicism. Alvarado has long been Pikiell’s top target, but the appearance of these other schools causes some consternation. Alvarado is the kind of player Rutgers has lost out on in the past. A top target who, at the last minute, goes somewhere else.
And, finally, the Big Ten Build project is ramping up, as Pat Hobbs moves toward his goal of 100 million dollars in order to get a new practice facility building off the ground.
The pieces to turn Rutgers basketball into a force are in play. But everything looks great when a new coach takes over. I want to believe, but can Rutgers make the move from potential to reality?
That’s where my cynicism rolls in. Something always gets in the way. The odds have to even out, but I’m not in a “show me” mode. It’s why I can’t wait for this season to start. I can’t wait to see what the team looks like on the court.
Because, in all honesty, people—not me—but high school and AAU power brokers needs to believe. Steve Pikiell needs to make this team take the next step. He has to win more games than last season (not hard), and then he has to do more. He has to make the top teams worried. The RAC has to become the feared arena it was in the early 2000s.
Students need to come back in force. Bring Fat Heads. Bring signs. Wear crazy costumes. Make it a fun college student section. Be loud, be intimidating, and be the force that hurtles Rutgers to an upset based on momentum alone.
It’s been done, kids. You just haven’t witnessed it.
Corey Sanders needs to upset a team with a game winning three. Or even better, with an unbelievable assist. He’s a highlight reel. He can do it.
The roar of a plane in a hanger has to return. Make the RAC deafening.
Let’s get a shovel in the ground.
An opposing coach needs to be so concerned about Pikiell that he doesn’t compliment the way the program is being built.
The Steve Pikiell era is off to a rousing start, it truly is. But long time Rutgers supporters have seen this before. The on the court play will tell us a lot.
Right now, Pikiell, Karl Hobbs, Brandin Knight, and Jay Young are pounding the pavement looking for any way to make this program better. It’s what college coaches and staffs are supposed to do. And it seems even more exciting because of what has come before.
In 17 days, the real test begins. Land Alvarado. Play hard nosed basketball. Surprise some teams.
I believe in Pikiell, and I can’t wait to see it happen. No more surprises. Just solid program building. That’s what this program needs.
Maybe this time it’s different. Maybe this time it’s real. Maybe, just maybe, this time I won’t get fooled again. I want the burn out to go away, and the fire in my belly to come back. It’s starting to. I can feel it.
No more cynicism. More optimism.
Because, like Greg Schiano once said, it’s time.
Not only is Dave White a huge basketball fan, but he’s also an author of a series of thrillers set near Rutgers. He’d love for you to pre-order his latest book Blind to Sin.