As we enter year two for Steve Pikiell at Rutgers, Dave White and I wanted to examine successful rebuilds that have taken place with other high major programs. After a very good year one under Pikiell, there is still much work to be done.
Dave looked at rival Seton Hall in our first installment here. As Dave points out and highlights with the Hall, not every rebuild is a straight line of forward progress. For our second installment, I take a look at Big Ten foe Northwestern. They have taken a steady march up the ranks under head coach Chris Collins year after year. The progress was built around one core class, but we will examine a potential crack in their foundation as well.
Another point of note is that while Northwestern making the NCAA Tournament for the first time this past season is historic in just the fourth year of Collins’ tenure, they were in a much better place when he took over than when Pikiell came to Rutgers. Northwestern had four consecutive winning seasons before falling to 13-19 during the 2012-2013 season, which led to the firing of Bill Carmody and hiring of Collins. They won between 19-20 games in three of those seasons. It’s important to note the state of the program, while in need of an overhaul, was in better shape than Rutgers was at the start of the Pikiell era. Let’s dive in.
Year 1 2013-2014
14-19 (6-12); 11th place out of 12 teams
There are a few similarities between Northwestern in Chris Collins’ first season in charge compared to Pikiell at Rutgers. Let’s start with the biggest difference first, which is scheduling. In non-conference play, the Wildcats played and lost to high major programs Stanford, Missouri, UCLA, and NC State. This is important to note, as Northwestern hasn’t played nearly as difficult of a non-conference schedule since Collins’ first season. Northwestern lost to Illinois State in just the third game of his tenure and went just 7-6 in non-conference play. Rutgers had a far easier non-conference schedule in year one under Pikiell, but they also didn’t lose any bad games either.
In conference play, Northwestern did much better than Rutgers in year one of Pikiell, as they won six regular season games. That included victories over ranked teams Wisconsin and Illinois. In terms of their losses, only four of their twelve were by single digits. Rutgers suffered fifteen conference losses, with seven coming by single digits. What is very similar is both teams entered the last game of the regular season on long losing streaks with Rutgers at six and Northwestern at seven. Both teams won their last game of the regular season, as the Wildcats took down last place Purdue and Rutgers beat ninth place Illinois.
In the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern was the #11 seed out of 12 teams and upset #6 seed Iowa in the opening round. They became the first #11 seed to win a Big Ten tournament game, just like Rutgers became the first #14 seed to win this year. In the second round game, which in the 2014 Tournament was actually the Quarterfinals, Northwestern got blown out by Michigan State. They trailed by as many as 24 points in the second half and lost by 16. The Wildcats did the same exact thing to Rutgers this year, leading by as many as 28 points, before winning by 22 in the second round game.
Regarding the roster, Northwestern did have a few key players on Collins’ first team that were part of the program for the majority of their rebuild. This included 7 foot center Alex Olah, who was just a sophomore in the 2013-2014 season, as well as guard Tre Demps. Both were two of the best players within the program during the first three seasons under Collins. They missed the payoff of the NCAA appearance in year four, but they were a big reason the program got to that point.
A key role player was established during this season as well in forward Sanjay Lumpkin. He was never a star at Northwestern, but he was a steady factor off the bench throughout the four years that Collins rebuilt the program. Players like this are so important and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Year 2 2014-2015
15-17 (6-12); 10th out of 14 teams
Northwestern put together a far easier non-conference schedule in year two, as the only programs of note that they played were Butler and Georgia Tech. Both resulted in losses. They also lost to a solid mid-major program in Northern Iowa by 19 points and suffered a bad loss to Central Michigan by 13 points.
After opening conference play with a 4 point win over Rutgers, the Wildcats then proceeded to lose 10 straight Big Ten games. Six were by single digits. At 10-14 and 1-10 in conference play, the Wildcats started to click under Collins and the true upward climb for the program began.
They rattled off four straight victories and finished the regular season winners of five of their last seven games. While they lost to Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament in the 7/10 game, the foundation for future success was laid this season.
