Rather than harp on the statistics that indicate obvious and significant progress in head coach Steve Pikiell’s first season with Rutgers this time around, Dave and I wanted to delve into the details. A lot of areas were marked by major improvement from the previous season. However, there is still much work to be done for a program that hasn’t had a winning season in over a decade and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since before Pearl Jam debuted with their first album, Ten. Here is our overview of this season and what we think needs to happen for progress to continue in year 2 of the Pikiell era with Rutgers basketball.
Dave White: The defense. The rebounding. The attitude. It was all there from day one, a complete change from the previous year. This team dove on the floor. It knew where it had to be when they played defense. They were able to box out, and end defensive possessions. They were able to get stops and turn former blowouts into close games on sheer will alone. That all worked. The Steve Pikiell new attitude worked.
Aaron Breitman: Of all the improvements within the program, on and off the court this year, it all came from one place, coaching. Steve Pikiell has transformed the way the program operates in pretty much every facet. However, the staff he assembled deserves a ton of credit too. Jay Young did wonders with the defense, Brandin Knight’s influence on the backcourt was significant, and Karl Hobbs’ experience and guidance was invaluable. Still, it was more than the assistants, as the strength and conditioning program under David Van Dyke worked wonders and kept this team healthy all season. The rest of the support staff was top notch and professional as well. At the end of the day, it starts and stops with Pikiell. He hired the right people to fulfill his vision and even exceed his own expectations in year one.
What Didn’t Work
Dave White: On most nights, it was the offense. Rutgers worked best when players like Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson were able to get to the rim. If they made the lay-up, great. If they weren’t, someone like CJ Gettys or Deshawn Freeman were there to clean up the glass and get a putback. Fascinating to watch, because it all tied into the new hustle the Scarlet Knights showed. However, the shooting was so bad—especially from the foul line and the perimeter—when Rutgers played the big boys, they were unable to keep up. You can’t win in college hoops without three pointers and too many nights in a row, Rutgers didn’t have it. While Mike Williams, Issa Thiam and Nigel Johnson showed, at times, that they could knock down the shot, the team just wasn’t consistent enough.
Aaron Breitman: An area that was disappointing this season and hurt this team was consistent bench production. We saw in the win over Ohio State how much better this team was when all the players were contributing. It’s not realistic to expect that type of complete effort every game, but there were too many nights when Rutgers got very little out of their bench and the team suffered because of it. Of course, poor shooting and a lack of bench production both point to the obvious need for upgrading the talent level within the program.
Dave White: CJ Gettys. When Rutgers landed him, the same day Chris Ash announced his starting quarterback, no one knew what to expect. It was late in the recruiting season and most expected five fouls on defense and that’s it. But Gettys became more than that. He was the heart and soul of Pikiell’s first year. A kid who gave it all on every possession, dove on the ball when he had to, got easy baskets, and set the tone for the year. This was a quality get from Pikiell and showed other recruits how he and Jay Young can develop big men. Gettys went from a 4 point per game player to transferring up a league and doubling that number. Easily the biggest suprise of the season for me.
Aaron Breitman: Rebounding. It was fair to expect improvement in this area for three reasons. Pikiell stressed the importance of cleaning the glass since the day he took over the program, Rutgers had five players standing 6’9” or taller on the roster, and they were so awful the season before on the boards, it was inevitable they would improve. Regardless, it was shocking to witness the dramatic improvement that Rutgers experienced in this area.
Last season, Rutgers held the following national rankings: 299th in offensive rebounding percentage, 336th in rebounding margin, 245th in rebounds per game, and was 10th or worse in all of those categories in Big Ten play. This season, Rutgers held national rankings of 9th in offensive rebounding percentage, 39th in rebounding margin, and 7th in rebounds per game. In Big Ten play, Rutgers led the conference in total rebounds and offensive rebounds per game, the biggest surprise of all, and were 4th in rebounding margin.
Sure, Rutgers missed a lot of shots, thus creating more offensive rebounding opportunities, but they shot just as poorly the last couple of seasons too. The dramatic change was due to supreme effort and a shift in philosophy in which every player was held responsible for rebounding. The result was that 11 different players averaged at least 2 rebounds per game. Mike Williams, who is 6’2”, averaged over 5 per contest and stated throughout the season how much the coaching staff emphasized rebounding. It became the biggest strength of the team, something no one could have expected last April.
What Must Improve For More Progress In Year 2
Dave White : While I’d expect most to say “the offense”, I don’t think it’s that simple. What I would say is the endgame scenario has to improve. While Rutgers didn’t have the offense to stay in all their games, there were a handful of games that Rutgers was leading—sometimes by as many as nine points—in the waning minutes of the game. But this team was still immature and went away from the offense that got them there and missed free throws when the pressure was on. This is a team that needs to get comfortable with winning and learning how to win. You started to see it in the Illinois and Ohio State games down the stretch, that maturity has to grow even more next year.
Aaron Breitman: The encouraging part at the end of the season is that we saw major improvements on offense, both in limiting turnovers and better shot selection. This is a product of good coaching. This gives hope that the core of the team will continue to improve over the summer and start next season at a higher level. As I wrote on Monday in this recruiting post, the opportunity to truly reshape the roster won’t come until the class of 2018.
For Rutgers to be a better team next season, the returning players all need to continue to improve. Corey Sanders needs to become the guy that every successful Big Ten has, a true assassin that can close out games. Mike Williams has to improve his outside shooting even more. Deshawn Freeman needs to work on his low post scoring. Nigel Johnson needs to be more consistent and work better within the offense. All of these improvements seem attainable, but other questions will ultimately determine the ceiling for next season’s team.
Can Issa Thiam make a significant jump in his sophomore season? Will Jonathan Laurent become a more complete player and have a greater role? Who will replace the production of CJ Gettys? Will Eugene Omoruyi develop an offensive game? Will any newcomers have a big impact? Can the team defense become truly elite? If the veteran core can make reasonable jumps and even just a few of the questions I asked be answered in a positive way, this team will be much improved. There are a lot of things that can change from now until next season, but there is no question the arrow is pointed up for Rutgers basketball with Pikiell in charge.