With the offseason fully underway for the Rutgers men’s basketball team and new developments already taking place, I was fortunate to have the opportunity recently to speak at length with head coach Steve Pikiell. We spoke on a variety of topics, including how the season ended, how the reception has been so far this offseason, the departure of Corey Sanders, recruiting, scheduling and the outlook for next season. Coach Pikiell gives a lot of great insight on the current state of the program and how he views next year’s team. Let’s tip things off here.
AB: How has the last month been in terms of the response from the Big Ten run? You’ve made a lot of media appearances, but speaking with coaches and recruits, how is everyone viewing the program now?
SP: “It’s been really good. Playing at Madison Square Garden showed people a lot too, the power of Rutgers nation. We have a huge alumni base there that showed up and were great. I don’t even know if the league quite knew the power of New York City. It was the highest attended Big Ten Tournament and most watched in a while, it was tremendous. It was tremendous for the league and tremendous for Rutgers. I felt really good that we had all of our players healthy. They played at a high level on a big stage. I thought that was exciting. I thought it was good for recruiting, I thought it was good for everything. I was mostly excited for Rutgers nation, you saw the power of it.”
AB: It was something to see the Garden rocking, even in the loss to Purdue, how electric the place was with so many people rooting for Rutgers. It was definitely significant. When I spoke to you after the Minnesota win at the Garden, you seemed very confident that the team would come out and play better the next night versus the year before (22 point loss to Northwestern in second round of 2017 B1G Tourney). Even being down as much as 16 points against Indiana, what was working at the Garden that wasn’t there towards the end of the regular season, aside from being healthy? It just seemed like this team believed in a way we hadn’t seen yet?
SP: “I think we went through a lot of obstacles. We had a lot of new pieces this year. We had injuries we had to deal with. And we played the best schedule in the league. By the time we got to the tournament, I said “hey guys, we played the best schedule. No one else has played a better schedule than us. There is no reason to be afraid. We are going to play Purdue, they were ranked 3rd when we played them the second time. We are going to play the best of the best.” Guys were comfortable, we brought some guys off the bench and I thought they played better off the bench. We moved some pieces around with all the healthy parts. We got the upset (over Indiana). Eugene got better, you saw that in the tournament. Geo got better, you saw that in the tournament. Putting the pieces together, they played well on a big stage, which was a good thing. I thought you saw some of the seniors play with some urgency too. It was an exciting time for our program and it was another step. I took over this program, as you know, we have just been taking steps. We took another big step and next year will be the next step for us. I think that is exciting.”
AB: What was the best quality that you felt this team had throughout the year from all the adversity they dealt with, the injuries, that kept showing up consistently the most?
SP: “We kept fighting and thought you could see guys getting better. I think you saw the improvement. Issa Thiam from year one to year two, he got a lot better. Eugene Omoruyi from year one to year two just got better. Geo showed some signs, he kept getting better in some areas. Even Duke (Doucoure) in the tournament, I saw him get better too before our eyes. This team was resilient. Our numbers statistically on the defensive end and with rebounding have improved as much as you can probably improve. I thought you saw in the tournament when we made some shots, how that kind of changed things too on the offensive end. Our offense really clicked. We passed the ball better, we made open shots, we made free throws. When we were able to do that, we could play with anybody.”
AB: In the past, you’ve talked about you typically see the most advancement from year one to year two with players, especially with strength and conditioning. Eugene and Issa showed that from last year to this year. What do you expect from Duke and Geo moving forward, as well as how did you view how their freshman seasons went versus what your expectations were for them?
SP: “I am most excited for both those guys. They were thrown into the fire this year. They’re going to be a lot better. They are in the gym. They’ll have another spring and summer here with our staff. Now they’ve been through it. Until you have been through it, you don’t really know how good the other teams are, how good the league is. I’m excited about them taking those same steps that Issa and Gene made. They are both workers, they are in the gym already. They both have come in with an innate ability to work and their love for basketball.
AB: How is the development going with the rest of the current roster?