The 2014 recruiting class for Collins reshaped the future of the program with the core of Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, and Scottie Lindsey. According to 247 Sports, the class was only ranked 7th in the Big Ten and 49th overall, but Collins found the right mix of players that he could develop into a winner. Law was a 4-star recruit, while McIntosh and Lindsey, as well as key reserve Gavin Skelly and Johnnie Vassar, were all 3-star recruits. It was a severely needed influx of talent that helped move the program several steps forward in the coming years.
Collins was fortunate to have enough roster turnover after his first season that he could bring in a full class of new talent. Note he didn’t bring in any grad transfers or JUCO players, but all solidly rated high school players instead. He didn’t prioritize short term gain over long term development. This is what Collins said per this ESPN article after the season ending loss in 2015:
"This is a huge offseason for our program," said Collins, who would not accept a postseason bid. "I feel our talent level is up from where it's been. But now, we have to develop. We have to get a lot stronger. We've got to get a lot tougher physically and mentally, and then, we have to develop our skills."
Year 3 2015-2016
20-12 (8-10); 9th place
Aside from NCAA Tournament dreams, one thing Rutgers fans have hoped for is a return to the NIT, a postseason tournament that the Scarlet Knights have not participated in since 2006. Note that Northwestern had a 20-12 record in 2016 and did not make the NIT in Collins’ third season. So delusions of grandeur for Pikiell’s second season should be kept at bay.
Other than playing in the CBE Classic against North Carolina and Missouri, the non-conference schedule was not difficult for Northwestern and was rated the 334th in terms of strength of schedule. It resulted in a 12-1 start before Big Ten play, with the only loss coming against national finalist North Carolina.
Northwestern started 3-2 in conference play, but suffered a disappointing 9 point loss at home to Penn State. That setback was the start of a five game losing streak, with the next four all coming to ranked teams. A 32 point loss at #25 Indiana and a 31 point loss at home to #12 Michigan State took place in back to back games in late January. Again, these were two massive blowouts that occurred in a 20 win season and just one year before the program broke through to the NCAA’s.
After the five game losing streak, Northwestern continued to struggle and went just 2-3 in their next five game stretch, before ending the regular season on a three game winning streak by beating Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska. However, they lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Michigan in the 8/9 game of the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, ending their season.
Sophomore Bryant McIntosh asserted himself as one the best point guards in the Big Ten, while Scottie Lindsey’s development was less rapid. The Wildcats missed Vic Law all season, who received a medical redshirt due to a shoulder injury. Despite his absence, the program took a big step forward in large part to two key players that Collins inherited in Tre Demps and Alex Olah. They were the leading scorer and rebounder respectively in years 2 & 3 in Collins’ tenure. They both graduated after this season, but were a big reason the rebuild moved forward as steadily as it did.
Year 4 2016-2017
24-12 (10-8); 6th place
Big Ten Tournament 2-1, upset #3 seed and host Maryland, lost in semis to Wisconsin.
NCAA Tournament 1-1, lost in the round of 32 to national runner up Gonzaga by 6 points.
The breakthrough happened in year 4, as Law returned from injury and the trio of himself, McIntosh, and Lindsey took control of the team. They were the top three scorers on the roster and when they clicked together, the team followed suit.
As for the impact of recruiting classes that followed them, 4-star recruit Aaron Falzon from the 2015 class missed all but three games in the 2016-2017 season, after contributing 8.3 points as a freshman. However, former 3-star recruit Dererk Pardon continued to improve and became a valuable starter as a sophomore, averaging more than 8 points and 8 rebounds per game. As for the 2016 class, only 3-star recruit Isaiah Brown was a solid contributor as a freshman, averaging over 6 points per game in about 15 minutes of action.
Collins recruited somewhat well since the 2014 class, but it was player development and coaching that were the biggest reasons why Northwestern finally broke through and made the NCAA Tournament this past season.
