The 0-4 start to the Big Ten conference schedule has been a clear reminder that there is a significant gap in talent between Rutgers and the rest of the league. First year head coach Steve Pikiell has made many positive changes within the program since his arrival last Spring. He did a great job finding immediate upgrades to the roster in adding grad transfer CJ Gettys and JUCO transfer Candido Sa, as well as securing two solid building block players in freshman Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi.
While this season is about making progress on the court, which has happened despite the recent conference losses, building relationships on the recruiting trail is so critical in laying the foundation for the future of the program. Pikiell and his veteran coaching staff did a good job over the summer in landing class of 2017 guard Geo Baker, as well as recently making in-roads in New York City by securing class of 2018 4-star big man Mamadou Doucoure. Adding a true point guard to the roster in JUCO transfer Souf Mensah also fills a need for next season based on his skill set. However, he does project as a backup, rather than an impact starter.
Now that the class of 2017 is presumably filled at the moment, it allows the staff to focus on what has always been the key for Pikiell’s ability to improve this program, the class of 2018. With Deshawn Freeman, Nigel Johnson, Candido Sa, and Mike Williams running out of eligibility after next season, Pikiell has at least three open scholarships at the moment in addition to Doucoure committed. That gives him a tremendous opportunity to make it a major impact class. It will also allow him to reshape the program with a roster that is composed of mostly players he recruited for the first time in his tenure, which will occur during his third season at Rutgers.
The most positive development during this season is that Pikiell has proven to be a solid practice and in-game coach. Rutgers has improved in defense and rebounding in a dramatic way compared to last season. The team’s consistent effort and willingness to play together are also positive signs. None of those things would be moving in the right direction if Pikiell wasn’t doing a good job leading this team. The national media is noticing as well.
If Steve Pikiell can recruit anywhere near the level of Fred Hill & Mike Rice, then Rutgers will be relevant in the Big Ten. Guy can coach.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 28, 2016
Rutgers hired the right guy in Steve Pikiell. They play with a purpose, and a passion. Progress is happening... https://t.co/8nJP0xuISt— Paul Biancardi (@PaulBiancardi) January 1, 2017
This national writer also wrote about Pikiell being the right fit and our friends at A Daly Dose of Hoops went into detail on the culture change he has implemented since taking over last Spring. Even Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, a sure fire Hall of Famer, praised Pikiell after last week’s postgame press conference.
It’s easy to lose sight of the progress this team has made so far this season, despite the 0-4 start in conference play. What should be clear to anyone paying attention is that the biggest issue with the program at the moment is the need to improve the talent on the roster. As impressive as Pikiell has been in leading Rutgers for the past 9 months, the harsh reality is the ultimate factor in whether he is successful long term comes down to recruiting.
Rutgers has made strides under Steve Pikiell but will need to recruit elite players to consistently compete in the Big Ten. https://t.co/N0Nk37RKC9— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) January 5, 2017
The difference with this coaching regime and the previous one is Pikiell truly understands that and has been relentless on the recruiting trail ever since he arrived at Rutgers. High School basketball in New Jersey opened up play a week or so before Christmas and the coaching staff, including Pikiell, have been highly visible and active in pursuit of landing elite talent. Here are a bunch of recent reports.
Rutgers coaches Steve Pikiell and Jay Young here for triple header to see Linden and Roselle Catholic— NJ Hoops (@NJHoops) December 16, 2016
That quote in Dave’s tweet is from Linden head coach Phil Colicchio, who leads the best public school team in New Jersey. Here is the full quote of what Colicchio said to NJ Advance Media’s Jeremy Schneider from this article:
"Who's Eddie Jordan, that's first off," Linden coach Phil Colicchio said. "Steve Pikiell, one thing I like the best about him, we don't even talk about basketball. We talk about family. How's my family? How's his family? He's just a breath of fresh air for the state of New Jersey and I know kids like Tavon and some of our other young underclassmen are excited about Rutgers."
It highlights the noticeable change in the Rutgers presence on the recruiting trail this season and it was from the first night of the high school season. When a program is so far behind the recruiting game, it takes a coach who knows what it takes to change perception and part of the battle is showing up and being visible. He is doing just that.
Regardless, how top recruits respond to Pikiell and whether they take serious interest in Rutgers is the ultimate question that can only be answered in due time. Let’s look at some new targets, as well as priority recruits for Rutgers at the moment.
