With Steve Pikiell a year into his massive overhaul of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights basketball program, Aaron and I are going to take a look at some other rebuilds that have happened during the 21st century. How long they took, what went into them, and how they relate to the Scarlet Knights. We define the completion of the rebuild as making the NCAA Tournament, something that hasn’t been done at Rutgers in 26 years.
The first one we should look at is one of the closest to Rutgers—both in proximity and type of rebuild.
The Seton Hall Pirates.
On March 23, 2010, the Pirates—led by current Rutgers Athletic Director Pat Hobbs—hired Kevin Willard to lead the basketball program after being spurned by top choice Fran McCaffery. Eleven days earlier, the Pirates fired controversial coach Bobby Gonzalez after a failed NIT appearance. Bobby G, as fans called him, had been plagued by strange stories during his time in South Orange, and the final straw came during the NIT when Herb Pope punched a player in the groin, and then Robert Mitchell got arrested for kidnapping and robbery.
Willard, who had spent the three previous seasons at Iona, had a lot to clean up. And a month into his tenure, it only got worse as Pope collapsed after a workout and stopped breathing. Thanks to the coaching staff and medical personnel, Pope’s life was saved and he was deemed healthy to play during Willard’s first season.
Year One, 2010-2011: Willard’s first team had talent. Jeremy Hazell was a big time shooter—one who burned Rutgers from deep on multiple occasions. Pope was a very good big man. Fuquan Edwin was a freshman, but showed a lot of promise. Jeff Robinson was a wing/forward who averaged double digits and junior point guard Jordan Theodore really kept things in line. But the team never quite put it together. I don’t exactly remember why, but there had to be chemistry problems as Willard had to boot both Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson off the team just before a game at the RAC. After a really tough Out of Conference schedule, they finished 13-18 and 7-11 in the Big East. Mike Rice’s first year Rutgers squad beat Seton Hall twice, including a memorable overtime game in the Big East Tournament. They did give Willard two signature wins, upsetting number 9 Syracuse and number 15 St. John’s in the latter half of the season—winning both game by double digits. This was the team Bobby Gonzalez had been building toward, and having Willard finish under .500 was probably disappointing for fans.
Year Two, 2011-2012: Despite losing top scorers Hazell and Robinson to graduation, Willard’s team rebounded. Theodore, Pope and Edwin all averaged double digits and led the Pirates to an NIT appearance. Seton Hall played a much easier out of conference schedule, losing only to Northwestern. They started 11-1, beating a really down Wake Forest team in the process. They battled hard in the Big East finishing 8-10, splitting with Rutgers and beating a top ten UConn squad. During the run looked like the NCAAs were in Willard’s grasp, but the team suffered a 6 game losing streak in the middle of conference season. With two games remaining, and the Pirates clearly on the bubble, Mike Rice took them down in overtime and then DePaul shocked them. The Pirates went 1-1 in the Big East Tournament, missed the NCAAs. They also went 1-1 in the NIT, beating Steve Pikiell’s Stony Brook squad by 2 in the first round before losing by 10 to UMass. A much better year for the Pirates, but they were about to lose Theodore and Pope to graduation. Could Willard keep it up?
Year Three, 2012-2013: Here’s where the Willard grumbling truly starts. Faced with losing his best players—Willard tried to fill the roster with transfers. Gene Teague became an eligible center, Brian Oliver was an eligible wing, and Kyle Smith was a grad transfer guard. Looking at this roster, it appears patched together and Seton Hall was missing their traditional superstar point guard. It’s no surprise the team finished 3-15 in the Big East and 15-18 overall. While Edwin continued to develop, averaging 16.5 points, the starting line-up never seemed to click. At first, Willard tried freshmen Tom Maayan at starting point guard, and then tried to convert Aaron Cosby, who was supposed to be the next Jeremy Hazell. They did manage to beat Villanova this season, which was a highlight, but a quick glance at the scores show a lot of double digit losses in conference. And the sweep by the Scarlet Knights had to burn some fans’ big time. Was Kevin Willard already on the hot seat? No, probably not, but year four had to be an improvement.
