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Takeaways From Rutgers Men’s Basketball Media Day & Practice

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A team first approach will serve this young team well this season

Aaron Breitman

Piscataway - The annual media day for the Rutgers men’s basketball program took place on Tuesday and it was obvious there is a different vibe with this team heading into the 2018-2019 season. Head coach Steve Pikiell expressed enthusiasm for a group that is truly his own for the first time since taking over the program two and a half years ago. All but one player on this season’s roster was brought to Rutgers by Pikiell.

“I love my team. I know everyone says that. I really like my team, we have new chemistry, guys that play well together,” Pikiell said. He continued, “We have some unique pieces that I’m excited about. We are going to make some huge improvements. In the last two years, we’ve improved in every area and we are going to continue that trend. I’m really excited about this season and my roster.”

Pikiell continued by describing each player in detail before citing how well the freshman class has integrated with the rest of the team.

“I really like our freshman class. They work hard and their best basketball is ahead of them. They bring major size, athleticism and skills to us and add to the returning guys who have all gotten better. I’m excited about the program and where it is. Two years ago when I took over the program to now, we’re getting better in every area.”

Pikiell was very high on the team’s improvement on the offensive end, but spoke about the need for this group to find themselves defensively.

“We have a lot more pieces. We are way ahead offensively, which I don’t like. Our defense, I don’t like right now at all. We score a lot. We have a lot more guys who can shoot the ball,” said Pikiell. He added, “We are much more athletic and competitive than we have been in the past. Practices have been better. We have two guys at every spot that I feel very comfortable with. They all bring something. Our freshman class are very far ahead offensively. They really have a long way to go defensively.” Pikiell continued, “The veterans still know what they are supposed to do on the defensive end. In our (intrasquad) scrimmages, our offensive pace is way ahead of our defensive pace. We have more pieces offensively, I’m worried about our defense. We’ll keep harping on it. We really need to get back to rebounding and defending. I don’t want us to lose our core of what we are. That’s what we do.”

This isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s a huge adjustment from high school to a high major program. Even Shaq Carter coming from a premier JUCO program commented what a huge adjustment it’s been for him. All of the newcomers have talent and that’s showing on the offensive end. They have the ability to become a great defensive team, but it will take the younger players time to learn and adjust more so on that end of the floor.

You can watch the rest of Pikiell’s presser here, which lasted for over twenty minutes.

Impressions From Practice

  • I spoke to every scholarship player on the team and each one talked about how well everyone gets along and likes playing with one another. I asked every player about their individual goals and team goals for the season. To a man, they all talked about how they want to do whatever is needed for the team and the ultimate goal is to win. No one was particularly focused on anything specific about themselves other than contributing in a positive manner any way possible. It seemed genuine and team chemistry appears to be at an all-time high since Pikiell has been running the program. Things can always change once the games begin, as minutes and points come at a premium, but the bond with this team seems legitimately strong. They collectively have a chip on their shoulder and want to prove the outside doubters wrong. I’ll have much more from my interviews with various players in the coming days.
  • Montez Mathis is my pick for the most intriguing player on the roster this season. He was obviously a top 100 recruit, so you can’t count him as a sleeper candidate. However, Mathis has kept a low profile since arriving on campus and he has clearly put in the work in the preseason. He looked well adjusted to the pace of practice and more comfortable overall since I saw him on the first day of practice in late September. His athleticism is off the charts and he is by all accounts, extremely coachable. Whether he starts right away or not, he figures to play a significant role this season. It’s clear he is very talented offensively, but also needs time to improve on the defensive end. He is a little bit raw, but I expect him to steadily improve as the season progresses. He will benefit greatly from the coaching he is getting from this staff. Mathis just looks like a high major player and carries himself in a quiet and professional manner. Rutgers fans will enjoy watching him for years to come.
  • Pikiell indicated during the presser that the practice on Tuesday would consist of a lot of defensive drills and he wasn’t joking. It’s clear from his earlier comments and the way he is so involved with certain drills during practice how much this team’s defensive identity means to him and the staff. The players were run through drill after drill at a relentless pace, focusing on fundamentals and technique. Rebounding was an emphasis as well. Once the newcomers learn to play together with such an aggressive, hard nose style at the pace that they need to, this team will make real progress. The potential is certainly there.
  • Shooting is a big question mark with this team, but Rutgers does seem to have more players that at least have the potential to knock down shots from the perimeter during games this season. The freshman trio of Caleb McConnell, Montez Mathis, and Ron Harper Jr. all have the ability to hit a three-pointer in spots. Geo Baker and Issa Thiam both averaged a respectable 36% on 100+ attempts from behind the arc last season. They could both improve on that mark this season. The x-factor is Eugene Omoruyi, who has said all preseason he has worked on his shooting range and will be looking to take three-pointers this season. If he could be serviceable from deep, it would add another wrinkle to an offense that can hopefully take a big step forward this season.
  • This will be a fun team to watch based on their likeability and the player’s improved physical stature and athleticism. With so many new faces, it’s going to take time for this team to gel. Without a doubt, patience will be needed from fans this season. There will be unexpected high moments and frustrating low points. As fans, I think it’s important to focus on the journey that this new era of Rutgers basketball will bring this season. It’s clear that the program now has legitimate pieces to eventually move this team forward, but it’s going to take time. This season is about this group cutting their teeth and developing individually as players and as a team. It’s important to remember, because the schedule is very difficult and the learning curve for this group will be significant. However, I really think February could bring real progress and this team could finish the season stronger than any Pikiell edition at Rutgers has yet.