For fans of any college sports team, rebuilds of their programs after a bad stretch are exciting for the potential long term effect. Hope exists once again. However, it can be difficult to watch and live through in the early stages of such a process. If you are a Rutgers men’s basketball fan, you have likely had the majority of your life transpire through rebuild after rebuild after rebuild. It wasn’t always this way.
From the fall of 1964 until the spring of 1985, Rutgers basketball had 19 winning seasons, two .500 records, and zero losing campaigns. Through the 21 years of success, Rutgers had Bill Foster and Tom Young as their head coaches, with Dick Lloyd bridging the gap for two seasons in between. There was consistency at the top and the program was built upon a strong foundation from their leadership.
Since Young’s departure after the 1985 season and before this season began, Rutgers had just 8 winning seasons in 31 campaigns, spread out over 7 different coaches. I was raised a fan at the beginning of the Craig Littlepage era and I’m thankful that I was too young to know any better at that stage in my life. I’m not going to painfully relive each regime in this space, but only Bob Wenzel was successful bringing the program to the NCAA Tournament and had half of the winning seasons in the 31 years mentioned. Sitting underneath the basket next to the Rutgers bench during the 1989 Atlantic 10 Championship, which many have said is the loudest game in the history of the RAC, is one of the defining sports moments of my life.
While there were moments in the tenures of Kevin Bannon, Gary Waters, Fred Hill, and Mike Rice that many hoped signaled the program was close turning a corner, they ended up only being fleeting. The flaws for each led to cracks in the foundation of the culture they established. All four coaches ended up failing and left on bad terms to various degrees for different reasons. What resulted is a 25 year drought in the NCAA Tournament and a decade of losing seasons.
While there has been a lot of optimism during new head coach Steve Pikiell’s first season in charge of the program, history tells us to proceed with caution. However, I think there are some clear signs that things may finally be different and that positive, lasting change is possible.
The 11-2 start, despite a weak non-conference schedule, was still impressive for a program known for losing games they shouldn’t. The defensive turnaround, finishing last season ranked 235th in adjusted defensive efficiency, to 54th this season so far, has been remarkable. Ranking in the top 20 in the country across multiple rebounding categories has been jaw dropping.
It’s not the improvement in certain statistical categories that have been the most impressive though, in my opinion. It’s the eye test. There are many aspects of this season that appropriately apply to the staff’s mantra of “Knight and Day”. However, I think the effort, fight and togetherness of this team is the greatest improvement this season. They have become that team in the conference that no one else wants to play, because they battle you the entire game. In just one year, a program that rarely put up a fight, now is known as a tough out that never quits.
The talent level is well below the other 13 Big Ten programs and that was apparent in blow out losses to Michigan State, Indiana, and Purdue. The Iowa game at the RAC we can say was their one mulligan and even then, they responded from their worst performance of the season with their first road win in Big Ten play ever at Penn State. That was a clear sign that Pikiell had reached this team by finally breaking through and winning on the road, after he publicly challenged their toughness and maturity.
The foundation that Pikiell and his staff are laying appears to be settling solidly. One thing Pikiell has proven is there is a clearly defined culture under his leadership. There is no star treatment, which was made abundantly clear when he benched Corey Sanders against Wisconsin two days after Christmas, due to him missing a flight that resulted in him missing practice. Pikiell stated if you miss practice, the rule is you don’t start. It was that simple and despite concerns that Sanders may not respond well to that type of discipline, he has gone on to make positive strides as the season has progressed.
Also in that first Wisconsin game, after falling behind 6-0 at the start, Pikiell called a timeout and benched the entire starting five. He subbed in walk-on, Jake Dadika, to run the point on the road against the favorites to win the conference. Rutgers lost the game by 20 points, but a clear message was delivered. If you want to see the court in Pikiell’s program, you better be ready to play the right way and if you are not, he’ll sit you on the bench, regardless of who you are. That sounds basic, but it’s less common than you would think in college sports these days.
Although Ibrahima Diallo has seen his minutes diminish lately, his play in the Seton Hall game, as well as several games after, highlighted a real positive under Pikiell’s leadership. After Diallo played a combined 8 minutes the entire season in 12 games before the Seton Hall contest, he delivered a gutty 18 minute performance. With Rutgers in foul trouble almost immediately, Diallo gave the team a huge lift off the bench and helped them build a 9 point lead at halftime. He finished with 4 rebounds, 3 blocks and brought toughness to the team when they desperately needed it. While the Hall ended up winning the game, having a player who hadn’t been a factor all season, contribute in the manner he did, in the biggest game of the season at the time, was another sign of the culture that is developing. Pikiell preaches to his player to prepare and stay ready. Keeping seldom used players motivated and having them contribute is another example of buy-in.