Year Four, 2013-2014: The perception was Kevin Willard was struggling on the recruiting front. He was doing a heck of a job tapping the transfer market, however. Sterling Gibbs, a big time shooter, became eligible after transferring from Texas. And Jaren Sina was a promising freshman guard. Oliver, Teague and Edwin were seniors and all averaged double digits. This team could score. And so, fans were ready for a big season. Gibbs started most games, as did Edwin. Junior forward Patrik Auda was developing nicely as well. There was promise here. And Seton Hall did improve—they beat Rutgers by 6 at the RAC—and finished with 11 OOC wins. They went 6-12 in the Big East, however and never really seemed to get on track. There weren’t any wins over ranked teams during the regular season. However, it looked like the Hall was on its way, after they beat number 3 Villanova on a stunning buzzer beater in the Big East Tournament. It looked like Seton Hall was going to take this momentum into the following season—where they had a huge recruiting class coming on board. Maybe Willard had broken through.
Year Five, 2014-2015: This was going to be the year. The Hall fans were sure of it. They had brought in a huge class: Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Ismael Sonogo, Khadeen Carrington, and the crown jewel Isaiah Whitehead. The recruitment of Whitehead finally broke through when Willard agreed to hire his high school coach Tiny Morton. It looked like things were really going to get crazy early as the Pirates opened up the season on a 7 game winning streak that included a 27 point drubbing of Rutgers. In fact, only 21 games into the season, Seton Hall was 15-6 and 5-4 in the Big East with big wins over Villanova and St. John’s while players Whitehead was injured with a stress fracture. Early in the season, Whitehead was electric and Sterling Gibbs played very well during the freshman’s injury, and then everything fell apart. Jaren Sina announced he was going to transfer and Sterling Gibbs was rumored to leave after the season as a grad transfer. Rumors of chemistry problems plagued the team and they suffered a 1-9 finish to their season. It looked like Willard was never going to get Seton Hall off the ground. The team finished with a 16-15 record and only 6-12 in the Big East. Gibbs did leave the squad. There were a lot of rumors that Willard would be fired. But he hung on for one more year.
Year Six, 2015-2016: Isaiah Whitehead came back for his sophomore year and without Gibbs and Sina, the pieces finally clicked into place. The chemistry seemed good. They drubbed Rutgers by 29 this time around and beat Wichita State in overtime. They finished with a 10-2 out of conference record and appeared to be rolling. The roll never stopped. During the conference season they beat both Providence and Xavier who were ranked. And then came the dream Big East Tournament run, where the Pirates beat Creighton, Xavier and then Villanova to win the Big East Championship. A glorious run, Kevin Willard finally broke through and got his team to the NCAA Tournament. They did lose to a under-ranked Gonzaga team, but followed that year up with a fantastic year seven as well. Willard is now in the mix for several top recruits and is hoping to bring in top point guard Tevon Duval to replace Whitehead, who left after year 6 for the NBA.
Conclusion: There are a lot of parallels here with Rutgers. Willard had to come into a troubled program and clean it up, much like Steve Pikiell came to Rutgers and had to fill an undermanned squad and get them into game shape. Rutgers AD Pat Hobbs made both hires seeing promise in Willard, though he’d never been to the NCAAs at Iona. Pikiell took a long time to get Stony Brook to the tournament, despite having a ton of great years. Recruiting was an issue for Willard early and it took him four years before he brought in a huge class.
These builds take time. Twice it looked like Seton Hall was going to start rolling—after year two and after year four. But once they were decimated by graduations, and the second time chemistry problems hurt a promising team. Sometimes it takes a year or two for talent to figure themselves out.
How does this relate to Rutgers? It’s a sign that it will take time, and a build is not always a straight line. Seton Hall had a great year 2 under Willard, but it wasn’t enough to push them forward on the recruiting trail. This may happen under Pikiell. Remember, after this coming season, the Scarlet Knights face a lot of graduations—kids who’ve been mainstays on campus for a few years. Even if Pikiell brings in a knockout recruiting class, it still may take him a year or two to get them to play at a high level all the time. That’s coaching and development.
Seton Hall got it done, but it took six years. The hope here is it takes less time at Rutgers, but fan patience will need to be at a high here as Pikiell gets it done his way.
A lot of this was done by memory—so forgive me if I made some mistakes. Big thanks to NJ.com, Gannett Press, South Orange Juice and Sports Reference for keeping their articles and stats up and online.
Along with being a die hard hoops fan, Dave White is the author of the Jackson Donne series. The latest, Blind to Sin, is available now. Pick up a copy or leave a review on Amazon, if you’ve already read it!