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Rutgers Basketball: State Of The Program As Steve Pikiell Enters Year Two

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There are positive, sustainable signs in plain view inside the RAC for the first time in a long time.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The official start of fall is less than two weeks away and the date for MidKnight Madness, an event celebrating the start of practice for Rutgers basketball, is set for the end of this month. Hoops season is ALMOST here. After a 15-18 record in his first season and producing the most successful summer recruiting wise that the program has had in a long time, head coach Steve Pikiell has developed a solid foundation for rebuilding Rutgers basketball.

In general terms, he has instilled hope back into the fan base, something that is harder to do with this program than it is most everywhere else. Over a decade without a winning season and 26 years without an NCAA Tournament appearance will make pessimists out of most fans, but Pikiell has won over the Rutgers community the old fashioned way, with hard work, sincerity, and a methodical plan.

In terms of recruiting, I don’t recall any staff dating back to the late 80’s, that has ever been this organized and relentless in pursuit of finding the right talent to infuse the program with. Dave White wrote about how unique it is that the staff was essentially done with the 2018 class before the summer even ended and the advantages that it entails, allowing them to focus on the 2019 class. The staff have been extremely busy since the July live period ended, hosting multiple 4-star recruits in various classes. The truth is they've been busy hosting dozens of recruits for months and were seen often watching local recruits in-season and during recent live periods. Under Pikiell, the program is far more visible during both the high school season and on the AAU circuit. They are putting in major effort on the recruiting trail and it's working. Landing 4-star guard Montez Mathis in a hotly contested battle over UConn, as well as 3-star point guard Mac McClung and 3-star wing Ron Harper Jr, gives the staff one of the program's best classes in years.

Even though scholarships are filled through 2018 at the moment, the staff is showing they always have contingency plans if a spot does open up later on, as they hosted JUCO forward Shaq Carter and 3-star big man Warren Washington in the past few weeks. The staff also visited with Washington on Monday. Getting guard Khalif Battle on campus for the season opening football game, one of several talented 4-star recruits in the class of 2019 that they are focusing on, including Eric Dixon, who has visited three times since June, Paul Mulcahy, Aundre Hyatt and Ismael Massoud, all of whom have been on campus this summer, is a major sign that the narrative is changing on the recruiting trail regarding the program. The staff continues to pursue this group and visited with Battle, Massoud, Mulcahy and Hyatt in recent days. In just a year and a half, Pikiell and the staff have raised the bar for the type of recruit that is now seriously interested in the program and made the possibility of gaining their commitment a reality.

As for on the court this season, the veteran core of Mike Williams, Deshawn Freeman, and Corey Sanders gives Pikiell players he can lean on and who should better understand what he and the staff expect on and off the court. The additions of 3-star recruits in Geo Baker and Myles Johnson tip the scales with the roster now being made up of a majority of players Pikiell has brought to Rutgers. While there has been no word from the NCAA or an official announcement from Rutgers on the earlier than expected addition of 4-star big man Mamadou Doucoure, there is reason to hope he could be eligible to play at the start of this season. Duke’s Marvin Bagley III also reclassified, like Doucoure, and was declared eligible last week. The timing of NCAA decisions is usually based on the readiness of documents requested to complete the review required and we should hopefully hear about Doucoure sometime this month.

The schedule for this season, along with the current roster, give hope that Rutgers can produce it’s first winning campaign since 2005-2006. That would certainly mark continued progress in Pikiell’s second year and keep positive momentum around the program. I expect the team to be better defensively and I believe that Williams, Sanders, and Freeman can carry the load as veteran stars on the roster. It’s fair to expect that improvement will occur with Issa Thiam, Eugene Omoruyi, and Candido Sa, and that newcomers Baker, Johnson, Doucoure and JUCO transfer Souf Mensah can make an impact as well. Shooting and depth in the frontcourt are concerns, as the production of CJ Gettys needs to be replaced, but there is real hope this team will finish better than last place in the Big Ten for the first time in four tries.

