The Rutgers men’s basketball team officially begins practice for the 2018-2019 season this Friday, September 28th. As I did before last season, here is a state of the program review of Rutgers under head coach Steve Pikiell. He enters his third season at the helm of team still searching for its first winning campaign in 13 years. Let’s review five different areas to assess the current shape of the program and end with the outlook for where things are headed under Pikiell moving forward.
I think it’s fair to say that Steve Pikiell has been a tremendous leader during his tenure at Rutgers so far. He inherited an absolute mess in April 2016. The roster was half full and lacked legitimate Big Ten talent. Rutgers had an almost non-existent presence on the recruiting trail when he arrived. The only identity the program had was one of a perennial loser, the Mike Rice scandal still lingered, and in the Jordan years, the team became a complete pushover. There was little hope for the fan base and the RAC was as fun as a funeral home. The program bottomed out with a 7-25 record in the 2015-2016 season.
The former Stony Brook coach came to Piscataway and instantly breathed new life into Rutgers basketball. His energy and enthusiasm has been infectious. His experience as a proven program builder and his knowledge of how to properly attack a massive rebuild have been essential to the progress he has made. Pikiell has worked, brick by brick, in every phase.
Pikiell has given the program an identity, as he has fielded teams that play for each other, has made defense and rebounding a priority, and gets his team to typically play up to its competition. The culture continues to grow stronger as the roster has now turned over with players recruited by the current staff.
He has proven he also runs a tight ship. He didn’t shy away from disciplining his two best players, Corey Sanders, who he benched multiple times over two seasons, and Deshawn Freeman as well. More than once, Pikiell has subbed out his starting lineup and brought in the end of his bench, when they’ve started games poorly. His use of walk-on Jake Dadika in key spots served as a dual purpose. It gave the team a spark at times, while also sending a message to certain players. Accountability is a major priority under Pikiell.
The strength and conditioning program has been completely made over under David Van Dyke, who Pikiell brought with him. The gains have been obvious in the player’s physiques and injuries have been minimal over two seasons. When significant ones have occurred, like Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi last season, both players returned sooner than expected.
Another key for Pikiell has keeping his coaching staff together during his entire tenure so far. Karl Hobbs, Jay Young, and Brandin Knight are a strong group of assistants and has been a factor in the progress the program has made. New Pitt coach Jeff Capel publicly announced his desire to add Knight to his staff, the school he starred as a guard in the early 2000’s and was an assistant at for 8 seasons under former coach Jamie Dixon. Despite being pursued by his alma mater, Knight stayed at Rutgers. Hobbs was courted by Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing two summers ago and Young has been a name mentioned with several head coaching job openings the past two years. Having the continuity with this staff is key in developing players. With such a young roster, it should help aid a smoother transition than if there was turnover with the assistants.
One of the most important things a great leader must do is to inspire hope and belief in what they are doing will lead to success. Players, recruits, the university, and the fan base have all bought in. Pikiell has also become an ambassador for Rutgers. He has embraced the entire university and it has embraced him. In the past two weeks, Pikiell was seen attending a Rutgers Volleyball match and also donated $5,000 to the men’s golf team for their new indoor practice facility. Simply put, Pikiell just gets it and is a connector within the community. In addition, his generosity with his time in various settings to promote his program has been essential. He has not only rallied the Rutgers basketball community, he also has brought goodwill throughout the university.
No, Steve Pikiell hasn’t yet broken the decade plus streak that Rutgers has gone without a winning season. However, the program’s best win total for an individual season since they last produced a winning campaign in 2005-2006, when Gary Waters went 19-14 in his last year, is 15 wins. Rutgers has won that exact amount of games five times in the past 12 seasons. Fred Hill did it once in four tries. Mike Rice did it twice in three seasons. Eddie Jordan went 0-3, including a program low 7 wins the season before Pikiell took over. I think this is key in assessing his progress so far, as Pikiell took over the program in worse shape than any other coach mentioned, with the possible exception being Eddie Jordan, due to the Rice scandal. Even so, Jordan’s win total went down each season. Pikiell inherited a program that had won 15 games in a season just three times in ten years, then equaled that total in back to back seasons.
