The Rutgers men's basketball program held its annual media day on Wednesday afternoon and I was fortunate to be there. Head coach Steve Pikiell seemed pleased with the team he has assembled, the improved competition and culture that exists entering his second season on the banks.
"I'm very excited about the addition of our newcomers, but I'm most excited that all of our veterans have come back focused and better," Pikiell said. "Experience is always one of the greatest traits you can have. We have veterans who have been through some wars that can help us."
I asked coach about the importance of having returning captains back in Mike Williams and Deshawn Freeman. He gave great detail on how the culture has improved this season, which bodes well for this team's ability to compete in Big Ten play.
"Huge. Every drill isn't new. They've lived with me. The locker room. My philosophy. Having guys back that have bought in and returned have done a great job with that. I think Corey (Sanders) has improved a ton too in those areas. We have three seniors now in Candido, Mike, and Deshawn. I'd really love to have a great year for those guys. The only thing they haven't done yet is have a winning season and experience postseason bids. I'm really excited about their leadership. We still have to continue to improve in those areas, but all of the returning guys have been better in those areas and I'm very thankful for that. I want them to take it to the next level . Be elite leaders and be elite practice players. Those guys have certainly done a real good job. They've improved a lot. They've been in the gym more. They've been in the weight room more. You can tell by how they are playing now."
Another sign that this team is taking on the personality of its head coach was seeing many players come over to shake hands and thank any visitors still watching at the end of practice. It was common for Pikiell to do this at press conference's last season and now his players are doing the same.
The season tips off nine days from now. Here are some thoughts and observations from today's practice.
This team is in better shape, both with physical strength and conditioning. The pace of practice was intense and the players are constantly in motion. Players were really battling each other throughout. Bringing in guys like Souf Mensah, Myles Johnson, and Mamadou Doucoure have added size to the roster as well. The team certainly looks more Big Ten-like on the court, that's for sure.
Every player I spoke with raved about the improved chemistry and how much closer they are as a team this season. Hanging out off the court and having midnight shootarounds are common occurrences this year. The players seem to genuinely like each other and they were supportive of one another during practice. Whenever a player fell to the floor, there were two teammates there to pick him up. Those types of little things add up in building a team.
Shooting is still an issue. While there was plenty of time allotted to shooting, it's an area that is still a work in progress. There was plenty of focus on free throws as well, especially after high intensity drills. A player is also randomly called to the line during full court drills and most of the time, they made it. As I've preached before, there is no magical cure, but the players have been putting in a lot of extra shooting time outside of practice as well.
There was plenty of running in transition and defensive drills during practice. This team works hard and pushed the pace throughout the 2+ hour session. They are more athletic and will look to run more this season. Pikiell has talked about the need to run constantly in practice in order to be able to run in games. They certainly did today.
Geo Baker looks the part and can really shoot. After a few intense drills, one after the other, he shot rapid fire free throws and made seven in a row. Pikiell yelled "automatic" across the floor after watching Baker's display. Towards the end of practice, Baker put together another streak at the charity stripe, making eight in a row. He has a poise about him that's very un-freshman like. Baker told me he is willing to do anything that will help the team and whatever that is asked of him. He also has a chip on his shoulder to prove the recruiting services wrong. Geo will be a major addition to this team this season and fans will love watching him the next four years.
Mamadou Doucoure has a real hop in his step, is a physically imposing player, and plays with confidence and swagger. He brought energy and knows how to use his body in the paint. Doucoure can run the floor well and will allow this team to push it in transition, as well as defend it against more so than last season. He even flashed a better shooting touch than I expected. The "Duke" is still raw and his development will take time, but you can see the potential in him to be a real difference maker for this program.
Myles Johnson is a space eater in the paint, but moves really well for his size. He has great hands, as advertised, and keeps the ball high when he catches it in the paint, something younger players struggle with. He told me he's lost 11 pounds since joining the program, but added muscle. Johnson still has to better develop his body, but he was excited about doing so and raved about strength and conditioning director David Van Dyke. As he continues to improve physically, he will only get better on the court.
Eugene Omoruyi is a physical specimen and his toughness really stood out. He will certainly be a key player in the rotation this season. He only got stronger as practice wore on and started to show his improvement on the offensive end. Omoruyi is more confident and sure of himself on the court, which is a great sign that he'll contribute more than his freshman campaign this season.
Shaq Doorson practiced in full and is rounding into shape. His ability to give this team some minutes off the bench, particularly in Big Ten play, will be very important.
Mike Williams exemplifies the toughness Pikiell wants from this team and he was challenged by the head coach in rebounding drills. He was often matched against a frontcourt player with Pikiell calling him the best rebounding guard in the Big Ten "last season." As always, Williams was up for the challenge and held his own. He has a real knack for scrapping his way to the basketball. He is also a true leader on this team, often encouraging players and correcting their positioning if needed.
Thoughts On Starting Lineup/Rotation
Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman are obviously locks to start again this season. Freshman guard Geo Baker looks like a four year starter and seems ready to have a big impact on this team. He does need to continue to bulk up and that will take time, but he is already a highly skilled player. I think Candido Sa and Mamadou Doucoure will rotate often during games, with "The Duke" likely to start early on. As for the fifth starting spot, I think it will be a mix of Mike Williams, Eugene Omoruyi, and Issa Thiam. It will likely depend on the opponent, although I think Williams could come off the bench on a regular basis, similar to last season. It really doesn't matter in regard to Williams, as he will likely be on the floor at the end of games.
Pikiell spoke about how who starts means little to him, but that he understands it means a lot to the players. The group that I expect to see together on the court a lot at the end of games are Sanders, Williams, Baker, Freeman, and Doucoure.
The benefit of having three guards on the floor at the same time was evident on one sequence. Corey Sanders was at the top of the key and passed to Baker in the middle of the paint, who immediately touched pass the basketball to Mike Williams behind the arc, who then drained a baseline three-pointer. It was a thing of beauty.
There is no doubt this team is better and farther along than at this point in Pikiell's first season. Continuity, improved team chemistry, as well as added depth and talent make this an interesting team heading into this season. Rutgers will play St. John's in a charity exhibition this Sunday before the season tips off next Friday against CCNY. There is a long way to go to get the program where Pikiell wants it. However, there are a lot of encouraging signs from this offseason, which were backed up today, that give hope this team will produce the first winning campaign for the program in 12 seasons.