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Rutgers Men’s Basketball: The Difference In Steve Pikiell’s Rebuild So Far

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Mired in a two game losing streak, it’s important to not lose sight of the big picture

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The sky is not falling Rutgers fans. What you are feeling is actually a speed bump that the men’s basketball team drove over too quickly, not disaster all around you. The two game losing streak started with a scrappy Stony Brook team that knew Pikiell better than any other opponent ever will and delivered a disappointing, but not surprising defeat. It has been said Rutgers got out-Pikiell’d. The loss to Hartford is a brutal one and unacceptable based on the level this team has played against top competition this season. After the high of coming from behind to beat Seton Hall, the bottom has fallen out.

The losing streak and defeat to Hartford in particular is also an easy one to hold up and say “see, another coach that can’t win at Rutgers” or “same old Rutgers”. I’ve read it plenty on message boards and social media since Thursday night. There is no doubt that it’s been a very Rutgers-esque cycle of events. Upset a big name team and then fall to a team they should have beaten soon after. It’s happened in multiple sports for years. Remember with another rebuild taking place, it wasn’t that long ago that the football team lost to Eastern Michigan and Dave White reminded us of needing patience. That was before Rutgers won three Big Ten games this past fall. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this recent two game setback since upsetting Seton Hall is a clear sign that hope and belief in the men’s basketball rebuild under Pikiell is fading. Let history remind us of key differences in this rebuild versus the others and why that is not the case this time around.

Losing faith after the past two games would be a one dimensional view of the rebuild so far under Pikiell. There is greater depth and balance under his direction than Rutgers has had since Bob Wenzel was head coach over two decades ago, the last coach to take the program to the NCAA Tournament. Pikiell has shown competency in the flaws that failed his predecessors post-Wenzel and the difference in his tenure is a strong emphasis on culture above all else. Let’s look back before focusing on the current culture of the Rutgers men’s basketball team.

Kevin Bannon (1997-2001) could recruit and had some moments, including two NIT appearances, having the team 17-7 in 1998-1999 before losing the last four games of the regular season ruined NCAA hopes. Rutgers also stunned Georgetown and advanced to the semifinals of the 1998 Big East Tournament, the only time the program made it that far. However, Bannon ruined the culture of the program with stupid antics, including the naked free throw incident, showing up late to a shootaround, and exhibited odd behavior at times that helped contribute to star players transferring, including Earl Johnson, Todd Billet, and Dahntay Jones.

Gary Waters replaced Bannon and produced three winning seasons in five years, including the last one in program history. He made the NIT each of those seasons, but failed to get Rutgers back to the NCAA Tournament. Despite the fact that he could flat out coach, Waters made a key strategical error by not building strong local recruiting ties, as well as having the wrong mix of assistants, and the culture under his direction wasn’t strong enough in holding his players accountable with academics.

Fred Hill Jr., the son of legendary Rutgers baseball coach Fred Hill Sr., was an assistant under Waters and replaced him. He was a great recruiter, but the culture he created was toxic. It was not a secret that former McDonald’s All-American Mike Rosario was coddled and disrepected Hill often, which in part helped the head coach lose his team. Hill wasn’t a good tactical in-game coach either, winning more than 11 games in a season just once. He flamed out after four seasons when he had a bizarre incident at his father’s baseball game, screaming at Pitt coaches and disobeying then athletic director Tim Pernetti by returning to the next day’s game. He couldn’t control himself or his star player and thus failed the program due to a lack of leadership.

Mike Rice ruined the culture with his antics and abusive tactics that came to light on practice tapes released at the end of the 2012-2013 season. Rice exhibited an ability to recruit and was a sound in-game coach, giving hope he would be the guy to turn around Rutgers basketball. However, his fiery personality and behavior was his undoing, embarrassing the university and leaving the program in shambles.

Enter Eddie Jordan, the former star point guard on the greatest Rutgers team ever, the 1976 Final Four squad, who was hired to heal the program soon after the Rice scandal. While Eddie did hold his players accountable and restored order, there were a lot of issues. The program had no local recruiting presence under his direction and he took guys lacking high major talent. His lack of preparation and lack of demands of his players on the court, as well as his in-game coaching, resulted in the team winning less games in each of his three seasons. Jordan bleeds scarlet and is a legend for his own playing career on the banks, but a change was needed. Rutgers won it’s fewest games in 28 years in Jordan’s last season, finishing 7-25.