There were signature moments in year two, something that was important to show progress. First, there was the upset of blood rival and NCAA Tournament team Seton Hall at the RAC last December. The #DeckTheHall hashtag/slogan generated by the marketing department was genius and excited the fan base. The game had high drama and restored this great rivalry back to where it should be. It helped move the needle forward from a national perspective that Rutgers basketball was getting better.
Although Rutgers struggled once again in Big Ten play, finishing last for the fourth consecutive season, the conference tournament produced a taste of what is hopefully coming in the near future. Postseason success. Pikiell’s team became the first 14 seed in Big Ten history to win a conference tournament game in his first season and the repeated that feat in year two. Of course, they came through with the encore in the second round against Indiana last March, coming from behind down 16 points to win running away from the Hoosiers. It was the first time Rutgers had won two conference tournament games since 1998. Coincidentally, it happened in the same building, Madison Square Garden. After a hard fought loss to Purdue the following night in a game that Rutgers was in until the final minute, it felt like a true step forward for the program. The team’s performance became one of the stories of the Big Ten Tournament, as Rutgers fans rallied at the Garden and took over the famous arena for three entertaining nights. Pikiell holds a 3-2 record in Big Ten Tournament play.
While year one produced wins and losses that were mostly expected, year two was a bit more up and down. You had the highs of Seton Hall and the Big Ten Tourney, but there was also the blow of losing to Hartford and Stony Brook in back to back games in late December. It was a sign that the program still had a ways to go before learning how to become a consistent winner.
While starting his tenure with a 30-37 record wouldn’t be considered much at most schools, based on past history, he has done a commendable job. Steve Pikiell has fans believing he is the chosen one to get this program back to the promise land. That, of course, is the NCAA Tournament, where Rutgers hasn’t appeared since 1991, almost three decades ago.
Roster Development: B
While this year’s roster can’t be fully judged until after the season, it’s fair to say it’s the most intriguing group Rutgers has fielded since the Mike Rice era. After three seasons of three players comprising the core of the team in Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, and Mike Williams, there is now a youth movement within the program. There is only one senior this season, center Shaq Doorson, who is the only player not recruited by Pikiell. The roster has added talent, depth, and athleticism. The most underrated aspect of the job Pikiell has done recruiting wise, which we will get to soon, is bringing in guys to fit his culture. He wants gym rats, players that live and die basketball and constantly work to improve. There are signs that this attitude is now the normal way for the players on this year’s team.
In terms of examples of players who have developed under Pikiell, exhibit A is Eugene Omoruyi. He was essentially an afterthought as an unheralded recruit from Canada who was brought in during August of Pikiell’s first summer on the job. The coaches said Omoruyi was the most improved player entering last season and he proved it. He more than doubled his scoring (2.4 to 7.9) and rebounding (2.2 to 5.0) averages per game from his freshman year. Omoruyi also improved in becoming a 47% shooter from the field, after making just 35% of his shots the season before. Jerry Carino said on our podcast this summer that the staff have proclaimed Omoruyi the most improved from the offseason once again. That’s an exciting thought and he’ll enter his junior season as Rutgers best frontcourt player.
Issa Thiam’s development has flown under the radar more so, but he was improved player as a sophomore. He started 33 of 34 games, improved his scoring from 3.9 points per game to 7.0 as a sophomore, as well as his rebounding (1.7 to 4.4). Issa at times showed an ability to drive to the basket and score near the rim, while improving his three-point shooting, his strength, from 30% as a freshman to 36% on more attempts as a sophomore. However, the most underrated part of Thiam’s game is as a defender. His size, wingspan and commitment on the defensive end kept him on the floor at the end of games.
Geo Baker was thrown into the fire as a freshman, but as a little known 3-star recruit became one of the best newcomers in the Big Ten last season. After wearing down towards the end of February, he finished strong, combining for 40 points on 50% shooting, including 7 of 14 from behind the arc, in the last two games of the season under the bright lights of the Garden. He is primed to carry the torch in the backcourt this season.
In regard to players that Pikiell inherited, it was obvious to everyone that Corey Sanders became a more complete player under his new coach. His buy-in on the offensive end and commitment on the defensive end was noticeable. Mike Williams became one of the best rebounding guards in the Big Ten under Pikiell. Shaq Doorson has improved tremendously as a defender. Grad transfer C.J. Gettys, who was brought in by Pikiell, had the best collegiate season of his career despite the step up in competition and has moved on to the professional ranks.
