The offseason has been a busy one for the Rutgers men’s basketball program. There have been staff changes, roster changes, scheduling news, as well as a trip to Spain and opening of the practice facility slated for later this summer. For a third straight year, I was fortunate to speak with head coach Steve Pikiell about the current state of the program during the offseason. Player development, recruiting, and expectations for next season are just a few topics covered during our lengthy conversation. Let’s tip things off!
Thanks again for taking time to speak with me coach. The team obviously showed a lot of promise last season and there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the future. I did want to ask about the adversity that this group has gone through the past few months with the end of the season, the Issa dismissal, coach Young moving on and now Eugene Omoruyi transferring as well. What is the vibe of the team right now and is this adversity good in a way for them to come together as a young group and help their mentality heading into next season?
“This group has been great. We started our workouts last week and they’ve improved since last season. We had a historic GPA for the team, they all did well in school. They’ve all gotten bigger, stronger, and faster according to coach David Van Dyke, who does all of our conditioning and weight room training. Obviously, thrilled about Jay Young getting his first coaching job, the first Rutgers assistant since the mid-seventies when Dick Vitale moved up. I think it shows I’ve hired a great staff and thankful too to keep the other guys, because they had opportunities too. Happy for Bryan Dougher (former director of basketball operations) as well now as a full-time assistant coach (at Fairfield) and to be out recruiting. That’s a great thing.”
How does Eugene transferring out impact the team moving forward?
“You never want players to leave a program, but thankful for Gene’s three years. He did a great job for us. I’m just thankful. He has a great family and is a great kid. He’s on to other things now. Those things happen. I think every time there is a transfer or a mishap with a player, it opens up opportunities for all of the other guys. I think the current guys are really excited about the opportunities now that they have. I think they’ve attacked this summer. They’re excited about the trip to Spain and the opportunity that will present. I’m excited about all the newcomers that are here and now in the program. It’s a good time right now for us.”
Touching on the end of last season and the learning curve for the younger guys, how much do you go back and look at tape, particularly close losses, to help them develop from that perspective?
“The great part of last season was that we went into it with a lot players who had never played Big Ten minutes. Now our experience is good and they know what the league is all about. We figured out a lot about our players. Whether it be Caleb McConnell or Montez Mathis or Myles Johnson or Ron Harper Jr., those players logged a lot of Big Ten minutes for the first time. As did Shaq Carter and Peter Kiss. You can add a lot to what we want to do this year, because they’ve been through it now. As a coach, I just feel so much better. I know them more as players. I know their strengths and weaknesses a lot more. They’re doing a great job this offseason of working through their weaknesses from last year. Trying to get better and make those areas strengths. We’ve added Paul Mulcahy, who we are excited about. I got a chance to see Jacob Young all of last year in practice and am excited about him. To have Mamadou Doucoure back after his injury last season, people will be excited about his development after starting as a freshman. I think we have a lot of additional pieces that can help and the young guys having so many minutes last year will bode well for us moving forward. Our veterans like Geo Baker, who is primed for a great junior year and all of the returning players that have been with the program now can take that next step in their careers.”
With Eugene gone now, there is a void to fill in the frontcourt. With Doucoure and Shaq Carter, as well as Yeboah and Harper Jr., how do you plan to plug that hole upfront?
“It’s a great opportunity for all of those guys to step up. We are very excited for Akwasi Yeboah. He is 6’6” and a half, about 235 pounds. He shoots the ball at a high level and is very mature. He’s been through a lot of winning (at Stony Brook) and plays on the English national team. Yeboah is a guy who will be able to do a lot of different things for us from the 4 spot. He has also played the 5 and some 3, so his versatility is huge. Same for Ron Harper Jr., his versatility is unbelievable. I’m really excited about the development of Myles Johnson, the development of Shaq Carter. I think people forget that Carter was a JUCO All-American and he visited some big time schools during his recruitment. He had a learning curve last season but you saw what he brought to the program. Doucoure started games as a freshman and is a hungry guy with an opportunity to play more. I think when one door closes with guys leaving, another opens. We have five guys upfront for two positions who have played at the highest level against a lot of good players that can really play. We’ve become more versatile and can move guys around more. Ron can play inside or outside. Yeboah can do both as well. We have versatility upfront that we haven’t had in the past. We will play a little differently which I like and we have tremendous depth with our lineup even with Gene having left. I’m excited about changing how we play in a lot of ways and that versatility will allow us to do that.”