After reserve Candido Sa didn’t play in the recent loss to Minnesota, Pikiell responded by saying “It’s not Little League baseball. You practice hard, you get opportunities.” He phrased it in a positive way, but made the point he wasn’t pleased with Sa’s effort in practice, so he didn’t play.
The development of a player like Mike Williams, who has endured more losing in the program than anyone else, has been very encouraging. While not the most talented player on the roster, he was unquestionably the MVP of the team the first 15 games, and despite a mid-season slump, was and is still their most efficient player.
Where past Rutgers coaches have failed, Pikiell has already made strides this season.
Gary Waters was never able to successfully integrate into New Jersey basketball circles, which was a detriment to recruiting. While Pikiell has had minor success on the recruiting trail so far, I detailed this week how he and the staff have been everywhere within the state watching a loaded talent base in future classes. While he hasn’t landed a truly big time recruit yet, Pikiell is positioning himself to do so. He has made building relationships locally a priority.
Fred Hill allowed star player Mike Rosario too much freedom and it blew up in his face, among other issues. Pikiell is a far superior in-game coach to Hill, but as cited above, his players are fully aware that it’s his team and they have little choice other than to toe the line if they want to play.
Like Waters, Mike Rice could coach, but he attempted to be respected through fear tactics. Pikiell is respected because of the way he has conducted himself since arriving and the way he has treated the players. Firm, but fair and with compassion.
Eddie Jordan was respected, but was grossly inexperienced with all that the game of college basketball entails. Pikiell is a proven program builder and has said many times that often a situation arises, in which he can relate back to a moment from a previous coaching stop he has had.
The last key difference I see under Pikiell is the quality of staff he has working for him. He has four different staff members in various capacities that have been head coaches previously. Associate head coach Karl Hobbs left UConn, where he won two national championships and the last one just three seasons ago, to join him at Rutgers in the biggest rebuilding job in the country. Brandin Knight and Jay Young were both passed over after head coaching changes in their last jobs, which turned out to be tremendous good fortune for Rutgers. What resulted is arguably the best coaching staff assembled in program history. They took a chance on Pikiell and Rutgers, which is a very positive sign.
The losses have piled up in conference play and it’s easy to get discouraged. Missed free throws and silly turnovers have cost Rutgers games this season. However, it’s clear how much better this team is under Pikiell. It’s not just the improved defense and rebounding, or the much closer margin of losses. This team has fought, scratched, and clawed for pretty much the entire season. The talent is in need of a major upgrade, but for them to be as competitive as they’ve been this season, you can’t help but be encouraged. Don’t forget how low this program was a little less than 12 months ago.
There are no guarantees and Pikiell’s success or failure will largely be determined by his ability to land top talent on the banks. Recruiting is a major challenge and it will take time. He has done a great job building relationships, being visible, and targeting top talent as far out as the class of 2020. He and the staff have a plan. How successful they are in executing it will ultimately determine the ceiling for the program in the next 5 years. He has proven his worth with improving team play and his in-game coaching has been excellent. However, it’s understandable, based on the past three-plus decades of Rutgers basketball, to be skeptical or hesitant that the program will ever be good again. That’s a major hurdle that Pikiell must overcome on the recruiting trail.
As fans, it’s important to have realistic expectations and appreciate each small step the program takes in this rebuilding process. It’s not about worrying if Rutgers will make the NIT in year 3 or 4 or, dare I say, go dancing in March at some point in the next decade. Remember, it took Kevin Willard 6 years to take Seton Hall to the NCAA Tournament and that program wasn’t nearly the rebuild job that Rutgers is.
Winston Churchill said “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." Pikiell knows of the many mistakes that have plagued Rutgers basketball for so long and has taken advice from his mentor, hall of fame coach Jim Calhoun. Look at the culture that has been established this season. Forget stats, Pikiell and this Rutgers team are passing the eye test in pretty much every way you could hope in year one of a program rebuild. With just a few games left, hopefully this team can finish with another win or two. However, no victory this season will be as great as what Pikiell has accomplished in laying a strong foundation for the future. The old house has been gutted and torn down. Another rebuild of Rutgers basketball is under construction yet again, but the view from the bottom is far more promising this time around.