SP: “I’m really excited about next year. We had Myles sit out and practice with us all year. I saw his improvement, which was unbelievable. He has lost 28 pounds and he is going to be a real inside presence for us. Peter Kiss gained 13 pounds and he practiced every day with us. He comes in with a scorer’s mentality that we need. He can really shoot the ball, but he has improved too. I think Shaq Doorson, you saw his improvement. He hasn’t had an offseason in two years with us because he has always been in a boot and dealing with his injury. Now he’s got an offseason here to get bigger, stronger, faster and all those other things. I’m really excited and we are going to continue to add pieces, but the pieces that we’ve already added to the program in Ron Harper Jr., who had a great senior year, Montez (Mathis) had a great senior year. Shaq Carter just got back from playing with USA Basketball over in France. He is a good player. I’m excited with the pieces we are adding. We will certainly miss the seniors and Corey obviously, but these guys are good players and they can do a lot of things for us with them coming in.”
AB: Watching the video that the program put out on Thursday, you could see the difference in Myles in that one clip of him working down low, it was impressive. He is definitely an intriguing player to watch for next season.
SP: “He’s a good player and is a terrific passer. He brings us an inside presence, he can score in the post, he can really pass the ball. He has put on muscle, he is bouncier, he is exciting.”
AB: How does Corey Sanders leaving change your offensive philosophy and approach in trying to replace his production?
SP: “It wasn’t a huge surprise that he was leaving. He put his name in as a freshman and a sophomore. I love Corey and we are going to obviously miss him a great deal. We are going to be a little different. We are going to play inside too. I think we have some guys that can really score. Having Mamadou with another year under his belt. Eugene can score around the basket, Shaq Carter, that’s what he does. Shaq Doorson is going to get better around the basket too. Myles can do that. We are going to be different.
Ron Harper Jr. is a big time three-point shooter. Peter Kiss is a big time three-point shooter. Issa is going to continue to improve, he can shoot the ball. Obviously Geo is going to work and become more consistent from three. We are just going to be different but not as dependent on just one guy. We are certainly going to miss Corey’s ability to make shots and create with the shot clock going down. However, I think we are going to be bigger and better in a lot of ways, in terms of having guys inside that can score around the basket, which will help all of our players with spacing and those other kind of things as well.
I like our ability to score. Peter Kiss scored 19 points against Seton Hall as a freshman shooting 4 for 4 from three. He scored 18 against Gonzaga, a nationally ranked team as a freshman at Quinnipiac. Now he is a year better. He is a scorer, that’s what he does and will certainly be counted on to give us some added punch. These other guys can score too and I’m excited about that. Montez Mathis is a scorer, Ron Harper scores. We are going to be different.”
AB: With the leadership that is now gone and while there are still more spots to fill this offseason, are you looking at Geo and Eugene as the leaders of the team going into next season?
SP: “Yeah, Eugene is a natural leader and with Shaq and Geo, we are going to look for everyone. Leadership isn’t just tap someone on the shoulder and that’s what they do. I think Eugene is a hard worker and gets a ton of respect in the locker room. I think Shaq has really proven that he’s grinded through a lot of obstacles and is a veteran guy. I think Geo is going to have the ball in his hands and that position is always important in the leadership category.”
AB: Last year you told me that your philosophy in targeting grad transfers, you really only were focusing on guys who could start. Does that change at all this year with Shaq Doorson being the only senior and having more spots to fill, will you look to add more depth and a veteran presence on the team?
SP: “I get asked that question a lot, I’m trying to add good players that shoot, pass, and dribble. If that’s a grad transfer then that would be great. If it’s not, I’m not worried about that. We are going to recruit high school kids, we are going to recruit grad transfers, junior college kids. If I think they can help our program and bring some elements that we need, I’m going to go in any area. I don’t get caught up in that. You can have a freshman who is a great leader too. It doesn’t mean because you are a senior, you are automatically a good leader. We are going to look at every area. Every time I bring in a kid, I’m going to bring in someone who I think can add to our program and we are involved with some really good players, so I’m excited about some possible additions. “
AB: How has the reception changed from last offseason to this offseason been in terms of recruiting. Are top targets maybe more receptive now after seeing the progress being made and are more willing to come visit on campus?