By the start of the 2018-2019 season, the roster could be entirely made of up players recruited by Pikiell, with the exception of Shaq Doorson and Corey Sanders, who could end up leaving to go pro next year. Pikiell’s third team is when we will truly see his vision for Rutgers basketball on the court. With the players he has already brought into the program, plus the recruits currently committed, a clear blueprint is being established. Here are few takeaways:

Positional Versatility

Soon the roster will be filled with multiple players who can play multiple positions, giving Pikiell versatility in crafting lineups and matchups that can help create mismatches or advantages on the court.

Freshman combo guard Geo Baker will likely play the 2 primarily, but has the potential to play at the point due to his handle and passing ability, while his height and shooting ability could even allow him to play at the wing if Rutgers wants to play three guards. Ditto for former Quinnipiac guard Peter Kiss, once he is eligible to play next season after sitting out this year due to transfer rules. Mathis and Harper Jr. can play the 2 or the 3 as well.

In the frontcourt, Doucoure and Johnson can play the 4 and the 5. Johnson in particular, has great hands and passing ability, which could make him an asset playing in the high post against a zone. If Eugene Omoruyi can develop more offensively, he could end up playing at the 3 and the 4.

We know Pikiell is a good in-game coach after last year. Once he has enough weapons to utilize and be creative with, Rutgers should be a truly interesting and fun squad to watch and more importantly, a dangerous team to play against.

Size On The Perimeter

Another thing we learned about Pikiell last season is his willingness to play three guards at the same time. Whether it was out of necessity at times or it gave Rutgers the matchup he wanted, it also fits the style of play Pikiell ultimately wants. Consider that when Rutgers had Sanders, Williams, and Nigel Johnson on the court together last season, all of them stand between 6'1" and 6'2". The backcourt and wings after this season is slated to include the following players:

Point Guards: 6’2” Souf Mensah; 6’2” Mac McClung

Shooting Guards/Wings: 6’4” Montez Mathis; 6’5” Geo Baker; 6’5” Peter Kiss, 6’6” Ron Harper Jr.; 6’9” Issa Thiam.

If Baker can actually play the point in stretches, Pikiell could use him, Mathis and Kiss all on the court at the same time. That's about 3 inches of added height per player compared to the guard trio he utilized last season.

Harper Jr. could ultimately grow to 6'8" and along with the continued development of Issa, Rutgers could have two major matchup nightmares for opponents on the wing.

The game of basketball is changing and having big, multifaceted players in the backcourt and on the perimeter is a true asset. Look at how Jon Beilein plays at Michigan. I’m not saying Rutgers will ever be as free wheeling from behind the three-point line as the Wolverines are, but playing a big lineup is something fans should expect to see soon at the RAC.

Adding Shooters

Speaking of shooting, it was the biggest deficiency for Rutgers last season and was a constant issue throughout the Eddie Jordan era. Pikiell has addressed it through recruiting by finding Harper, Mathis, Kiss, and Baker. I’m very excited to see what Baker can do and he has the potential to be the best shooter on the team this season. His strength is shooting off the dribble, something Rutgers desperately needs.

In terms of this season, if Sanders, Williams and Issa can show improvement from 15 feet and beyond as well, shooting won’t be an achilles heel this season. However, the following season is when Rutgers will be more stocked with shooters and can potentially look like a different team from behind the arc. Three-point shooting has been a liability for the program since joining the Big Ten, but it’s obvious Pikiell is working hard to change that, which will make this team much more competitive in league play down the road.

Point Guard Of The Future

With all the of the recruiting wins this summer for the program, the most underrated pickup in my opinion is Mac McClung. Pikiell searched for his point guard of the future since he arrived in the spring of 2016 and finally found his guy in McClung this summer. While the staff pursued higher rated floor generals, missing on Jose Alvarado the year before being one example, sometimes plan B turns out to be a blessing. There are no sure things, but Pikiell is betting big on McClung and with good reason. He is super athletic, is a natural point guard, and is raw, but extremely moldable with a ton of upside. McClung has improved a lot just in the past six months to a year and with the right coaching, has the potential to be a top tier player. If you want to know the importance that Pikiell and the staff have placed on McClung, look no further than this picture from this past weekend.

