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Steve Pikiell leading Rutgers basketball to greater heights one game at a time

The team has taken on the personality of its head coach and that bodes well for the rest of this season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 15 Indiana at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Reality is setting in and for the first time in a long time, that’s a very positive thing. The Rutgers men’s basketball team is good. In fact, they have become an elite defensive team that so far this season and have been unbeatable at home. As of this writing, they have a NET ranking of 22nd and KenPom ranking of 28th. They own four KenPom top 40 wins over Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana by a combined 47 points. They have the 8th best defensive efficiency in the nation and are tops in Big Ten play so far. All of these statistics lead to one conclusion: Rutgers is for real.

In Steve Pikiell’s fourth season on the banks, the program has made a significant jump so far. The fact that four sophomores have started the majority of games and only two seniors are on the roster bodes well for the future as well. They went 2-1 in conference play without it’s captain and arguably best player. There is talent and depth that Rutgers hasn’t had in a long time.

Of course, the architect of it all would not reflect on the progress made this season after Wednesday night’s victory over the Hoosiers. Pikiell said after the game, This is not time to do that. We gotta just get better. Be well-prepared. We got two days to prepare for a good Minnesota team. There will be time for that at some point in time.”

It is time, however, to laud the head coach who inherited a program coming off its lowest win total in program history with a dreadful KenPom ranking of 279th in the spring of 2016. What Steve Pikiell has done in rebuilding the culture of this program is nothing short of remarkable. It hasn’t been a straight trajectory toward forward progress throughout his tenure so far, but that doesn’t ever happen with any rebuild. However, the foundation of this turnaround has been built around defense and it is the biggest reason Rutgers is in excellent position to break a 29 year drought without an NCAA Tournament appearance this March. The national pundits are officially on board.

Regarding the defensive effort last night, which held Indiana to a season low 32% shooting, Pikiell said, ”When our guys are connected, the voices today — I could see it in the huddle. They were locked in. Coach (Karl) Hobbs and Coach (Brandin) Knight do a great job preparing. We kept these guys — they lead the country in free throw attempts — kept them off the free throw line. We had to defend without fouling against some really good, elite front court players. We were locked into the game plan. Everyone jumped in and did their thing. It was great. We were connected.”

Rutgers leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense as well.

One thing that was obvious back in the preseason when I watched this team practice was that there was a clear buy-in from the players with what the coaching staff was asking of them. It’s even more clear due to the fact they didn’t appear to be close to the defensive team they have been in the last month. Players development has been a major key to the Pikiell era so far. While the season started a bit shaky with some close calls and two disappointing but not inexcusable losses to St. Bonaventure and Pitt, this team needed time to gel as one unit. Once things clicked, Rutgers has been a different team, winning 7 of its last 8 games and have produced the first 12-0 start at the RAC in program history.

The biggest trait that sticks out about this team is its toughness. That was apparent last night when they jumped out to a 12-0 lead, only to find themselves trailing 22-21 late in the first half. The Big Ten is a dogfight in every game and this was no exception. Pikiell said, ”This league is all about taking punches. 12 teams in the top 35 (of NCAA NET Ranking). It’s a gauntlet. We took a good punch. We knew they would. We responded well and then we took another punch and we stayed in the ring. Guys are getting better at responding to runs from other teams. It’s a good feeling but again, guys all chipped in and guys were locked in.”

No player personified toughness last night more than Geo Baker. He changed the game when entered late in the first half. Two steals led to transition baskets and keyed a 10-2 run to end the half. His highlight reel dunk late in the game essentially put things to bed for good and sent the RAC into a frenzy. It also sent a message that he was back and reiterated the fact that he is the clear leader of this team.

While Rutgers fans are prone to think the worst and some are adjusting to the philosophy that this team is different and built to avoid any fade as the season progresses, the biggest reason to be hopeful is the mindset of the head coach. What I’ve loved about these recent wins is how businesslike Pikiell has been in postgame press conferences and how his players have taken on the same approach. This team expects to win and you can see that in how they carry themselves.

It’s a challenge to keep a young team experiencing success for the first time focused on the task ahead and not dreaming towards bigger steps that could be there down the road. Pikiell explained his approach about reminding his players where Rutgers was picked to finish in the Big Ten in the preseason polls. “Every drill, Yeah,” said Pikiell. He continued, “That’s where we were picked. Gotta try to work hard to move up in this league. Every team is great. We better stay that way. We’ve never been anything (higher than) picked 12th. We’ve been picked 14th. Those are the only places we’ve been picked. Hopefully our guys understand that and we’ve gotta continue to climb in the best league in the country.”

This Rutgers team has taken on the personality of its head coach and that has been a beautiful thing so far this season. While they are winning with defense and rebounding, not always a pretty way to do things, it’s clearly working. The offense has been improved, as Rutgers is shooting 53.1% from two-point range, but the need to continue to get better is there. Three-point and free throw shooting has remained poor, currently at 29.0% and 63.9% respectively. However, it doesn’t tell the full story.

Due to its toughness and ability to defend, Rutgers has become a much better team in closing games out down the stretch. They lean on teams after working them on both ends of the floor throughout the game and for the most part, have broken them at the end. Even on offense, Rutgers does a better job moving the ball in the halfcourt and taking better quality shots than in years past. This helps at the end of the games and even though the Scarlet Knights go stretches where they struggle to make shots, they still entered this week 5th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage. Progress no doubt.

The will of this team is so strong and gives hope that after a 13-4 overall record and 4-2 start in Big Ten play, putting them in a tie for second place, that Rutgers will continue to get better as the schedule plays out in the next two months. The next four games are all extremely winnable and every remaining home game KenPom projects Rutgers to win. Pikiell said of the RAC after the Indiana win, “It’s loud. I love the RAC. I think the environment’s great. I love that our students — even though they’re not back in school yet — came out. I appreciate that. The Riot Squad, our band is awesome, the cheerleaders. It all helps us a great deal. These guys feed off that. We’ve been traveling in this league for a while and every place is so hard to play. Now the RAC is just like those places and it’s a great advantage for us. I’m very thankful. A lot of marketing, a lot of people doing a lot of things to make sure that happens. I think they enjoy watching this team play too so I like that.”

The last seven games on the schedule are extremely difficult, but who is to say what this team can’t do the rest of the way?

At the end of the day, Rutgers needs to remain focused on each game next up on the schedule and follow the lead of its head coach. Pikiell said of the road ahead, ”I’m just gonna tell you. We got Minnesota who’s really good — on Sunday. I know you guys want me to say something else. We’re picked 12th in the league and we’re trying to beat Minnesota. When you start looking down the road — You guys can write about that. It’s great and I appreciate that you do. I appreciate the enthusiasm. These guys know how i feel about that stuff. We got a lot of basketball left. A lot of road games, a lot of home games. We gotta continue to be focused on just that.”

With the way this season has gone so far, there is no reason to doubt that Pikiell will continue to get the most out of his team and the only question is how far into March will that take them? It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out!