SP: “People know we are headed in a great direction and there is real excitement here. We are building the practice facility, we can actually show people that. We’ve proven now that we can develop players and that they get better. We’ve proven too that we can win games in this conference and out of conference too. I certainly think that helps, but I really like our roster a lot. I like the guys that are here and I think they will have good careers. I think we are going to have more players moving forward who can shoot, pass, and dribble, which is important, and players that want to be here and in the gym all the time. That’s what the guys we have are doing, so certainly I feel there is an excitement and enthusiasm around our program, around our staff, about the direction we are headed, which I think is a great thing.”
AB: How much of a focus and priority are you putting on adding ball handlers with the open spots you have for next season?
SP: “We are trying to add everything. Shooters, ball handlers, post up players. I think we already have some really good players that bring a lot to the program and we will continue to add those good pieces for us. I feel really comfortable with the guys we have right now. I think Geo is a good player, Peter Kiss is a good player, Shaq Carter is a good player, Montez Mathis is a good player, Ron Harper is a good player. Issa is going to improve again. He had a good sophomore year, maybe we can make it a great junior year. Eugene keeps getting better, can handle the ball and do a lot of things. I’m excited, I think we have a good blend of big guys, some wings, guys that can handle the ball in the backcourt and we will obviously continue to use these last few scholarships and be real smart about who we give them to. If we think they can bring a piece that we don’t have, then we’re going to add them.”
AB: Entering year three, talking about the balance you have on the roster now, but also the situation you are in with it only being early April and for the first time you don’t have the Corey question lingering for a few months, knowing what you have with your spots available, how much does that help in terms of the rebuild and entering a critical year three and having your plan set in motion this early in the offseason?
SP: “It’s funny, someone said that to me the other day about it being a critical year three. We are building this program and getting better every season. Year one was critical, year two was critical, year three and four will be too, you know what I mean? We are building this program, I like where we are headed. We’ve improved in every area, from academics, to facilities, to guys on the roster. We have good young players, which is very important. I’m excited, I have a great staff. We had more fans watch our team play, we were on TV more. We beat ranked teams. We are doing good things and we are just going to continue to do that. I think when we continue to have a good game plan for guys to come here, get better, graduate, I’m proud of our senior class. They are all probably going to go play overseas at the very least. I’m excited where we are entering year three after two years of hard work by our staff. I think you can see the real potential in this program and where we are headed.”
AB: With all the experience that you have in rebuilding programs, how do you respond to when you hear the perceived notion that it only takes a couple of players to turn things around, which I personally disagree with, especially with the perspective you have in taking over where Rutgers was, do you laugh when you hear that and how often do you hear it?
SP: “You need more than just a couple of players in this league. You need a lot of players. You need a lot of players in every class, you need good chemistry, luck with injuries, you need a good whistle now and then, you need a lot of things. We are trying to do that, I like how we are building our classes. I feel real good about our freshman class because we’ve now added Myles to that class with Ron and Montez. I feel really good about our sophomore class with Mamadou and Geo, now we’ve added Peter Kiss. I feel really good about our junior class because we have Eugene and Issa, now we are adding Shaq Carter, who is a really good big guy.
It’s not just one player here and there, it’s having a good game plan, building classes so when your senior class graduates, then you have a good junior class ready to go, and a good sophomore and freshman classes ready to go. Now we have to add a good class behind them. Now you have a good program in place.
It’s the best league in the country, I’ll still say that. People can debate that, but I know when you play Maryland and Indiana, who are building great teams, Michigan and Michigan State, it’s tough. Penn State, you saw the year they had in winning the NIT and were every bit deserving of a NCAA bid. Ohio State. You look at those programs, they are year in and year out good and they have good classes in each one and when one good class graduates, the next one is ready to go. I think we are a lot closer to having that kind of program than we were certainly two years ago when I took over.”
AB: In terms of having a mostly new team next season, what is your philosophy with scheduling, especially now that there will be twenty conference games every year?
