Today marks the beginning of preseason practice for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. We are exactly six weeks away from the season opener at home against Molloy. Under new head coach Steve Pikiell, the players have undergone physical transformations and are in far better shape than they were last season, thanks to strength and conditioning coach David Van Dyke. There have been steady offseason workouts on the court as well and players have been working out late night at the RAC.
Now that the team can practice in full during the preseason, there are countless things that each individual player and the team as a whole need to improve on and develop before the start of the season. With that being said, here are five questions that I think are paramount for the coaching staff to find answers to before things tip off for real in mid-November.
Has The Necessary Trust Between Players & Coaches Been Properly Established?
Coach Pikiell has seemingly done everything right in creating a new culture within the program and resetting expectations since his arrival last April. The players are being pushed like never before and the gains they made physically this offseason have been impressive. Now that the majority of their time will be on the court, the players need to learn how Pikiell and the staff want them to play. A total buy-in is needed, or progress will be stunted. Old habits can come back in a flash and the biggest reason that won’t happen is if trust is strong between the coaches and the players.
The demands that Pikiell and assistant Jay Young, who will lead the defense, expect in terms of effort and intensity on that end of the floor will be immense. That can’t be faked. The players must bring a lunch pail everyday and put in the work now, trusting that it will pay off down the road this season and lead to more wins.
Does This Team Have The Ability To Play Multiple Defenses?
Speaking of defense, Pikiell and Young will likely want to be able to play different styles throughout the season. The most maddening part of last season for me was the inability of the previous coaching staff to switch up defensive looks. I expect a lot more flexibility and creativity from this staff, who will look to exploit matchups and utilize their size to stifle opponents.
It all starts with the players putting in the time now, learning different types of zone defenses, as well as the way Pikiell expects man to man played, including switches on screens and when to double up an opposing player. The attitude in their approach to defense, whatever the type or set, is essential to their success. Their understanding of the staff’s defensive philosophy and their ability to play in different styles will be key to being competitive in the Big Ten this season. At a minimum though, this team must buy-in to playing man to man defense at a much higher level.
Can The Coaching Staff Establish A Deep Rotation?
This is a major question that will determine whether this team will actually be able to play the preferred style that Pikiell wants. In Jerry Carino’s Q&A with Pikiell earlier this week, coach gave some insight on his philosophy and the effort he demands.
Carino: How big of a rotation do you see yourself using to start the season?
Pikiell: I don’t have that answer yet. Some years at Stony Brook I played 11, 12 guys. I’d probably like to play more guys---it creates more competition and practices are better. But last year I had guys like Jameel Warney who could play 40 minutes. Part of that is: How long can they play hard for? If Shaq can play hard for four minutes, I’m going to take him out at four minutes.
It all goes back to effort and intensity. If Pikiell can get all 12 scholarship players moving in the same direction in what he wants on the court and they consistently go hard when they are in the game, Rutgers will have a chance to be much more competitive. Building team chemistry is a must.
Last season, six or seven players were getting the bulk of the minutes. It was sometimes by coaches choice and other times by necessity due to attrition. The season is a grind and the team is better conditioned, making them less injury prone hopefully.
If all goes to plan, Pikiell will have a full bench at his disposal and he can be more crafty with his lineups and matchups per each opponent. This will make Rutgers more difficult to prepare for and attack against. They need every edge they can, especially in conference play, so the more dynamic they can be with player combinations in certain lineups, the better.
Who Will Fill The Leadership Void?
This is a big issue, as the only senior on the roster is graduate transfer C.J. Gettys, who has only been with the program for about a month. I look at Nigel Johnson as someone who is crucial, both for his playmaking ability, as well as his maturity and growth entering his fourth year of college. He has been putting in a lot of time after hours and seems primed to have a big season.
Deshawn Freeman is also entering his fourth year, but he is still battling back from injury and also was suspended last season. Freeman needs to focus on being a solid contributor, especially as a scoring presence in the frontcourt, and leading by example.
Candido Sa is a newcomer, but will be 24 years old soon and should have the maturity to set a positive example on and off the court. He is poised to be a fierce rim protector.
Perhaps the steadiest presence on this team is Mike Williams. He has been a consummate team player during his time on the banks and always seems to take a positive approach in everything he does. Entering his junior year, it would be great to see him be a more vocal leader on the court. In terms of his play, he isn’t flashy, but he is versatile, does the little things well that don’t show up in the box score, and hopefully is primed to become a consistent, reliable shooter from three-point range for the first time in his career.
There is no doubt the most heralded player on the roster, Corey Sanders, needs to make a leap in leading this team. We all know the impact he can make on the court, but his ability to buy into the plan that coach Pikiell wants is a major key to the season. He is the point guard and needs to dictate everything on the court in the manner Pikiell wants him to. His decision making is crucial and he must cut down on his 3.1 turnover per game average last season. Sanders needs to not only follow the plan himself, but he needs to keep the rest of the team in check as well.
Perhaps he isn’t a vocal guy and being the leader doesn’t come naturally, which is okay. If the team sees him leading the offense and playing unselfishly, it will create a trickle down effect and get everyone involved playing the right way. I really believe having Nigel Johnson as a backcourt mate will elevate both of their play and could ultimately lead this team together, both on and off the court, along with Williams. If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be difficult to get the team moving in the same direction. The mistakes that led to suspensions for Sanders and Freeman last season need to be a thing of the past. I’m confident under the direction of the new coaching staff they will be.
Can Pikiell Cure Disease Of Losing Mindset?
There is no doubt that the players on this team returning from last season have been exposed to the disease that is losing. It can become a major mental hurdle and doubt can creep in as adversity hits. A major issue last season was the inability to stop the opposition from going on big runs and essentially putting the game out of reach in one fell swoop. The mental lapses that trigger these runs need to be limited and prevent a domino effect of mistakes from occurring. That cannot happen this season, and that’s why playing better defense with multiple looks, playing a deeper bench, and having leaders to push this team above it, is so important.
They cannot crumble when bad things happen and in a 31 game season, adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. The mental toughness is crucial to progress on the court and Pikiell has been working on that since his arrival. Preseason practice is when the players need to wipe the slate clean and believe in what the new coaching staff is telling them. It’s likely the players realize they are being prepared in a far different and more complete way than ever before. That should hopefully breed confidence and establish a belief that these guys can compete in the Big Ten and that their preparation is getting them ready for a better season ahead. We all hope that is the case. With six weeks until the season starts, the real work begins today.