The season may have ended for Rutgers men’s basketball over a month ago, but the final book of the college basketball season just ended a little more than a week ago. With it comes final rankings, complete advanced stat numbers and publications doling out postseason awards. Two notable accomplishments, one based on advanced statistics and the other subjective, have recognized Rutgers has having made significant progress this past season.
First, the final KenPom team rankings are complete after last week’s national championship game. Rutgers finished 78th out of 353 Division I men’s basketball teams. The notable accomplishment was that RU finished 71 spots better than its preseason ranking of 149. It was the largest improvement of any high major program in the nation. The fact that KenPom rankings are based on measuring offensive and defensive efficiency, this improvement marks a tangible step forward for the program. Even Rutgers President Bob Barchi, who isn’t exactly the biggest sports fan on campus, has noticed.
In addition, by finishing 78th, Rutgers finished in the Top 100 of the KenPom rankings for only the fourth time in the 18 years that KenPom has been in existence. The program’s best finish ever was in 2006 at 71, followed by 72 in 2004, along with the 2011 team finishing 78th, which was equaled this past season. To be clear, these aren’t subjective or based on anything other than advanced statistics measuring efficiency. This demonstrates that Rutgers made significant improvement on the court, regardless of how they looked according to any eye test.
The good news is that Rutgers represented well in that area as well. Most of the national media that covers college basketball even recognized that this team was much improved in head coach Steve Pikiell’s third season. Aside from positive tweets during the season from national writers, Sports Illustrated named Rutgers the most improved team in the country in their season end awards article published last Friday. Here is what they wrote about the Scarlet Knights:
“Rutgers was the laughingstock of the Big Ten in its first four years in the conference, with nine league wins over that span, but no one laughed this year—especially in trips to the RAC. After a 1–6 start to Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights started to put things together under third-year coach Steve Pikiell, despite playing in the nation’s most competitive conference. They closed the regular season winning six of 13 games, and their seven overall Big Ten wins matched their combined total of the last three years. Those victories included wins over tournament teams Ohio State, Minnesota and Iowa, as well as NIT teams Nebraska and Indiana. With only one rotation player graduating (Shaquille Doorson), sunnier skies finally look to be on the way in Piscataway.”
Also significant is that SI named the Big Ten the best high major conference, despite that the Big XII passed them by for the top league in the KenPom rankings after Texas Tech advanced to the title game. For Rutgers to be considered the most improved team while playing in arguably the best conference is high praise and another measure of significant progress. Heck, just to get any positive mention from the national media is progress in and of itself.
Looking forward, this offseason is obviously a critical one heading into Pikiell’s fourth year at the helm. Losing longtime assistant head coach Jay Young offers a new challenge for Pikiell, as he served as his right hand the previous 14 seasons, both at Stony Brook and Rutgers. However, having your top lieutenant land a head coaching job at a mid-major is a positive from a perception standpoint.
Finding the right replacement is obviously key to helping this program continue to move forward. It doesn’t have to be a coach in a similar mold of Young, but they need to be able to recruit and develop players at a high level. While I wrote about potential candidates here, nothing has surfaced publicly in regard to who Pikiell is considering as of yet. It appears he is taking his time on this hire and even though the late signing period begins on Wednesday, it makes sense to find the right fit versus filling the spot as quickly as possible.
In regard to recruiting, players in the current cycle that are uncommitted can officially sign beginning on Wednesday. In addition, there are hundreds of grad transfers, sit-out transfers, and JUCO players available. I surveyed the landscape recently, but once again, no true targets have been identified, nor have any potential visits been reported. Rutgers has two scholarships that are open for next season and how they fill them remains to be seen.
The good news is that the backcourt is gaining two legitimate playmakers in Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy, something that last year’s team sorely needed. The biggest takeaway at this point of the offseason is that Rutgers gains the talented duo to pair with a group that includes every player but Shaq Doorson from last year’s team. A team that statistically was the most improved via KenPom and considered the most improved high major team by a major publication. That’s a legitimate reason to be optimistic about next season and beyond. Not to mention it’s a group ranked 330th in experience via KenPom, so there is legitimate upside from a development perspective.
How Pikiell fills the open assistant job and the two open scholarships will play a critical part in the direction this program goes moving forward. While the silence of any news regarding these open spots make for a restless spring, I’m pretty sure it’s a positive development. Let Pikiell work behind the scenes and continue the build in the vision that he sees fit. The less distractions and potential competition that arises from the public nature of such things is something to be avoided. Rutgers didn’t hire a flashy coach who made grandiose proclamations. Pat Hobbs hired a grinder of a coach who is building the program upwards brick by brick. Or as national basketball writer Jon Rothstein coined on twitter, “Steve Pikiell. Pounding Nails.”
Last spring, the program added Young and Mulcahy between mid-April and mid-May, to the surprise of many. There was a lot of work put in that wasn’t seen on the surface. It’s happening once again and while waiting isn’t easy, Pikiell has earned the right to be trusted to find the answers needed to ensure more progress will be made next season. How he juggles a suddenly talented and crowded backcourt, as well as improved lineup versatility are fun questions to ponder. The answers to who will help make those decisions and which additional players that will be part of the roster puzzle will come.