SP: “What’s happening now is I really don’t have that much control over scheduling. We’ve added two league games, so we are at twenty. We are always going to play in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. We are going to play next season in the Big East Gavitt games. We will play Seton Hall every year. We have Fordham, which was a six year deal before I got here. There are only a few games that I even have a say in. Pretty soon the schedule is going to be done. The good part is Aaron, pretty soon no one can blame the schedule on me because the league is just going to dictate the whole schedule (laughter), so people can complain about whatever the league does, but not me, so that’s a good thing.”
AB: What about this past season, the team really seemed to play up to its competition, both in non-conference and conference play, as well as how well they performed in the Garden. Is that something that even with the few games you do have control over, are you looking to play more at the Garden? I know you have a couple road games this next season in non-conference, but does this past season change your philosophy at all in how you approach it?
SP: “I want to play as many games at the RAC as possible. I love the RAC, that’s where we have a home court advantage and I want to play as many of those games as possible. If we get opportunities through the league to play in places I love that too, but I only probably have power over three or four games moving forward and I’d like to keep playing at the RAC. A place where we win the most, that’s where our fans see us the most. We’ll get those opportunities to play at the Barclay’s Center and Madison Square Garden and we’ll take advantage of those as time comes.”
AB: To come full circle from what you said in the preseason, has your phone slowed down in regards to other schools calling you for scheduling?
SP: “It still rings, but definitely not as much as it did in year one, that’s for sure. (Laughter). Not as much as in year one.”
AB: Last question on scheduling, playing local teams, playing Ivy teams, is that something you’ve looked at versus scheduling teams that have less interest to fans in the early stages of the season? This past season there were a couple of Big Ten games and then a drop off, is that something you are looking at?
SP: “Like I said, I really only have control over three or four games now moving forward. We’ve added UMASS, we are playing Fordham. We are always going to try and pick a game that is exciting, but we’ve added a lot of exciting games to our schedule. We played Florida State this past season and you saw how good they were. Next year, we are back in the Big East series, so who knows who that will be (opponent). Every year is different with scheduling, but I’m getting less and less games that I can schedule myself. We’ll pick some local teams and always try and play some. We’ll also try and pick a good regional game, if we can get involved with and it makes sense, we are going to try and do that too.“
AB: With how things have gone through two years, do you feel like you are on course with the rebuild and I know you’ve said to me before nothing has surprised you in regard to the challenges you’ve faced, but with some of the things we just talked about and where the roster is at now at this point in early April, how good do you feel heading into next season?
SP: “I feel real good, we’ve accomplished a lot in a short period of time. We’ve improved in every area, from academics to fans coming to games, to season ticket holders, to our competitiveness on the court, every category we’ve probably improved in statistically. All with a young group and a group that’s trying to figure it out with a new coach and new staff. I love the fact that I have a great staff and better days are ahead. That’s where we are headed, but understand too we are in the best league in the country. We say this to people, Michigan State is not going to get worse, Michigan is going to continue to recruit great players and has a great coach, and so is Purdue. We just have to continue to take those steps in the best league in the country and we are going to continue to do that. So yes, I feel really good about a lot of things, but we need to continue to make strides.”
AB: Mentioning your staff, all three assistants have had their names mentioned for others jobs this offseason, do you take that as a compliment and how do you prepare for that as a head coach?
SP: “They should have their names mentioned because they are great. They do a great job and I’m glad I have great guys on my staff. It’s going to be a yearly thing and it’s a great thing.”
AB: I wanted to end by asking if you have any message for the fans, after all the support this year and while patience can be thin for some, what they should look forward to for next season and beyond?
SP: “I’m just thankful, the fans have been terrific. Our guys play hard for the fans. I appreciate the students and I appreciate the community. Just keep enjoying the ride. It’s fun. I know everyone wants to go from zero to 90, but even in the car, you have to get through 35, 40, 50 before you can get to 90. We are heading in that direction. I’m excited and I’m thankful.”
A sincere thanks to coach Pikiell for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me and for giving Rutgers fans such great insight on his thoughts regarding the program as he enters his third year at the helm.