John Carroll (MD) 2018 guard Montez Mathis (@MontezMathis) announced an offer from Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell.— Chip Miller (@BLUEChip_Miller) December 18, 2016
Rutgers offered the shooting guard before Christmas and he is an intriguing class of 2018 prospect. He is rated a 3-star recruit by 247 Sports, who indicate Mathis also holds offers from Memphis, UAB, St. John’s, and West Virginia. He also received visits from Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Georgetown since late September. Mathis, who is rated a 4-star recruit by ESPN, states that he also holds offers from USC and N.C. State. He recently scored 24 points and 7 rebounds in helping his high school team John Carroll defeat Providence Day in North Carolina. It’s great to see Pikiell and Rutgers get involved with the talented shooter, which as we know, is a position of need for the program. It appears Pikiell is making a serious run at the Maryland product, as he watched the guard play earlier this week.
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell and UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins are in tonight for 2018 John Carroll guard Montez Mathis— Corey Evans (@coreyevans_10) January 10, 2017
Adam Zagoria wrote about Mathis’ recruitment here and how Rutgers is pursuing him the hardest of any school so far. Corey Evans wrote the same thing here back in late December. Mathis is a high impact scoring guard, which is an area of major need for Rutgers. There is still a long way to go in his recruitment, but it appears Pikiell is doing everything possible to have a legitimate shot with the talented shooting guard.
Kelly is another scoring guard that plays in New York City and is garnering interest from Rutgers. It doesn’t appear that Pikiell has offered him yet, but they are definitely evaluating the 6’5” shooting guard.
Kelly took an official visit to Rutgers on New Year’s Day and was at the RAC for the Penn State game. Despite the disappointing loss, Kelly tweeted how impressed he was from his visit.
Great unofficial visit to Rutgers today great coaches and great environment— CJ KELLY (@Cj_kelly12) January 2, 2017
According to Rivals, Kelly doesn’t hold any high major offers yet, but does have close to a dozen overall, including Rider, Iona, Quinnipiac, NJIT, Stony Brook, as well as interest from Monmouth. While he is not a highly rated recruit at the moment, Rutgers is obviously doing their due diligence with a local city player who could blossom down the road. However, his visit came before JUCO point guard Soaf Mensah committed and Rutgers doesn’t have an open spot in the class of 2017 right now. Keeping options open is not only wise, but necessary in rebuilding the program.
Rutgers offered the 4-star forward in the class of 2018 in early December, which we covered here.
Pikiell watched the 6’8” Mucius just before the New Year.
He also plays for NYC AAU power the PSA Cardinals, where he is teammates with recent commit Mamadou Doucoure. Building a relationship with this local program is very important for the future. According the 247 Sports, Mucius also holds offers from Oregon, Penn State, UMASS, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Virginia Tech, Xavier and Wake Forest. It’s no secret Rutgers needs help in the frontcourt in a bad way and Mucius is an intriguing target. It won’t be easy, but Rutgers appears to be in the thick of his recruitment at the moment.
The Rutgers staff isn’t just working on the class of 2018, as they have been in pursuit of talented prospects in the class of 2019 as well. Hyatt was offered by Rutgers after they watched him play before the new year. The forward is projected to play the wing exclusively at the next level and looks to have a good frame to bulk up with.
Hyatt had 21 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks in the game Rutgers watched him play on December 28th. According to 247 Sports, he holds over a dozen offers already, including Providence, USC, Virginia Tech, and St. John’s. He is certainly a recruit to keep an eye on in the future.
You can’t teach size and 6’11 big man Qudus Wahab has that for sure. The Class of 2019 prospect holds offers from two ACC schools, but hasn’t seen his recruitment blow up yet. It’s key that Rutgers is showing interest now and it will be interesting to see if they offer him soon. He has a lot of room for development, but just a sophomore, he has a world of potential.
According to this article by recruiting analyst Pat Lawless, St. Benedict’s point guard Noah Farrakhan, who is in the class of 2020, is firmly on Rutgers radar. He had this to say to Lawless about his recruitment:
"Florida, Rutgers, Seton Hall and UPenn have all been recruiting me pretty hard," he said. "Florida, Rutgers and UPenn have all extended offers to me."
Obviously there is plenty of time until Farrakhan decides on his college choice, but Rutgers essentially being on him from day one is savvy and sends the right message to the staff of prep powerhouse St. Benedict’s.
The Ranney School
Rutgers watched Scottie Lewis, Bryan Antoine, Alex Klatsky & Ahmadu Sarnor today at The Ranney School (NJ), per a source.— Pat Lawless (@PatLawless_) December 21, 2016
You have probably heard of the dynamic duo of Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, as I’ve profiled them since the summer. Rutgers offered them back in April right after Pikiell took over. However, the duo will literally be able to choose where they want to play in college and are in contact with Kentucky already. While it’s a long shot that Rutgers has a chance with either, Pikiell is wisely making in roads with the up and coming program that the Ranney School has become. They lost by 3 points last night to New Jersey power St. Anthony’s and are well on their way to becoming a top tier program for years to come.
