There are some great beat reporters who cover both Rutgers top revenue sports and for basketball, no one is better than the great Jerry Carino. Purveyor of the fantastic Hoops Haven blog and super knowledgable about Rutgers, Seton Hall, and other local New Jersey hoops, there’s no one better to ask about the rise of the Scarlet Knights under head coach Steve Pikiell.
So, as per tradition, I sat down* with Carino and threw him some tough questions about Pikiell, his first year on the banks, and the future of the program.
*by “sat down,” I mean via email. Though I was sitting when I wrote the email and I assume Jerry was sitting when he answered.
On the Banks: So, now that we are a year plus from Steve Pikiell's hiring, how did--in your estimation--year one go?
Jerry Carino: It went pretty much as I had expected: He coached the team up, made the most of what he inherited, got along great with everyone and took the first step toward improving the program's reputation. We all saw a well-coached team and well-organized program, and that should buy him some precious goodwill going into year two.
The only disappointment was the transfer of Nigel Johnson. These things happen --- it's a transfer world --- but I thought he could have been an asset next season.
Overall, I do believe a foundation was laid.
OTB: It's now year 2. People know what your style is and how you'll likely attack other teams. What is the next step in the building process? How does Rutgers take another step forward on the court?
JC: One of Pikiell's big strengths at Stony Brook was molding his style around his personnel -- not trying to jam his pieces into a system (ahem, Coach Ash) -- so don't be surprised to see a different attack now that Rutgers will be more athletic.
The main thing is to become better offensively, specifically handling and shooting. An offseason of individual instruction should improve the former; passing and decision-making are areas where good coaching can make a difference.
The latter, shooting, is mostly bringing in the right personnel. They need to recruit more shooters. That said, when I saw Thursday's workout Issa Thiam once again was a sniper. Huge upside there, but he needs to get stronger and that's going to be hard if he can't gain weight---which remains an issue.
OTB: Now that he's back for year 3, how can Corey Sanders become an even better player?
JC: I thought Corey made nice strides as floor general and defender last season. His shot slipped, though. The task is for him to put that all together and become a complete lead guard. And to play at a high level consistently, of course.
My instinct is this: for Sanders to reach that next gear, he needs to be pushed and challenged by internal competition. Can Geo Baker or Peter Kiss provide that? They haven’t arrived for offseason workouts yet.
Also, it should help Corey being with the same coaching staff for a second straight year. Not sure how often he’s had that kind of continuity in the past.
Corey has all-Big Ten potential. The question is, will he be one of the Big Ten’s better guards or will he settle for just being Rutgers’ best player---big difference there, for him and the program.
OTB: What--coaching wise--is something about Steve Pikiell that surprised you as you watched Rutgers over the past year?
JC: How many players he used. Plenty of coaches employ a 10-man rotation in November and December, but Pikiell went super-deep all season. I don’t recall one of the teams on my beat ever doing that.
Two other things: How quickly he turned around the rebounding, and how good of an assistant Jay Young is (I had always heard good things, but to see him teaching up close was very impressive---definitely head-coaching material).
OTB: What do you think this year's team will have that last year's didn't? And then flip flop that question, what will this year's team be missing?
JC: It will be better physically---stronger, quicker, and better conditioned.
Also on the plus side: Mike Williams is ready to take on the crucial senior leader role that has been vacant since Jonathan Mitchell and Mike Coburn.
On the minus side, I am concerned that the team will actually be worse-shooting. I know that sounds hard to believe, but C.J. Gettys was a polished finisher and Nigel Johnson, though streaky, could get red hot and burn a defense from deep. Who’s replacing those guys?
OTB: Who is the most important newcomer on the team, and why?
JC: Geo Baker. He shot the ball well in high school. Different game here obviously, but if he’s even a serviceable college shooter as a freshman it will make a world of difference. Also, as I said indicated earlier, maybe he can give help Sanders raise his game.
OTB: What is your feeling about Pikiell's recruiting so far? Will he land a good class for 2018 to keep the rebuild going?
JC: It’s the great unanswered question after year one: Can Pikiell recruit at the Big Ten level? At his introductory press conference, Steve made it very clear that his M.O. is finding under-the-radar guys and coaching them up. So far, those are the types of players he has brought in (minus [Mamadou] Doucoure, who’s not here yet).
The best example of that method so far is Eugene Omoruyi, a late addition who showed flashes as a frosh and looked real good in Thursday’s workout. He powered through this one attack-the-rim drill the way a Big Ten power forward should.
You need guys like Omoruyi, but building a Big Ten program requires at least the occasional immediate-impact recruit. So the onus is on getting one of those guys in 2018 and another in 2019.
It’s hard to predict the recruiting game---it’s a murky, ever-shifting sea. They need a 2018 guy like Montez Mathis to take a leap of faith and then win some more games to help your case in 2019. It sounds like Mathis is going well but there is no crystal ball for this stuff, despite what you may see online.
Healing a damaged brand takes time. Remember: Kevin Willard pieced things together and treaded water at Seton Hall with Europeans and transfers (Sterling Gibbs, Patrik Auda, Eugene Teague) until he hit stride, and now Seton Hall is an attractive brand. Willard benefitted from his boss’ patience, and based on the competence he displayed in year one, I’m sure Pikiell will be afforded the same courtesy.
Thanks, Jerry, as always!