Yesterday was the one year anniversary of when Steve Pikiell was officially announced as the head coach of Rutgers basketball. In his first season at the helm, he made major progress in moving the program forward. We covered said progress here and here. However, there is still a long way to go, on and off the court. While several Big Ten coaches lauded Pikiell and the steps Rutgers made this season, public perception within other fan bases across the conference, as well as the national view in college basketball circles, is one of a perennial loser.
With that being said, there was a positive outlook written by a national publication yesterday regarding Rutgers basketball. The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein ranked the coaching jobs within Big Ten basketball and surprisingly, he did not list Rutgers last. In fact, he ranked the job 12th in the conference overall. For a program that has a overall record of 7-50 in three seasons, including conference tournament play, you can’t help but be happy by even the slightest of optimism from a national writer. Greenstein defined the rankings this way:
If every coach left tomorrow, where would it be easiest to win?
Here is what he said about the Rutgers job:
The Big Ten’s bottom three are a toss-up. Rutgers gets the slight edge because of its access to New York and New Jersey blacktop. Plus new AD Pat Hobbs is a rainmaker with donors, and the school plans to pump $100 million into various multi-sport facilities. Trend: Up.
Wow. Maybe I’m so beaten down by all of the negative publicity from the national media regarding Rutgers basketball in recent years, that this relatively brief description had me grinning with delight. The Tribune highlighted key reasons why there should be hope that better days are more than possible, but likely, in the near future. The key is always recruiting and citing access to a hotbed of high school talent in New Jersey is obvious to us, but has been dismissed by others for a long time. The reason is simple, Rutgers basketball has not recruited well locally for a very long time. As much as football is held under a microscope in terms of a lack of recruiting success in the garden state, it’s fair to say basketball has been much worse over the years in this area.
Why some dream of a Naz Reid caliber recruit choosing Rutgers, and it’s possible, consider how little success this progam has had in signing the best players in New Jersey. The last time Rutgers signed an in-state recruit ranked in the top ten was Myles Mack all the way back in 2011, when he was listed at #4. Let that sink in. If Pikiell can consistently land two players even ranked between 6th and 10th in New Jersey year after year, the roster will be far better off. Programs that have come into the garden state since 2011 and landed recruits in the top ten include Harvard, GW, Ole Miss, VCU, Wichita State, George Mason, St. Joseph’s, and SMU. If Rutgers can stop that level of purging, it will be a major plus. Signing a top five player would be the cherry on top.
In addition, the last time Rutgers signed a top player in New York was Mike Williams in 2014, who was at #5. Before that was 2011 with Mike Taylor, who ultimately played Division III. If they can land a player occasionally from the city as well, it would be a big improvement and help solidify there local footprint in recruiting circles.
Despite the lack of success on the court and in local recruiting, Greenstein still ranked Rutgers ahead of Nebraska and Penn State. Not exactly Big Ten powerhouses, but considering we’ve finished in last place all three seasons on the court in the conference, this is something. The biggest negative against Nebraska was a lack of recruiting base and Penn State was dinged for a lack of fan support and apathy towards their program. Translation, the future is brighter at Rutgers.
Still, the Rutgers athletic department is significantly challenged as a whole with having another 4 years to wait until receiving a full share of the Big Ten revenue stream. As much as Pikiell helped steer the ship in the right direction this season and has cleared the program of any on or off the court embarrassments, the “Pat Hobbs Factor” is in full effect here. Greenstein referred to Hobbs as a “rainmaker with donors” and cited the facility upgrades that are planned. The narrative is changing and it’s because of strong leadership at the top.
I’ve said before the key to Pikiell’s success at Rutgers comes down to his ability to recruit. With how he coached up this past year’s team with the limited talent they had compared to the rest of the conference, even landing a steady stream of 3-star recruits should result in the program continuing to move in an upward trajectory. Pikiell has an athletic director committed to giving him the resources needed to be successful. There is no reason to not believe the value of the Rutgers basketball job will continue to trend up as well. For those that worry that Pikiell may one day leave for his alma mater at UConn, this is the silver lining. I for one am not as worried, but even if he did, the Rutgers job will be more attractive if Pikiell and Hobbs can keep things moving forward. At this point, there is little reason to doubt them. Just don’t tell the rest of the Big Ten. For now, be excited about where Pikiell can take this program in the next few years.