While the rebuild of Northwestern under Chris Collins has been successful, the state of the program that he inherited to the one that Pikiell inherited at Rutgers was far different. It was really Bill Carmody before Collins that had to restore the program from a similar state that Pikiell is now attempting with Rutgers. Kevin O’Neill left Northwestern with a 5-25 season in 2000 and Carmody struggled for years, having just one winning season in his first eight. Amazingly, it wasn’t until he bottomed out at 8-22 in 2008 that things got better once his younger core of players developed and matured. That resulted in four consecutive winning seasons and trips to the NIT each time. It wasn’t until a step back in 2012-2013 season and a 13-19 record that ended the Carmody era. While he fell short in getting Northwestern to the NCAA’s, he left the program far healthier than when he took over.
Collins has done a great job in taking Northwestern to the next level. Of course, recruiting was important. Landing that core within the 2014 class was the biggest factor in turning the program around. However, Collins and his staff have moved the program forward based on coaching and player development. The 2015 & 2016 classes did not bring similar talent and were only ranked 10th and 12 ,respectively, in the Big Ten. However, they are developing a couple players in each class on top of the strong trio of their 2014 class. They haven’t taken shortcuts.
However, for all the positives, there is one potentially foundation wrecking crack the program is experiencing under Collins. The fifth member of the 2014 recruiting class was 3-star guard Johnnie Vassar. I can’t do this story any justice, so read the bombshell of a report from Vice Sports here. Some of the allegations against Collins and the staff are reprehensible. Also, our friends at SB Nation’s Northwestern blog, Inside NU, wrote an emotional, but reasoned response to the lawsuit filed by Vassar. In a quick summation, as great as the success of this past season was for Northwestern, there is now a black cloud over the program. It may not impact Collins’ future at the school, but it very well could. It’s too early to know how it will play out, but it certainly isn’t a good look for Collins or the school.
The Vassar situation is a great example of how high and difficult the stakes are for Steve Pikiell at Rutgers. Based on recent program history with the Rice scandal, he MUST do things the right way in every single instance. I have confidence that even if this type of sensitivity wasn’t a factor at Rutgers, Pikiell seems to be a man of principle and wouldn’t do things any other way than the right way. He built the Stony Brook program from the ground up and is a true grinder. It’s that quality that makes him the perfect choice as the head coach at Rutgers.
A disadvantage for Pikiell is that he has to wait until after his second season to truly reshape the roster with the 2018 class. While Geo Baker and Souf Mensah are scheduled to arrive this summer as part of the 2017 class and should be pieces that help with the rebuild, the opportunity to bring in a true core is with the next class. The positive is the fact that only Nigel Johnson has transferred after this season, signaling that Pikiell is running things the right way. He didn’t try to run players off the roster. He is working to develop and improve the hand he was dealt, while working to truly upgrade the talent on the roster with the 2018 class.
The biggest thing I’ve learned from the Northwestern rebuild is that while recruiting is so important, finding the right guys and having the coaching staff truly develop them is the biggest key. It’s so rare for a new coach to come in and land 4-star and 5-star recruits across the board. At Rutgers, like Northwestern, it’s about building relationships and finding players who want to be part of a rebuild. That mentality is so important and certainly something Pikiell is measuring when evaluating recruits. The most important thing for fans is to have patience. Collins went to Northwestern with a Duke pedigree and it hasn’t resulted in a recruiting windfall. It takes time and for Pikiell, he will need to overcome the negative perception of Rutgers that has resulted due to two plus decades of losing.
This program can’t afford any mistakes along the way and, for that reason, Pikiell needs as much time as he needs to turn things around. Remember, Northwestern’s first postseason trip wasn’t until the NCAA Tournament in his fourth season. He won 20 games in his third season, but didn’t go to the NIT. It’s very possible Rutgers sees little improvement in their record next season. However, that doesn’t mean things aren’t moving in the right direction. Northwestern is a great example of that. Remember that and remain hopeful, but also remember it may take Pikiell a lot longer to return Rutgers to the NCAA Tournament than it did Collins and Willard at Northwestern and Seton Hall, respectively.