As for this season, two players that will be hugely important to this team are Quinnipiac transfer guard Peter Kiss and redshirt freshman big man Myles Johnson, both of whom sat out last year. How the staff have developed them will be something to watch for. Has Mamadou Doucoure taken a step forward, as well as can Omoruyi and Thiam, now juniors, take the next step? Is Baker ready to lead on the court and as the primary ballhandler? These are all major questions that will tell us even more about the coaching staff’s performance, but based on the previous two seasons, it’s clear they can develop players.
Let’s review multiple signs that show that Rutgers has been well coached the past two years.
I can’t tell you exactly how many times Rutgers has either scored or gotten a good look on an in-bounds play out of a timeout, but I’m confident in saying that it has happened often.
Pikiell’s use of timeouts is usually spot on as well, often timely with the current situation of the games.
Rutgers reduced it’s turnover percentage from 19.7 to 17.2 from year one to year two in part because Pikiell changed the spacing of the offense on the perimeter. One aspect that’s been an underrated issue for Rutgers is that they have been a poor passing team. Pikiell countered this issue with calling for more hand-offs and shorter passes at the top of the key to reduce lower percentage passes.
While three-point shooting has been a major problem the past two seasons, Rutgers has limited their attempts from behind the arc and focused on higher percentage shots. It hasn’t necessarily improved offensive efficiency numbers, but they aren’t taking as many bad shots either. There have been good looks within the offense, Rutgers has just done a poor job of making them on a consistent basis.
To counter the poor shooting overall, Pikiell instilled the philosophy that everyone on the court needs to be an active rebounder. After finishing 13th in Big Ten play in offensive rebounding percentage the year before he arrived, Pikiell’s teams have finished 1st and 4th in his two seasons.
Defensively, Rutgers is vastly improved under Pikiell and finished last season 26th out of 351 Division I teams in adjusted defensive efficiency. They were just 9th out of 14 teams in Big Ten play, but their defense has made them much more competitive in league action because of it.
A sign that this was a well coached team is how Rutgers finished last season. They entered the Big Ten Tournament having lost ten of its last eleven games. No one would have been surprised if they mailed it in against Minnesota in the opening round game. More impressively, the next night they were dead in the water against an Indiana team that beat them by 22 points at the RAC less than a month prior. Down 16 points in the first half, Rutgers climbed off the mat and dominated the rest of the game. It was one of the more shocking performances I’ve seen from a Rutgers basketball team in the last three decades. They then gave a very good Purdue team all they could handle the next night in the Big Ten quarters in front of a raucous crowd at the Garden. This team gave Pikiell everything they had and played for each other. That’s a product of good coaching.
Pikiell has had plenty of losses on the recruiting trail since coming to Rutgers. Whether it was Jose Alvarado, the Martin twins, or some of the best players in the country that are also from New Jersey, like Naz Reid, Louis King, and Luther Muhammad, those were all recruits that would have made a major impact on the program. Pikiell hasn’t made strides with the top tier recruits in the garden state, despite making a serious run at top 2019 players like Scottie Lewis, Bryan Antoine, Khalif Battle, and Kahlil Whitney. More progress is needed on the court before that tide turns. Mac McClung is almost as YouTube famous as former guard Corey Sanders and while he would have been exciting to watch in a Rutgers uniform, the all-time leading scorer in the state of Virginia decommitted and ended up at Georgetown.
In the current 2019 class, Pikiell and the staff have gone 1 for 3 on their top targets in this cycle. They landed Paul Mulcahy in May, but missed on 4-star prospects Aundre Hyatt to LSU and as of this week, Ismael Massoud, who committed to Wake Forest on Monday. Hyatt did take an official visit, but chose a coach in Will Wade who had recruited him the longest, back when he was at VCU. Massoud was scheduled to take an official visit in early October, but never made it. Landing Mulcahy gives Pikiell his point guard of the future, something he had been searching for since his arrival on the banks. He is also one of the best players in New Jersey and could pay dividends in having more success locally down the road.
