Head coach Steve Pikiell walked onto the RAC floor to discuss the beginning of the 2018-2019 season and declared Friday “Christmas for college basketball coaches”, as the first practice was about to begin. Rutgers has a roster with just five scholarship players that return with Big Ten experience, only one senior, welcome three true freshman, a JUCO transfer, and two “newcomers” who sat out last season but were with the program. There are a lot of changes with Pikiell’s third team at Rutgers, one that brings a different feel to the program. Here are some observations and thoughts I have from taking in the opening practice, followed by video footage of interviews and practice highlights.
- The three players made available to speak with the media before practice were team captains Shaq Doorson and Eugene Omoruyi, as well as Geo Baker. All three will represent Rutgers at Big Ten Media Day on October 11th. It’s clear they are the unquestioned leaders of this team. Omoruyi and Baker led offseason late night workouts and they both confirmed the buy-in from the current roster has been where they want it to be. I’ll have more from them both in the coming days.
- There are a lot of new players and while they lack experience, there was a sense among the media in attendance that there was a different vibe with this team in a positive way. They seem eager to want to play together and get better as a program. Pikiell said they have “more gym rats” than ever before.
- Pikiell spoke before practice about the improved athleticism with this team and it was obvious during the 3-hour session. The strength and conditioning program led by David Van Dyke looks to have paid dividends once again, as the players looked physically improved. New additions Montez Mathis and Shaq Carter were impressive moving on the court, as was Peter Kiss.
- This team should be improved shooting wise, it’s just a matter of how much better they will be. Issa Thiam, Mathis, Kiss, Omoruyi, Ron Harper Jr. and Baker all have the potential to make multiple three-pointers in a game this season. It will be fascinating in the early part of the season how this team shoots in its games and what level of consistency they can establish.
- Speaking of Mathis and Kiss, they will battle against one another every day in practice and should ultimately make each other better. Mathis showcased his three-point shot at the beginning of practice, routinely draining attempt after attempt from behind the arc. Kiss matched up against Mathis in 1 on 1 drills and usually got the best of the former 4-star recruit. I’m not sure which will start, or perhaps both will, but either way, they will each get a lot of minutes this season.
- An often forgotten deficiency of Rutgers basketball the past two seasons was how poor of a passing team they were. Pikiell spoke about the improvement they’ve made in this area and it showed up in the first practice. There were very few turnovers, passes were crisp and movement off the ball was sharp. Omoruyi raved about the passing ability of Myles Johnson, who was billed as having great hands during his recruitment.
- This roster brings more versatility than in the past, as several players can play multiple positions. Baker can play the 1 or 2, Mathis can play the 2 or 3, as can Kiss. Issa and Ron Harper Jr. Omoruyi can play the 3 or 4. Eugene boasted about the work he put in on his three-point shooting this offseason and said he plans to shoot plenty behind the arc moving forward. At one point early in practice, I watched him make four shots in a row from three during the shoot around.
- Baker looks ready to step up as the primary ball handler and as the leader of the backcourt. He also looked physically stronger than last season. While he said he wants to share the basketball with his teammates and make them better, he was also confident in saying he wants the ball with the game on the line this season. Pikiell should have the team managers encase Baker in bubble wrap after practices to help keep him healthy, because he is the most irreplaceable player on the team this season.
- This team is bigger. The only scholarship player on the roster who stands less than 6’4” is Jacob Young, who at 6’2” is forced to sit out this season after transferring from Texas this summer. The backcourt consists of Baker and Mathis at 6’4”, Kiss at 6’5”, and Harper Jr. and backup point guard Caleb McConnell at 6’6”. Shaq Carter (6’9”), who essentially replaces Deshawn Freeman at the 4, brings an added two inches to the spot. Myles Johnson is 6’10”, matching Luke Nathan and Issa Thiam as the tallest players on the roster.
- If you want a reason to be concerned about this team, take into account that Pikiell’s bench predominantly consists of a group of players in which none have ever played a collegiate game before this season. A side of Johnson, Carter, Harper Jr., Mathis, and McConnell ran together at times during practice and while there is a lot of talent to be intrigued by, it’s fair to worry how they will perform night in and night out during Big Ten play.
- Omoruyi, Baker, and Doorson appear as locks to start in November. I think Issa Thiam will continue to start at the 3, while I think it might be Kiss over Mathis at the 2, at least early on this season. I think it would take a little pressure off Mathis and Kiss has more experience, which could help a young team out of the gate. I could see that flipping as the season progresses. Of course, they could both start as well. Lots of practice ahead to determine that.
- The intensity, competitive nature, and pace of practice was excellent. Assistant Jay Young pushes the players hard and does a great job on making sure they run the drills sharply. Sprints from baseline to baseline were incorporated after each drill as well. Practice is set up to work on the players’ individual toughness and overall as a team.
- I wanted to confirm that on the first day of practice, the team did take time to shoot free throws, typically after sprints, just in case every amateur shot doctor comes out of the woodwork when this team has a bad game from the line.
Steve Pikiell Presser
Head coach Steve Pikiell walks on the court for the start of the first practice of the season as Issa Thiam and Montez Mathis drain shots from behind the arc. #RHoops #KnightAndDay pic.twitter.com/IJEP5B3h9O— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) September 28, 2018
The frontcourt of Rutgers drilling in the paint: #2 Shaq Doorson #11 Mamadou Doucoure #13 Shaq Carter #15 Myles Johnson #55 Luke Nathan. Note that Eugene Omoruyi was drilling with the wings/backcourt. #RHoops #KnightAndDay pic.twitter.com/H2WSSorf3C— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) September 28, 2018
- Former walk-on Jake Dadika is now a grad assistant with the team and was active during drill work.
- Rutgers added a new walk-on player in Nick Brooks, a 6’1” guard who transferred from Division II West Virginia Wesleyan. He is from Franklin Park, New Jersey and played for Rutgers Prep before finishing his scholastic career at Vermont Academy. Event though he is not on scholarship, he will not be eligible for games this season and will have two years left to play starting in 2019-2020. However, Brooks can practice this season and joins fellow returning walk-ons Luke Nathan and Joey Downes, both of whom are sophomores.
- A big time recruit was on hand for the first practice, as 4-star forward Isaiah Cottrell from Bishop Gorman high school in Las Vegas, Nevada is taking an official visit this weekend. Even though he is in the class of 2020, the top 60 player in his cycle started taking official visits this month, including West Virginia last weekend. The 6’8” big man holds over two dozen high major offers and he is rightly taking advantage of the new NCAA rule, allowing for prospects to take five official visits during their junior year and fifteen overall during their recruitment process.
- The practice facility is coming along nicely and Pikiell even said he was told it was “ahead of schedule.” As of now, it’s set to open due to the original timeline of June 2019.
- Section 118, which is behind the basket nearest the Rutgers bench, is now called the Floor Loge and will have 48 luxury seats, with 46 already being sold out for the season. Overall, ticket sales have increased 6% compared to last season so far.
- MidKnight Madness will be held for both the men’s and women’s programs on October 12th at the Barn on College Avenue. The event is for students only and sold out in 20 minutes. The rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie will perform.