Rutgers offered the 2018 guard in early December and watched him play just a few days ago.
David Duke will have head coaches Ed Cooley (PC), Greg McDermott (Creighton), & Steve Pikiell (Rutgers) at Cushing Academy home game today. pic.twitter.com/AFUzXYBwvo— Rivals Nation (@RivalsNation) January 6, 2017
The 4th best prospect in Massachusetts certainly has peaked Pikiell’s interest and Rutgers appears to be actively pursuing the ultra athletic guard.
If there is one player that can change perception of Rutgers overnight on the recruiting trail, it is 5-star center Naz Reid. The 2018 big man from Roselle Catholic is rated the #10 player in his class by ESPN and has a similar ranking across the board with every recruiting service. To say Rutgers is making him a priority is an understatement. From NJ Advance Media’s Jeremy Schneider in this article here, Naz Reid say this about his recruitment with Rutgers:
"It means a lot, it's showing that they care," Reid said. "They really want me. They're trying their best to have me. (We talk) pretty often, almost every day actually. They text me, call me, every day."
I understand the pessimism that many have in Rutgers having any chance in landing Reid. Over the years, Rutgers has been close to several top in-state recruits, only to get inevitably shut out by college powerhouse programs. Reid certainly has his pick of schools, as he detailed who is targeting him to Pat Lawless in this article:
“Rutgers, Syracuse, Kansas, Maryland, Kentucky, Cal, Louisville and some others are all recruiting me hard,” Reid said. “I’m going to cut things down most likely in the summer. Being that I have this whole school year left I still have to think about who is coming to watch me before I cut things down.”
Also, if you think Reid is a likely one and done player, his message as of now states otherwise. From the same article:
“The first thing that I will base my eventual decision off of will be education,” he said. “Coaching and team chemistry will also be big factors in my recruitment.”
It’s also been speculated that Reid is the type of big prospect that is more inclined to stay close to home for college. He has visited Rutgers a few times since the summer, which I profiled here and here. There is no understating the impact Reid would have on the Rutgers program, both on the court and in recruiting circles. The fact that Pikiell has a great relationship with Reid’s high school coach Dave Boff certainly doesn’t hurt. Pikiell proved his worth to Boff in developing former Roselle Catholic star Jameel Warney into a three-time conference player of the year at Stony Brook. Of any player that Rutgers is recruiting right now, there is no doubt Reid is the most important, both from a skill set need for the program and with prestige in recruiting circles.
The results on the court during Big Ten play have been disappointing, but if you were paying attention all along, it shouldn’t be surprising. We were all hopeful for better results, but there has been noticeable progress this season, despite the recent losses. It’s easy to forget as fans, but Rutgers is considered a massive rebuild in college basketball circles. There are even those who think it’s an impossible challenge and positive results will never happen at Rutgers.
Pikiell is a proven program builder who has dove head first into reconstructing Rutgers basketball. Defense and rebounding is significantly better this season. The players have bought into Pikiell’s system and they look like a real team on the court. It’s important to take the long view and not forget this team was legitimately unwatchable last season. Joyless basketball, as I liked to call it. We finally have a coach fully invested and who has a plan for turning things around. He has done it before and Pikiell has given reasons to be confident he will be able to do it at Rutgers too.
I’ll close with his comment to Jeremy Schneider in this article, which displays his mindset with recruiting right now:
"Obviously there's a lot of great coaches, a lot of great programs here and we're working really hard to build relationships," Pikiell said. "Not just here, but all over the country. We play in the best league in the country and can recruit all over the place. So it's really exciting, but we always want to keep local kids home."
As you can tell from the many players I profiled above, Pikiell is focusing on local players, but is not putting all of his eggs into one basket either. He and the staff are traveling the country during their own season, clearly on a mission to turn over every stone, in order to upgrade the talent on the roster. They aren’t just handing our offers and hoping for the best, which is more commonplace in recruiting then you would think.
It’s going to take time, as cultivating any relationships worth having do, but if they continue to recruit in the dogged, relentless manner they’ve shown so far, it really does feel like it’s only a matter of time before they make a breakthrough. We know he can coach, based on his performance so far this season and past track record. They have already landed 4-star big man in Mamadou Doucoure, so that’s a great start. It just needs to become a regular occurrence now, as the future success of Pikiell at Rutgers relies on his ability to land better players on the banks. If he can do that, the future will be very bright.