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Q&A with Rutgers men’s basketball head coach Steve Pikiell

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The leader of the Scarlet Knights spoke to us in this extensive interview ahead of his fifth season at the helm.

Maryland v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It’s early September and the season ahead for college basketball is filled with uncertainty. No schedules have been released and although on Tuesday Jon Rothstein reported that the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee will propose a start date of November 25th to the Division 1 Council, there are still many questions on what the next few months will look like.

Despite the challenges that have come with the global pandemic COVID-19, Rutgers men’s basketball head coach Steve Pikiell has continued to navigate the program forward. After producing the school’s first 20 win regular season campaign in 37 years, only to have their NCAA Tournament dreams dashed due to the health crisis that still remains, there is legitimate hope that the Scarlet Knights will be even better this coming season.

Rutgers returns seven of its top eight contributors from last year and welcomes a four member recruiting class that was ranked 40th nationally and 6th in the Big Ten.

I was able to discuss the current state of the program with Pikiell this week and covered topics such as how he is handling the challenges with COVID-19, the reason his players continue to grow their games despite an unusual offseason, the depth and versatility of the roster, why he is so excited about them being even better defensively, and much more. Let’s tip things off here.

What has last season, this off-season and dealing with the challenges COVID-19 has brought taught you as a head coach, both on the court and off it?

“I think the most important thing is the players in your program and their safety and wellness. You think about that more than ever. How many times are we washing the locker room? How are they getting into the building? You really think about the things that are important in life like your health. The safety of our student-athletes, we’ve never spent more time talking about how to keep them safe and healthy like we have the past 5 months. Whether it be their dorm room or cars they are driving, the gym we are in. We’ve spent as much time with their health and safety as much as anything.”

“We've had a lot of time to spend watching film and improving that way. I’m really just thankful. I’ve always tried to recruit kids who love basketball and when no one is watching they are in the gym getting better. When I watch our guys workout, some were here all summer and some were at home all summer, they all got better. It goes back to having a good philosophy in the recruiting process and I’m thankful for my staff. The assistant coaches for recruiting kids that really want to get better. I feel really good that our program got better even during a pandemic and that’s a good sign. It’s a sign of recruiting kids with those kind of core values that they love basketball. If they only had an outdoor basket to shoot on, they were fine with that. I think that’s just a credit to them and their families.”

How much has it helped having a strong returning core in regard to dealing with the current situation and uncertainty while preparing for the season ahead?

“I think it’s like anything, the more you have guys that have been through it a little bit, it helps. I understand what I have in the program too. I think your first two or three years, you’re always figuring stuff out as your roster changes and flips.”

“I know I have good leadership on the roster. I know I’ve got guys that have played in big games. I know I’ve got guys that know our offensive and defensive philosophies. And I know I have great kids, we really do. Our team had a 3.57 GPA last semester. Even in the middle of a pandemic with classes online and so many changes to their daily lives. They were mature enough to handle all that stuff and did a really good job academically.”

“Now our main job is to keep them on the same path. Keep them healthy, keep them safe and get them ready for our season.”

Entering your fifth season, the program is building off success on the court and in the classroom. This offseason has seen players on the team become empowered by you to be leaders who are outspoken on issues like social injustice and COVID-19. Geo Baker and Myles Johnson were on MSNBC on Monday, for example. How has this helped strengthen the program’s culture you’ve built?

“We are proud of our guys with how they are handling all these obstacles. I love the fact that they’re outspoken and communicate well thought of ideas. They’ve attacked all the different things on the court that we need them to do. They’ve done all that and they’ve kept their grades up along with the basketball things. I have a really good staff, quite honestly, and I’m real thankful that I was able to keep them all again this year. We got phone calls and guys had opportunities to go to other places. I love the fact that we were able to keep our staff intact for another year.”

“I’m proud of our guys with how they’ve come through during unprecedented times in our country. I love the fact that we have some real spokesman and leaders. Geo and Myles were great Monday on MSNBC, but they’re great on on all the issues that they had to attack and these are tough issues.”

How much did last season’s ending with those two big wins in the last week and then obviously the abrupt ending help to shape the team’s mindset for this season and the approach going into it?

“We had a great year last year but the year is over. I think they learned a lot of lessons. I think we accomplished a lot of firsts for the program. The players had to learn to play with pressure. They had to learn to play being ranked. They had to learn to play with the winning streak at home that we wanted to keep intact. And we play in the best league in the country.”

“I think they learned a ton of lessons last year and they got through a ton obstacles. You always hope as you get older as a program that those obstacles will help you to attack the new obstacles that are coming. Right off the bat, we’re preseason ranked. That’s a huge new obstacle this program hasn’t had in how long? You would know that answer.” (Editor’s note, 1978 was the last time Rutgers was ranked in the preseason polls, beginning 15th in AP Poll and 18th in Coaches Poll)

“I don’t talk about the past like that but I certainly know in my tenure here we’ve never thought about being ranked in the preseason. They have to play with new pressures and hopefully last year’s lessons they learned and obstacles they went through will help them with this year’s new obstacles that will be faced.”

Last year’s team seemed to have a little bit of a chip on its shoulder in a good way just in terms of wanting to prove the doubters wrong. How do you approach that this year now that you are getting national respect and there are greater expectations?

“The kids I recruited all play with chips on their shoulders, they always have. There’s always doubters so that won’t ever change. I just want our kids to have a great season this year. They’ve worked hard to do that. We’ve got to stay healthy and we’ve got to play together. We’ve got to be really good defensively and we will in order to have a real good year. I think they’re looking forward to the challenge. I do know they love getting back in the gym. It’s been a real joy for them during this pandemic to get back in our gym and facility. Getting back to workouts and watching film. Doing something that they all like has been a real blessing for them.”

