There is no question that year one for Steve Pikiell at Rutgers was a resounding success. While the program was at a low point when he took over in April of 2016, his influence on every aspect led to major progress last season. Rutgers won more than double the games they did the previous year, as well as more Big Ten victories than ever before, including the first conference tournament win since joining the league in 2014. However, there is no question there is still a long way for this program to go, one that is searching for their first winning campaign in 12 seasons.
One thing is for sure is that there is more interest in Rutgers basketball entering year two of Pikiell at the helm. In the hour sit down session with players and coaches at Big Ten media day, there were far more media members asking questions than last year. It was a sign that Rutgers is piquing the interest more than ever of those who cover Big Ten basketball. The good news is that there is reason to believe that the team can make even more progress on the court this season.
I asked coach Pikiell how important it's been to have more continuity this past offseason and in the preseason, compared to last year when everyone was learning his system and adjusting to his expectations. He was very confident that it's been a big benefit and the team is much farther ahead at this point of the preseason versus a year ago. Pikiell had this to say:
"Last year at this time, I watch the tape from last year, we are 1000% better. We're different. Our leadership is better. The players that came back are better. Players that we brought in bring different skill sets that we didn't have last year. Our practices are longer, I can compete for longer. They compete more in practice than they did. We keep score more. Last year, we couldn't even keep score. Our guys are healthier. My staff knows more of what we want to do. We all know what the league looks like, so that was a learning experience in of itself. We played games on the road at Michigan State, at Wisconsin. I think we'll be better equipped this year going to those places."
A lot of the factors he mentioned that are improved this year demonstrate how complex the rebuilding of Rutgers basketball really is. Pikiell has said before how poorly conditioned the players were when he took over, but the fact is the learning curve was steep in so many different areas last season. However, Pikiell was blunt in the fact that there are still many areas this team needs to improve on this season.
"I really like the step that we've taken. I think you'll see that we're better, we are just better. Where that leads us this year, I don't know yet. Hopefully, we stay healthy. Hopefully, we improve in the free throw department which wasn't good last year. Turnovers weren't good. If we can improve a little bit in those areas too, that may help us win a few more games. But I like the progress. I've been through this before, year two is always the hardest year. People always wonder why. Year one you are figuring your team out and expectations are lower."
Pikiell elaborated on how low expectations really were from fans last season, as he learned how starved for success the Rutgers fan base had become.
"Some people would send me emails "You guys played hard" and I was like okay. I didn't understand that, maybe they didn't the year before, I don't know. We didn't play hard. Thanks for the email, I appreciate it, go Scarlet Knights, but that's not how I judged our team last year. We had opportunities to win games. I thought if our chemistry was better, I thought the locker room, leadership, all of those things that we could probably control. You can't control sometimes whether you make every shot or not. I focus on what we can control. Things like competing in practice, be tough, get to bed at night, stay healthy, pass the ball, make the extra pass, don't worry about video after the game, those types of things. I think we did a decent job last year. Hopefully, we can make a big jump in some of those areas this year and it will help us win."
I also asked Pikiell if there was any truth to the theory that improving a team from 7 wins to 15 wins, as he did last season, is actually easier than now taking them from 15 wins to an 18 to 20 win range, something Rutgers fans are hoping for sooner rather than later. He agreed.
"I think there is. Now people know we are a lot better. People are going to be more prepared for us. People are going to respect us a little more."
How will Pikiell know when that respect is at a level that other teams actually fear Rutgers? The old school coach had an old school answer.
"I'm going to know when our program has taken that next step when my phone stops ringing for scheduling. I'm really going to know then. I knew it at Stony Brook. I was on everyone's speed dial in the country at the beginning there. And then at Stony Brook we have the player of the year in Tommy Brenton, the phone wasn't ringing as much. Then we got Jameel Warney and we really won, then no one ever called. I'm going to know. We don't have that yet, my phone still rings everyday still. That will be the next step for me that our program has gotten some respect."
As for the players wanting to earn that respect, Pikiell said it's at the forefront of everything they do.
"I like the fact that I think our guys are fighting for respect. I tell them that everyday. That's what we fight for. We fight for respect and you fight for this uniform. You fight for yourself. You fight for the "R" too. You fight for your teammates. That will be the next step for me. Other coaches will tell you where you are as a program. When they're calling you all the time, they're telling you where you are."
After being picked to finish last in the Big Ten again this season, the only place Rutgers has finished in the previous three campaigns since joining the conference, the search for respect begins in just a few weeks. The signs are there that the needle is starting to move in the right direction. In order for Pikiell's phone to stop ringing though, Rutgers needs to prove the doubters wrong and have their best season yet in Big Ten conference play. That would mean at least four regular season conference wins and avoiding finishing in last place.
With a veteran core, talented newcomers, and a strong culture established last year to build off of, more progress is the goal for this season. Hopefully, this team can be the one to end the streak of losing seasons and force coach Pikiell's phone to start ringing for the right reasons, because people want to know how he turned Rutgers basketball into a winner!