How does the new roster affect things on the defensive end? With coach Young gone, who will run the defense and how will it change with the personnel you have now?
“Our offense will change a great deal and our defense becomes a lot more versatile. We can switch a lot more patterns defensively. We are going to be a lot more aggressive. We are going to play a lot more fullcourt defenses. Coach Young did a great job, but coach (Brandin) Knight has done a great job too with our defense. He is going to take over some of those responsibilities, even though he is a terrific offensive coach as well. Coach (Steve) Hayn is a big man coach and I couldn’t be more excited about what he brings with his experience. He’ll help on both ends of the floor as well. We are very excited about the changes we can make defensively and the versatility will allow us to play different ways, which I think really helps us too.”
I’ve asked you about playing more up tempo in the past and you’ve said it’s easier said than done. Do you feel like this group will actually be able to play at a faster pace on a more regular basis?
“We are going to play more position-less basketball, which is where we’ve always wanted to head. We have more guys who can shoot, pass, and dribble. Paul Mulcahy brings a different dimension to the team from the point guard position. Jacob Young is a lefty and brings different strengths to that position. Caleb McConnell is a multi-position guy. Having a lot of guys who can shoot, pass and dribble make us harder to guard, makes it easier for us to run the floor and easier to do some things I’ve wanted to do in the past. We are built now for the problems that playing in the Big Ten brings. We have more solutions to the problems that every team brings to us. I’m very excited about Montez Mathis getting better. Peter Kiss has really worked on his ball handling this offseason and can really shoot. We have a lot of guys that can play different positions and all with a lot of size. We can put a lot of different lineups on the floor and there won’t be much of a drop off when we go to our bench, which will be a huge difference for us.”
How will Geo Baker’s role change now that he has more help in the backcourt with Mulcahy and Young as capable ball handlers?
“I think he becomes one of those guys who we can move around. The more we can move guys around the harder they are to guard. Geo will certainly bring the ball up too, but he can also fly up the wing now and we can run sets for him off the ball with the addition of a couple more ball handlers. Caleb McConnell is going to be important too in the ball handing department. Montez is working hard in this area. Ron Harper Jr. when he rebounds, he is capable to bring it up on his own. Akwasi gives us that option too. How we can come at teams in waves offensively and defensively is really going to help.”
What other improvements or changes with the roster are you excited about?
“Our three-point shooting is going to be much improved with the additions that we’ve made and guys getting better. I know we’ve improved our free throw shooting a great deal too. I’m really excited about the trip to Spain, the new practice facility, the additions we’ve made to the roster, plus the improvement of the guys we have coming back. One thing we’ve proven the last few years is that guys get better. I think our current players are ready to take that next step. Myles Johnson is having an unbelievable offseason. Same with Shaq Carter. I think he is going to have a breakthrough season for us. I’m really excited about where we can go with our roster.”
With the NCAA changing the distance of the three-point line and being a more perimeter oriented team, what are your thoughts on the change and does it play into your favor somewhat for the potential to operate in more space in the halfcourt?
“Yes I think it does. I think it also creates more room for guys like Myles and Shaq to operate around the basket and score in the post. I also think we have better perimeter shooting. The Spain trip will be great because we will be playing at that international three-point line that we’ll play with next season. It’s going to give us a really good taste of how we can take advantage of the extra foot and spacing on the court.”
Does the new three-point distance change things on the defensive end as well?
“It does. We play in the best three-point shooting conference in the country. We really have to get out and space the floor a little bit more defensively to take away three’s. Almost every team in the Big Ten can shoot it from three. It will also make us more vulnerable to drives, so we will need to do a tremendous job of rotating and reteaching our defense at further lengths.”
From a leadership perspective, obviously Geo is coming back. How might more experienced guys that are new to the program like Yeboah and Jacob Young figure into the leadership piece for the team? Anyone else you envision stepping up?
“You always look to your veteran guys who have been through it. I think Jacob Young has been through a lot and is entering his fourth year of college. I really think Ron Harper Jr. has done a good job of being a leader and vocal with his teammates. Geo and Shaq Carter certainly bring some leadership and experience. Yeboah is in his fifth year of college and has always been a good leader and a great teammate. I’m looking forward to all of those guys having an opportunity to step up and be great leaders for us. Maybe those guys become the best leaders we’ve ever had, that’s the challenge.”
Going back to the Spain trip, when is it taking place and are there any specifics you can share about the schedule?
