We are less than two weeks away from the official start of the second season for Rutgers Basketball in the Steve Pikiell era. While the program is still in the early stages of rebuilding, it’s obvious that Pikiell has things moving in the right direction. Several firsts in Big Ten play occurred last season on the court, the team more than doubled its win total from the previous year, and recruiting is going very well, both in players added to this season’s roster, the 2018 class that’s committed, and the quality of recruits being targeted in future classes. The culture of the program appears as strong as it’s been in a very long time.
As fans, it’s easy to get caught up in just wins and losses. The reality is there are so many little things behind the scenes that need to occur when a new coach takes over a program in order to be successful in a major rebuild like the one Pikiell is attempting at Rutgers. During Big Ten media day last week, Steve Pikiell was asked about the many challenges that a coach has when rebuilding a program and what his mindset has been during the early stages at Rutgers. He was very successful in turning Stony Brook from a bottom feeder into a respected and winning program. That led to the next step in his career, rebuilding Rutgers basketball. Here is how Pikiell described what last year was like.
“You always have challenges in any rebuild anywhere you are. There are going to be challenges roster wise. There are going to be challenges facility wise. There are going to be challenges with your fan base. There are going to be challenges with the media. We have to prove that we can win in this league. I think we took a step last year winning four games, including a game on the road, which we hadn’t had done. Winning a game in the conference tournament, which we hadn’t done. Every year I think you check some things off.”
Of course, recruiting is a major piece to the puzzle and Pikiell has already had success in that area. Adding Geo Baker, Mamadou Doucoure, and Myles Johnson to the roster this season, all former 3 & 4-star recruits, was an important step in adding talent to the program. Pikiell spoke about the natural progression you must make with the roster during a rebuild.
“All the places I’ve been, check another thing off and then another. Eventually, get better players. Players get older. Get some more pieces of the puzzle that you need. We need a 7 foot shot blocker. They don’t grow on trees. You just have to keep checking things off as you build.”
Another area Pikiell stressed in being important is consistency within his staff. Rutgers has experienced plenty of staff turnover through the years. However, Pikiell was able to return his entire support staff, who are so crucial in the everyday operations of the program, as well as assistant coaches Karl Hobbs, Jay Young, and Brandin Knight. He spoke about the importance of maintaining consistency with his staff heading into year two.
“And then I think consistency within your program. Keeping my staff (together) this year is a very important part of it. All of them were getting phone calls. That was a big step in this, because we need to make Rutgers basketball consistent. Both with the roster and with people that surround the program. Pat Hobbs getting a contract extension maintains consistency. There have been a lot of AD’s the past few years, so I think that is important. I think we are taking those steps to keep the talent that we do have in all of our sports. I think everyone of my assistants can be a head coach today. I don’t want them to leave for another assistant job. I want them to leave for a head coaching job. I want to make Rutgers a destination that you can come, you can do a great job here, and when the right head coaching job becomes available, that’s when you leave. There are little victories that you don’t see show up in the win/loss column and don’t show up in my record, but those were big victories.”
In terms of on the court, Pikiell has high expectations for his team this season. Two areas that improved significantly in his first season was with defense and rebounding. While the improvement was obvious from the previous season, it wasn’t enough by Pikiell’s standards.
“I really want us to get to a point, I didn’t think we were great defensively last year, I want to be an elite defensive team. I didn’t think we were an elite rebounding team, I want to get us there. I want to get to a point where we can really sleep on those things every night. I want us to be one of the most unselfish teams in the country. I didn’t feel that way last year with our team. It doesn’t matter, those are things that don’t take talent to do. Any team can be unselfish, block out, teams can defend. I want to check off more of those categories.”
Pikiell’s affection for his home court is no secret and he truly believes the RAC can become a major home court advantage for his team.
“I love the RAC. I want to continue to pack the RAC and make that the toughest place in the Big Ten to play. I think we have the potential to do that with our guys. It’s become a hard place and I think it’s going to become an even harder place to play as we continue to move forward here. That’s part of the build too.”
While adding talent is paramount for the program, Pikiell understands the importance of developing the team’s confidence in order to make even more progress on the court this season.
“I also want our guys to continue to grow with confidence. What we are doing now is going to pay dividends down the road. We took a little step of that when we jumped on that bus last year and beat an Ohio State team that had never lost an opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament game. Our guys got on the bus and we had never won in that tournament before. We checked that box off. When we come to New York in March, we expect to win and be around for a few days.”
As for big picture goals for his players, Pikiell makes it clear how important their development is in his program.
“I want to continue to graduate my guys. I want to continue to have guys that play for me to keep playing professionally. We had CJ Gettys and we did that. We have three seniors this year and I expect them all to get their degrees and for all three to keep playing professionally.”
Culture is so important with any successful program and it’s clear Pikiell understands that through his experience in rebuilding Stony Brook, as well as taking part in others previously at UConn, Central Connecticut State, and George Washington. There hasn’t been much Pikiell hasn’t seen in terms of challenges and obstacles that arise during a rebuild. At the core of anything successful in life is quality people that bring positive traits to a cause larger than themselves. Those are the type of recruits he is targeting and his authenticity is key in getting players like that to believe in what he is doing at Rutgers. It’s worked so far and is a major reason fans should be optimistic about Rutgers basketball, both now and in the future.
“Keep building our program around that with good people, high character kids that do the right thing. The winning will come, it will be a product of those things.”
Year two of the Pikiell era tips off on November 10th.