Steve Pikiell’s first season as head coach at Rutgers involved a major overhaul of the program. Changing the culture was a major step and it’s hard to argue that his debut on the banks was anything but a success. The program more than doubled it’s win total, had more success in the Big Ten than in the previous two seasons combined, and the team established an identity with improved defense and rebounding.
His experience in dealing with the challenges that transpire early on in a rebuilding process has been a key to him getting off to a good start in his tenure on the banks. As Pikiell enters his second year at Rutgers, there is still a long way to go in rebuilding the program. I was fortunate to speak with him recently and we discussed a number of different topics. The focus was on recruiting and player development. Here is what coach Pikiell had to say.
How are you approaching the open roster spots right now? Is it really best options available, whether it’s a grad transfer, sit-out transfer or whatever position?
“We finished last in the league, so when you are in that place, we aren’t at the point where we are just replacing one position. We just need to get really good players that fit and want to be at Rutgers. I’m not so caught up in what position. I just want to get guys that are going to be starters and get guys that want this great opportunity that we have. Best available is what you guys would call it, if you are looking for a category.”
You’ve talked in the past about the transfer market and the transfer mentality these days. I was curious about what qualities you look for in transfer candidates that you consider?
“It’s become a real issue too now with Division I. There are so many of them. What I am looking for is great kids. I want workers and I want kids that I think can start for us down the road. That’s what I am really looking for. Any kid that I would take and sit out for a year or a one year transfer, I’m looking for those same kind of qualities. Someone that could come in and help us and go from there.”
I’ve read about coach Calhoun and I know you have talked about it as well, in terms of the initial stages of building up UConn and the need to go out of the area more so in the beginning to establish recruiting. I know you have been targeting a lot of kids in the class of 18 who are big targets, but also a lot outside of the NY/NJ area. Is that something you have gravitated towards or is it more of a change of approach?
“No, I mean I think we are recruiting the heck out of New Jersey. I think you have to go everywhere. I guess both you would say. We are just trying to find the right kids. It’s not important where they are from, but that they are good fits for our program. I think that is the most important thing. We have ties in a lot of different places and this is where your staff really helps you. I have a great staff. Karl Hobbs does a great job, Brandin Knight and Jay Young. They are all tied to different areas and we have to take advantage of that. I think the league too gives you a footprint in Big Ten areas. We can go out to the midwest and have a presence there. People know the league. We are trying to find the right fits and wherever we have to go for them, we have to go.”
Does being in the Big Ten resonate better outside the area versus the New York/New Jersey region that’s more used to the Big East and that culture?
“I think it is such a good conference that people know about and are familiar with it. I just think the local kids have a lot more choices. A school can come in and see ten kids in one day, other states you have to go to and spend one day seeing one kid. Our kids in the metropolitan New York/New Jersey area have a lot more options with places. We are trying to get out and spread the good word of Rutgers basketball all over the place. I think it is important as we begin in really building the program to just get the right kids. Don’t worry so much about the geography or where they are from, just get the right kids that are workers and that are in the gym, that want to come to a great school academically and that want the challenge of helping us move in the Big Ten.”
With the retention of the core players and the buy-in from them wanting to be developed by you, has it helped at all on the recruiting trail?
“Your roster is always changing. You have seniors and juniors and then you have to always prepare for the unexpected with your roster. I like the fact that our guys are getting better. Yesterday, I left the gym and Eugene (Omoruyi), Deshawn (Freeman), and Candido (Sa) were having their individual workouts and they all looked bigger, stronger, and better. I think sometimes, especially with a new coach who just takes over the program, everything is new for the first time. The following year, you get a lot of repetition that you’ve already gone through, they already know your system. There are some real strengths to retaining your team and keeping guys. It’s challenging in today’s market. Kids want to move and transferring has become the cool thing to do. You have to really deal with that at times.”
With the current roster and the losses you’ve had personnel wise, who are you most excited about and see potential in with guys already on the roster, in terms of being able to step up in bigger roles next season?
“I’m excited by them all. I think Mike Williams is having a great offseason. I think Candido has made a huge jump here. I think he is healthy and making strides. I think the year helped him a little bit to figure it out. I expect him to have a terrific year next season. Deshawn Freeman has been tremendous in the offseason and working on his jump shot, getting better. I think Issa has his best basketball ahead of him too. Corey has to continue to be a good player and to continue to add to his game too. I’m looking for all of them to get better, to be quite honest with you. I think they will. I think they are going to have a good spring and a good summer. Eugene’s body looks better already and I think the year under his belt and experience he had this year will help him moving forward.”
Do you feel pretty confident that Corey Sanders will be back?
“I do, but ultimately it is his decision.”
In terms of the players being in the system for a year now, I want to ask about the strength and conditioning program. There were very few injuries this past season, which was a huge improvement from years past. How happy are you with this area and with the job David Van Dyke has done?