As for the wins on the recruiting trail, there have been plenty of notable ones. Pikiell landed his top target in the class of 2018 in guard Montez Mathis, who will have plenty of opportunities to be an impact player this season as a freshman. Pikiell has shown a penchant for finding high potential sleepers, first landing Geo Baker in the 2017 class and scooping up wing Ron Harper Jr. last summer. Pikiell is high on Harper and he could end up being a steal for the program. He also could help on the local scene recruiting wise, having starred for Don Bosco Prep the past two years. Mamadou Doucoure was a 4-star recruit who enrolled a year early. Even adding former 4-star guard and Texas transfer Jacob Young, who will sit out this season before having two years of eligibility remaining, was a bit of a coup. He could be a dynamic scorer that Rutgers has needed for a long time.
In regard to where recruiting stands moving forward, the staff has positioned itself well with future classes. They are hard working, well organized and have backup plans for backup plans. More 4 & 5 star recruits have visited Rutgers and at least listened to what Pikiell has to say than even happened when Mike Rice, an excellent recruiter, was here. While Pikiell isn’t winning many of those recruiting battles yet, he is in the game much more than Rutgers ever was before from a volume standpoint. Flashback to three years ago and Rutgers had little presence in local gyms around the state. Things have changed significantly since.
While there is still one open scholarship available for the class of 2019, the staff has been able to put in a lot of work with the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 this past summer. There were a lot of recruits who visited the program in August, something I’ll review in a future recruiting update. There is legitimate interest in Rutgers as a destination and that statement alone proves there has been major progress made with recruiting under Pikiell. He now has a new weight room, new locker room and soon to be new practice facility to sell. Now that he has a roster full of his own players, he will be able to show future recruits his vision in real time and with more progress on the court, more success on the recruiting trail will follow.
Expectations need to be tempered in year three. There are only five players on the roster with Big Ten experience and there is only one senior on the team. As Dave White explained over the weekend, don’t burden the failures of football on the basketball program. Rutgers was a flawed basketball team the past two seasons. They could’t shoot and were woefully inefficient on the offensive end. At times, they were bad from the free throw line. They continue to struggle on the road in Big Ten play. There wasn’t enough scoring balance and sharing of the basketball from game to game. While the defense and rebounding was much improved, there were times the team wasn’t good in either area in games.
Overall, it’s obvious to those who have followed this program for a long time that progress has occurred in Pikiell’s first two seasons and the groundwork appears to be laid for future success. The team is more competitive under Pikiell since the Rice era. How his young team navigates a difficult schedule this season will be key in the progress of the program. Can this edition create an offensive identity and be more efficient, while maintaining defense and rebounding as strengths? Will there enough production in the frontcourt? Can inexperienced players step up quickly and play key roles as freshman? Will they establish unity on and off the floor? Will they learn how to win at the end of games and more importantly, be able to handle any success they achieve? These aren’t just questions for this season, but for the future with this young group.
The RAC has roared again under Pikiell after a long slumber. The flying saucer of a building hasn’t rocked as consistently as it once did yet, but it’s getting close to being it’s old self. There should be hope that this team will improve as the season progresses. There will be a learning curve and even some bad performances. However, there are legitimate pieces on this team that can lead to Rutgers becoming a much better team. Will it all come together this year the way everyone hopes it can, meaning a postseason berth? Doubtful. The goal for this season should be unchanged from Pikiell’s first two seasons: finish better than last in the Big Ten and achieve the first winning season in over a decade. I’m more optimistic in Rutgers finishing better than last in the conference this season than finally breaking the season losing streak. Non-conference games between Miami, St. John’s, and Seton Hall, along with two more Big Ten contests this season make it a much more daunting task for such a young team. One aspect of this season that will help is practice time and Rutgers will have plenty during a five week period they play just five Saturday games between December and January. That development time will be a key for the season.
A reason to be optimistic though is the strength in the culture that Pikiell has built. He has prioritized it above all else during his tenure and is why the foundation of the program is so solid. The chemistry of this team is essential to any success they do have and if it blends together well, it could perhaps elevate them to a higher ground than seems realistic on paper.
Make no mistake, Pikiell is no savior. He’ll tell you that himself. What he is though is a builder. He is relentless in his effort to make Rutgers basketball successful. He took a “never was” program at Stony Brook and made them the best team in their league for several seasons. Pikiell has the experience and will to do it again at Rutgers. Heading into year three, the program’s long term trajectory is pointing straight up. Approach this season with a realistic outlook and have hope this group can develop together in a way that will only increase expectations for year four with Steve Pikiell as head coach.