It’s a tradition unlike any other.
Each year, I send a list of questions to one of the beat writers closest to the Rutgers basketball team to get his take on the year that past and what lies ahead. Jerry Carino writes for the Asbury Park Press and has covered Rutgers for almost as long as I can remember. The absolute maven of the Rutgers hoops beat, we had an email chat about what Rutgers fans can expect about the rebuild as it moves into year 3. So, if you didn’t get enough hoops from Aaron’s chat with Steve Pikiell, here’s a little more info to tide you over until Rutgers starts signing people.
OtB: Year 2 of the Pikiell Era is complete: Was it a success and another building block or a step back if your eyes?
JC: It was a mixed bag. There were clear steps forward: Geo Baker planted the flag as an impact freshman, Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam made clear strides, the defense continued to be tough, and the team recorded signature wins against Seton Hall and Indiana.
But between the soft non-conference schedule and the Big Ten’s weakness after the top handful of teams, Rutgers should have posted a winning season couldn’t take advantage for a variety of reasons. Injuries and illness played a part, but the StonyHart week was an absolute killer too.
OtB: Overall, Professor, what letter grade would you give the Pikiell rebuilding effort so far? And why?
JC: Probably a B+. You’re grading on a curve because the program was at such a low when he arrived. He’s doing the right things as far as creating a culture. Rutgers basketball is no longer a laughingstock. Now the staff needs to add more talent as everyone knows.
This is a long-term project. Look at Pat Chambers at Penn State. He needed five years to get the right personnel in place. Pikiell deserves and will get similar patience because, like Penn State, there is no recent history of success and the fan-base focus is on football.
OtB: Corey Sanders has decided to forego his senior season and turn pro. What impact did he have on Rutgers during his three years here?
JC: People nitpick Corey’s flaws---his shot selection, his inconsistency, his focuses on things away from the court. Understandable. I think it’s safe to say Pikiell focuses his recruiting on different types of players. But I look at it this way: Where would Rutgers have been without Corey these past two years? I’ll tell you the answer: Single-digit win totals.
Warts and all, Corey carried the torch though some tough days, delivered a few classic moments, became coachable and improved under Pikiell, and didn’t bolt when he had ample opportunity in two offseasons (assist to Shoes Vetrone, who earned every penny mentoring the young man). So he had a great impact, and in the short term he will be hard to replace.
Will Geo Baker and Montez Mathis ultimately benefit down the road from getting the keys to the car next season? Yes. Will that improve next season’s win total? I can’t see it. That’s why this is a five-year project, at least.
OtB: Coach Pikiell just found himself with 3 open scholarships: What types of players should he focus on this spring?
JC: A ball-handler is the No. 1 priority. Ideally you pull a postgrad to help take the pressure off Baker and Mathis and allow them to play more natural roles. But the postgrad market is incredibly competitive; it’s like recruiting 4- and 5-star high school kids.
Plus postgrads want to win immediately; most of the best ones are leaving situations where they’re getting tons of playing time. It’s about chasing glory. So Rutgers is at a disadvantage there. C.J. Gettys was a coup so maybe they can do that again.
Caleb McConnell, a 2018 point guard, is visiting Friday. Certainly a player who could help the program over the long term, but he’s probably not running the team next year.
If not, Baker will have the ball in his hands. It’s do-able but you’d rather play him off the ball.
A wing shooter and a physical-presence power player would be the other priorities.
OtB: There are rumors Jeff Capel is targeting Brandon Knight to be an assistant. Do you expect there to be coaching turnover for Rutgers this off season?
JC: It’s not rumor. Capel made a bizarre, borderline breach-of-etiquette public plea for Knight to return to his alma mater. I’m sure that pleased some pro-Brandin Pitt boosters, but since we don’t know the exact position or salary offered it’s hard to speculate on whether it will happen.
I think the world of Jay Young, and I believe he is ready to be a successful mid-major head coach right now---let’s face it, he should have been Pikiell’s successor at Stony Brook, and then he should have gotten CCSU---but politics get in the way and it’s about who knows who. At some point, a smart mid-major AD will look at Rutgers’ defense and hire Young. But I don’t know when that will be.
OtB: What do you know about Peter Kiss and Myles Johnson? How might they contribute next season?
JC: Kiss is ready to contribute right away, presumably as the top guard off the bench. His swagger and nose for the bucket will help Rutgers. He possesses the toughness that this staff wants. The question is can he hit threes with any consistency at the Big Ten level? Tough to discern before the lights go on.
I have no idea what to expect from Johnson. He’s in better shape obviously, and the staff loves his passing vision and touch. He’ll get every opportunity because Rutgers is weak in the post.
OtB: Rutgers seems to be involved with some really good players for the class of 2019, like Ismael Massoud and Paul Mulcahy. What have you heard about the recruiting efforts of Steve Pikiell and company?
JC: Mulcahy is the guy. A pass-first playmaker, great court vision, makes teammates better, good size. Would fit perfectly with Baker and Mathis. You never know what’s coming out of the sausage factory that is recruiting, but I believe Rutgers has the inside track.
OtB: So much of Rutgers offense relied on Corey Sanders last season. Do you expect the 2018-19 version of the Rutgers offense to look completely different to fit the players? Or will fans see similarities?
JC: It has to look different. It has to be more of the team game, less one-on-one shot-making. The same could be said for the departure of Deshawn Freeman, another one-on-one guy. Pikiell’s M.O. at Stony Brook was tailoring his offense to his personnel (see: the Seawolves of Bryan Dougher to the Seawolves of Jameel Warney).
The question remains, though: Can these guys shoot? I always wondered if Sanders took matters into his own hands more often than he should have because he knew his teammates couldn’t hit an open shot. Good ball movement and ball-sharing will get you a better look, but at the end of the day, guys have to make the better look count. So I think we’ll see a different offense, probably a sounder one, but we might not see better results.
OtB: Break it down for us: Rutgers has lost 3 of its best players to graduation (or the pro game) and will have up to 8 new faces next season. The schedule will be tougher too. What is a reasonable expectation for Rutgers in 2018-19?
JC: The Big Ten going to 20 games…Rutgers needed that like a kick in the head. Much depends on how quickly Mathis and Shaq Carter adjust to this level. The leap from JUCO to high-major ball is enormous (remember: Deshawn Freeman was the top JUCO big man in his class and that equated to being a functional Big Ten starter). Carter will contribute, but expectations that he will be a seamless bridge from Freeman should tempered.
Can Mamadou Doucoure benefit from a full offseason in the program, the way Omoruyi did last year? That’s another big question I can’t really answer until October.
This will be a transition season as Pikiell has his own guys in leading roles now, and underclassmen at that. I foresee some major growing pains. So my answer right now, in April, is there should be no expectations as far as the team’s record and accomplishments. It will be about development---individual development and offensive-identity development. I know long-suffering RU fans don’t want to hear it, but next season’s most important progress will take place outside the win-loss columns.
Thanks for chiming in, Jerry. Be sure to check out the Hoops Haven blog!