“David has done a tremendous job. Especially in light of the fact that a lot of our players had injuries. He got them through it all, all season long. We pretty much had a full roster for the whole season. It’s a long season and it’s a credit to the work he did. I think we were in really good shape. I think it will even pay bigger dividends moving forward here. I think you will see a big jump from the freshman to sophomore year, their bodies, strength, explosiveness.”
“I think David does a great job with the latest technology and keeping on top of nutrition and those kind of things. I think you’ll see some payback. They are working hard right now. The summertime is a big time too for him to make big strides with our guys. I think you’ll see that moving forward and I’m just real pleased with the overall improvement within that area. I think we were well conditioned and like you said, we kept everyone on the court during the season. I think that helped us improve in a lot of areas. Obviously, when your players are healthy, it helps you improve and gives you more options.”
I know there are a lot of keys in terms of areas you want to improve on as a team. Is there anything in particular that you reflect back on from the season that stuck out to you that is the biggest key in being better next season?
“I’m not honed in on one area. We finished last in the league. We have to get better in every area. I feel comfortable that we will. We have to shoot the ball better, for sure, foul shots. Passing the ball was a huge concern of mine and we have to get better in that area. We have to get more consistent in every area. We made huge strides this year and hopefully we can make huge strides next year as we continue to move the program forward.”
You have an opportunity to reshape the roster with the class of 18 with a lot of open spots. How has your vision and the positive results from the end of last season been received?
“I think it’s been great. Obviously, when you are building a new practice facility, $115 million dollars, that’s a huge positive. We have a brand new weight room. We will start utilizing that sometime this week. Our locker room went through a renovation. There are a lot of exciting things going on. The school is exciting, this is an exciting time for us as a university. We’ve been received well. I think kids are excited about us. I think the ones that came to games saw a fan base that was excited and very much a part of our game day experience. The students came out and they’ve been great. The way we finished off the year, I think we showed a lot of people that we’ve improved a lot with the program. I think we’ve been well received and we will continue to really work at that. We will continue to bang away at those younger classes.”
Has it been a challenge locally in getting over that hump regarding negative perception with Rutgers not having a winning season in so long and not making the NCAA tournament in decades? Is that a challenge in recruiting certain kids?
“Well, I mean everything is a challenge. It’s your roster. It’s everything you look at that can be challenging to a recruit. If you have two point guards on the roster and they are a point guard, for example. I think there are a lot of different challenges. It’s not just have we won. I think this year, we’ve gone from 7 wins to 15 wins. That shows major improvement. We just have to continue to worry about improving the program. If we can get kids over on campus and they see what great opportunity we have, the facilities. People are excited and they leave the campus excited. But for those kids that want to win 35 games, then Kentucky will be a place that’s won 35 games for the last so many years.”
“You are always going to have your detractors, but I look at all the positive things going on at Rutgers. I’m excited about all the positive things that are going on. We are going to be headed in the direction where we are going to be having winning seasons regularly. That’s what I am looking forward to.”
You told me after the Northwestern game that the team exceeded your own expectations for the season. I’m curious on your thoughts on the overall rebuild after being through many before. After this past year, is Rutgers a bigger process than you originally anticipated?
“No, I mean every place I’ve been, it’s a journey. There are a lot of obstacles and steps along the way that go into that. Staying healthy. Obviously, recruiting is a huge part of that. Having some luck in all of those things. We are well on our way in this process. It’s not going to be easy, the first couple of years are never easy. No years are easy, even when you get your program to where you want it to be. Then you have to repeat that the next year.”
“There haven’t been any bumps in the road that I didn’t expect. Obstacles that we are facing, I’ve faced everywhere along the road. I’m just very confident that we can continue to make Rutgers basketball a program that people can be proud of. We are going to continue to strive and work hard to do that.”
Was there anything that you learned along the way this season, specifically in being at Rutgers?
“No, none of the challenges surprised me. Every game is a war, trying to win on the road. There are really difficult places to play. From the first time I worked out with our team, I knew the challenges with our roster. The league has some really, really tough places and terrific coaches.”
“What I was most excited about was that the fan base was awesome all year long. They were a great advantage at the RAC. They really made it a tough place to play and I was really, really excited about it. I look forward to making the RAC a really hard place to play in the future.”
Let’s talk about fan expectations. You could show progress on the court, but it might not show up in the box score or standings with the Big Ten likely even tougher next season. What’s your message in how people should approach this rebuild from a fan perspective?
“People have been great and supportive of our program. I just want them to continue to support our student-athletes that play hard and work their tails off, that represent our program. We play in the best conference in the country. We’ve been in the league three years. We had three teams in the sweet sixteen this past season. Someone told me the other day they thought our league was down this year. However, one long time coach said from top to bottom, this is the best the league has been in 30 years. The league is certainly getting better and better. We have to continue with our program, with our roster, with our players on the roster. I just want fans to enjoy the ride. It’ll be fun, but it’s not going to be easy playing in the best league in the country. Just continue to enjoy the journey.”
Thanks to coach Pikiell for taking time to speak with me about the state of the program. It should be an exciting offseason, as he and the staff continue to rebuild Rutgers basketball!