The standards were so low that the reality is there were multiple coaches that could have been hired that would have immediately improved the program. Steve Pikiell wasn’t the first choice of athletic director Pat Hobbs, but he has proven to be the right choice to lead this program from the black cloud that has hovered over it for the past two decades. Two losses to low and mid-major teams Rutgers should have beaten is certainly disappointing and not something that can occur on a regular basis, but some reactions since has surprised me. Pikiell has exhibited a lot of traits that give hope he will be the coach to truly turn around the program. If anything, this two game losing streak has made him a victim of his own success by exceeding expectations so much in such a quick period of time. It’s only year two of a massive rebuild after taking over the worst high major in all of college basketball and it wasn’t even close to the next worst one. Despite these two losses, there are clear signs that things will be different this time around.

Pikiell has been a rock steady presence since his arrival and has shown a clear emphasis on culture above all else. He’s not the first Rutgers coach to bench a player or discipline one, but he seems to value it more and regardless of consequence on an individual game. Pikiell has disciplined the best scorer on the team, Corey Sanders, multiple times over the past two seasons. He benched him the past two years in the first game back from Christmas break for missing practice due to missing his flights to New Jersey. He benched him this season at the start of a game for not practicing hard enough and then benched him at the end of the Minnesota game for picking up a technical foul. Pikiell benched Nigel Johnson last season twice for not sharing the basketball the way he wanted him too. He sat his entire starting lineup last season after they fell behind early on and inserted the end of the bench in the first half of a Big Ten game to send a message.

Those decisions are key in building a solid foundation for the program, as well as sending a message to more than just his current players. It helps in recruiting to make sure he and the staff are finding the right prospects to build the future on.

There is no doubt that Pikiell runs a tight ship and the way he runs the program is organized, demanding, and on the court he focuses on team play, defense, and rebounding. He inherited a roster lacking Big Ten talent and depth, as well as needing to revamp the entire strength and conditioning program. Pikiell has coached the team in a way to get the most out what he does have on the roster. He had not made one misstep until Rutgers choked on their own success after beating Seton Hall and is now mired in this frustrating two game losing streak. Part of rebuilding a program isn’t just teaching a team how to win, but for them to learn how to handle success as well. They’ve failed that test and responsibility falls on the players and the coaches in doing so.

It’s also possible for Pikiell to be the right leader here and still get outcoached at times, which did happen against the 1-3-1 zone of Hartford. It was a rarity to witness in his tenure on the banks, but it certainly was a factor in the loss, as the offense struggled badly against it. However, he’s given every reason to believe he will figure out the way Rutgers can succeed against it in the future. Teams will game plan against its opponent in different ways at this point in the season and even hall of fame coaches get outcoached and have to adjust. Pikiell is a very good in-game coach who uses timeouts strategically well, runs effective in-bounds plays, and limits three-point attempts wisely. He has shown he can recruit well, despite having years of losing as a backdrop for opposing programs to use against him.

It’s only year two of Pikiell’s rebuild and plenty of questions remain. Can he recruit at a high enough level to succeed in Big Ten? Can he develop enough players on the roster to get results? Will he develop good players into great ones? Can he become a top tier coach at this level? Only time will tell, but it’s important that fans look at the big picture and realize time is what Pikiell really needs. He has done this before, turning Stony Brook from a never was program into a conference powerhouse in the America East. Patience is needed. Two years ago most fans tuned out the Rutgers men’s basketball team because it was a joyless experience to follow them. I’ll take heartbreak over apathy any day, because hope existed over having none.

It’s absolutely fair to be furious about the loss to Hartford. As I wrote in my recap, it was an unacceptable loss for a team that has played at a much higher level with much greater effort than what we saw on Thursday. Whether Rutgers can produce enough victories to achieve the program’s first winning campaign in 12 seasons remains to be seen. It won’t be easy now, as Rutgers needs seven wins against Big Ten competition during the regular season and conference tournament play to do it. However, it’s important to remember where this program was just two years ago, when they only won seven games in an entire season. Even having hope for a winning season in year two of the Pikiell era marks progress. No matter what happens the rest of this season, Pikiell shouldn’t be fully judged until he has a roster full of his own players and recruits.

There will still be ups and downs in every season, but having perspective is key. The Rutgers job was considered the toughest in college basketball when Pikiell took over in April 2016. Rebuilds take time and are messy. However, there has been enough evidence to see that more positives are happening with this program than in many years and it all goes back to the strong culture that Steve Pikiell is building at Rutgers, something that was the root of the failure of the many coaches before him.