“We will be there in mid-August and will hit Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia. Three great cities in Spain and we will play pro teams over there. The dates of the games haven’t been solidified yet but we are close to confirming. We are going to play high level teams and it’s going to be a great trip. Not just basketball wise, but from a historical perspective and educationally, as well as building team chemistry. We are really looking forward to that. We are also looking forward to having ten great practices leading up to that trip. It will be good for us to play with some different lineups and different looks on offense and defense. It will give us a good snapshot leading up to November.”
When do you move into the practice facility and how much do you expect that to help on the recruiting trail?
“It already has helped from a recruiting perspective, as we’ve brought in higher level kids every year that we’ve been here. It’s been a great advantage and provided excitement for us. Hopefully by the middle of July we’ll be moved into the facility and be able to utilize it. It’s going to be one of the best practice facilities in the country. When you show people a commitment like that it helps. Pat Hobbs has done an unbelievable job in getting it done, along with RWJBarnabas, as well as the individual donors and supporters. It’s going to be a game changer for us. Now we are going to have a 24-hour facility dedicated to our guys and our program that we’ve never had before that everyone else in the Big Ten has. The recruits that have been on campus and looked at the plans, as well as taken tours of it, have been blown away. It’s going to be a great facility for us and help us continue on the path we’ve talked about. We’ve been a great program at developing our players. Every player that has come through our doors has gotten better. This facility is going to help us continue to making guys great.”
In regard to recruiting, obviously the new summer schedule with events and live periods being different is new to everyone from years past. How has that impacted your staff’s approach and planning in recruiting players?
“It has been really challenging, because almost every day something new is getting sanctioned or cleared. We are out on the road more, which is great because I like to be out recruiting. I like having extra time to evaluate players and I think it’s a big part of why the program has gone in the direction that is has so far. I have a great staff. It’s a new model this year, so there are a lot of things happening for the first time. You have to really stay on top of it. You also have to stay on top of the transfer portal too, which has become a new phenomenon in college athletics. You have to do a lot of things now. Being on the road, be on top of the portal, be on top of the young guys who are changing a lot. They change teams sometimes weekly, maybe sometimes daily. It puts a lot on your staff. But we love it and there is a good buzz about Rutgers basketball, which I’m excited about. I still believe in a lot of the old core values. Come to a great university, come to graduate, come to get better, come to play in the NCAA Tournament. We are certainly headed in the right direction with what we are trying to do here with the program.”
It’s only the summer but what are your expectations for this team heading into next season?
“I expect us to be in the NCAA Tournament and that expectation isn’t ever going to change. That’s been our goal. The Big Ten got eight bids last year and has been one of the best leagues in the country. It’s also one of the toughest leagues and it will be tough next year again. That’s our goal and is why we are going to Spain this summer. I think that’s why kids are coming here to play. Hopefully, we can breakthrough to the NCAA Tournament and have a historic season. That’s our goal this year and moving forward.”
I know most of the non-conference schedule is already set, but how does postseason expectations play into your strategy of crafting it?
“We are always going to play a top 20 or top 25 schedule. That’s the league we are in. The schedule poses many challenges for us. We have Pittsburgh on the road. The league dictates a lot of the games that we are playing. We will always play an obviously great Seton Hall team. People are ranking them in the top 20. St. Bonaventure has been added, who are a terrific Atlantic-10 team. We also play UMASS. As time goes by, the league dictates the schedule more and more and less so by me. It’s always going to be a difficult schedule and by the end of the season it will be a top 25 schedule. When you play in the best league in the country, you have a lot of opportunities to get quality wins. That’s one of the advantages of the Big Ten.”
Entering your fourth year in charge of the program, what is your message to the fans?
“The fans and the interest in the program has been unbelievable. I’m excited that the fan base is excited. They should be. Our players are first off great kids. We had ten players on our roster get a 3.0 GPA or better this past year. They are working hard and want to be at Rutgers. They are everything I wanted in recruiting them. I’m excited about a lot. I’m excited I retained my staff except for Jay Young who moved onto a really good coaching position. A lot of great things are happening, including the practice facility and the Spain trip. The roster additions, with Paul Mulcahy, Jacob Young, Akwasi Yeboah, and with Mamadou Doucoure back healthy, that’s four players added to the mix. I’m excited about the improvement of the young guys. You are going to see a new and improved player at just about every position. It’s an exciting time and let’s make it an historic season!”
Thanks again to coach Pikiell for taking time to give fans such great insight on the current state of the program.