For the way that Pikiell wants Rutgers to play long term, it doesn’t work without the right point guard. Of course, no basketball team is successful without a strong floor general. McClung brings athleticism, energy, a strong handle and passing ability with him and embodies the gym rat persona that Pikiell desires. As talented as Mathis is and the importance on the future that the 2019 class will have, I’d argue the development of McClung is paramount in the program making a significant jump forward in the next few years.

Up Tempo Style Of Play

This has always been Pikiell’s vision and will be a major change from the way the program has played the past few years. As Pikiell has said before, every player says they want to play this style, pressing on defense and running the fast break on offense. But how many want to put the work in and can actually do it for a sustained period of time during a game? Pikiell is assembling a versatile, athletic roster that will be able to play an attacking style on both ends of the court. He has no qualms about playing ten players on a regular basis, something that even surprised local hoops expert Jerry Carino in talking about the program under Pikiell in his recent Q&A with Dave White. Pikiell is now building depth to play a relentless pace in the future. Since joining the Big Ten, Rutgers rarely had the ability to dictate play and make their opponents adjust to them. Pikiell is changing that and once he is fully able to do so, the results will truly change in a positive way.

Closing

Another positive entering year two is that Pikiell was able to retain his entire staff after the first year, allowing him to build continuity within the program and give the current players stability and structure, something none of them had experienced previously. Having Jay Young coach the frontcourt and leading the defense is a huge asset for Pikiell, as he can develop players and is a trusted confidant from their many years together at Stony Brook. Young also brings an edge that this team desperately needs. Brandin Knight is also a valuable assistant, both for his ability to develop the guards and for being the best recruiter on the staff. Karl Hobbs brings experience and another coach that Pikiell can bounce ideas off of.

The biggest takeaway from all the changes made and actions taken by Pikiell since taking over Rutgers basketball is that the program now has an identity. The immediate improvements with rebounding and defense last season were significant, two aspects that Pikiell wants the program to be known for moving forward. He is recruiting talented, versatile, athletic players who also bring toughness and strong work ethics with them, as well as the ability to fulfill his vision to play an up tempo style in the future.

Aside from all the positives that Pikiell has brought off the court, whether it's his ability to market the program effectively, improve the area of strength and conditioning, hold people accountable, and instill hope in the fans, it’s his coaching expertise that gives the biggest reason for optimism. He proved last season that he is flexible and adaptable in how the team plays, in order to get the most out of his roster. His in-game coaching was excellent. Pikiell is a good strategist and knows how to put his players in a position to maximize their potential, while also knowing how to attack opponent’s weaknesses. He projects confidence in his own abilities and the team has taken on his own personality. It was obvious in late season wins over Illinois and Ohio State that the players believed they could be successful because their coach instilled that in them.

This season is a big test and continued progress is needed. How the team responds after having a full offseason to develop and improve under Pikiell and the staff is an exciting prospect. Patience is still needed, as this was a program that only won 7 games two seasons ago and such a massive rebuild takes time. However, all the positive signs that are important to see in year one under a new coach were present. To say Pikiell has won the offseason on the recruiting trail is an understatement.

The steps this team can take this season are crucial to keep positive momentum in recruiting and to continue to change perception about Rutgers basketball. The long overdue practice facility is under construction as we speak. The most important thing right now is that Pikiell has instilled belief in everyone, whether it be the players, recruits, alumni, fans and even the national media to a degree. Early projections ahead of this season are far less gloomy than a year ago. Entering year two of the Pikiell era is about as positive as could have been expected when he took over almost 18 months ago. The next chapter tips off in days and if you haven’t joined the bandwagon yet, time to get on. Better days are most certainly ahead for Rutgers basketball.