“We’re looking forward to this year and we’ve got good leadership and good seniors. Geo has been around. Ron Harper has been around. Jacob Young has been around. Paul Mulcahy just walked into my office, he’s a veteran now. Montez Mathis had a great summer and came back improved in every area. Caleb McConnell has gained some weight, looks bigger and stronger.”

“I think the guys that returned got better and our freshman class is going to add size we’ve never had and athleticism that we haven’t had with a class in a long time. It’s an exciting time. Hopefully, we can get organized with when the season is actually going to start and what our schedule will look like. Hopefully in the next few weeks that picture becomes a little bit clearer.”

What have you been able to do with the team in workouts so far with NCAA offseason rules and policies with COVID-19? Are you on schedule with the typical start of practice for the season at the end of September?

“We’ve been on it all summer long. We get eight hours a week all summer long, so we’ve been doing that four hours in the weight room and four hours basketball wise. They’ve been on that and we’ll continue on that until the NCAA allows us to have the twenty hours a week that’s permitted in-season. I don’t quite know what that date will be, but the guys have been lifting and playing pick up games. They’ve been working as usual.”

“And obviously that’s just another challenge as a head coach in terms of it being September 1st and you don’t know when the season is going to start.”

Whenever the games are played, it seems unlikely fans will be able to attend. There’s a lot of talk about how great the RAC was last year and the disadvantage you’d have without fans this season potentially. But isn’t there a flip side with road games potentially not having the same type of difficult environment either? As a coach, does it simplify the mental approach of your team to just go out and play versus dealing with those extra kind of challenges?

“You still have to play and play well, fans or no fans. The players are still really good on the other team. You don’t have to fight the fan noise. If that’s how we can keep these guys safe and that’s the kind of challenges we have for this season, we’ll embrace them and and be excited about those.”

“I would love to have our fans and that obviously made the RAC the hardest place in the country to play last season. Now our fans are going to tune in on TV and be the highest ranked in that area. That’s what I would love to have happen.”

Your team plays so well off of emotion. You can’t replicate the same type of environment without fans, so how do you try to tap into that with your team?

“I think you can be more focused during these games now. You don’t have all of these distractions. Players have distractions too. You can really get your team locked in. I think you see with the NBA and the bubble, those games are as good as they’ve ever been. Those guys are locked in to the task at hand. It’s going to be a challenge.”

“We obviously want to have as many people at all the games. Maybe by that time in November, December, January we will have a vaccine and in a better place. I’m very confident we will have a season, so I’m excited about that. Whatever happens I think you just have to be able to bob and weave with all the challenges that are going to come from having this kind of season. Not the normal challenges that we face every year. These are different times so there’s going to be some different challenges. You’ve got to be prepared and your team has got to be ready.”

Something that I loved and made me laugh was your interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic were you said you “didn’t really like the defense last year”, despite finishing sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency. I know you’re not huge on advanced statistics, but despite that strong performance statistically speaking, where do you think you can improve defensively this year?

“We’ve already started. We can implement so much more stuff defensively. A big part of that is we are older. Geo is in his last year. Jacob’s been here three years. Ron has played as many minutes as anybody. Myles Johnson is experienced and going into his fourth year actually with the redshirt year. We are much older and much more experienced. I think we had a lot of new pieces last year between Paul Mulcahy and Jacob playing here for the first time. Akwasi Yeboah showed up in July for the first time. I really believe our versatility defensively is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

“I know what the stats said last season and I study them, but it’s a look thing too. It’s being versatile with more options, more screen coverages, more sets in our defensive package, being able to go full court and not foul. There are so many more things we can do on that end of the floor and we’ve already started. I think our player versatility is going to allow us to switch some things at times, trap some things and just do some different stuff that we have never you been able to do since I’ve been here. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Can you point out some of that versatility on the roster?

“We have Oscar Palmquist who is 6’8” and 230 pounds who can guard the one through four. Paul Mulcahy can guard the one through four. Ron Harper Jr. can guard the two through five if we want him to, which is different. We have different pieces. I look forward to moving them around a little bit more and changing up our defenses to make us even a little harder to prepare for.”

Last year one match up that was tough for you was Michigan with the three seven footers. Now that you’ve added a lot of height with Cliff Omoruyi and Dean Reiber, is part of the plan to utilize the size of the frontcourt along with Myles Johnson and Mamadou Doucoure to create different matchup problems?

“The one thing is this year when you look at our team with our size, this is the biggest we’ve ever been across the board and our freshman class is huge. Dean Reiber is athletic and big. Cliff Omoruyi is athletic and big. And Oscar is athletic and big. Mawot Mag is 6’7” and 225 pounds, he’s big. I think we’ve added some pieces.”

“I think Michigan gets you because all of their seven footers shoot threes. They’re a little bit of a different team with their big men shooting threes, so they space you out a bit more.”

“We have more traditional bigs around the basket, so a little different in that way. We can go big or we can go quick and athletic. We will be able to press more and do some different things that way. I look forward to being able to use our versatility by going with some big lineups. We can put Paul out there at the point guard position at 6’7”. We can go really big with some lineups. Ron (6’6”) at the 2, Oskar (6’8”) at the 3, Dean (6’10”) at the 4 and Myles Johnson (6’11”) at the 5. We can be really big if we want to go that way or if we think it’s going to help us win a game.”

Offensively you made a big jump last year, but obviously there is still room for more improvement this season. You played a lot more up tempo last season. How much do you want to continue that trend and what are you focused on in terms of getting more improvement out of the offense?

“We can improve. Obviously, we’ve got to become a better free throw shooting team. That’s really an important part of what we’ve tried to spend time on this summer. We’ve got to make free throws and that’ll improve our offense five or six more points a game. Then everyone will be saying it’s one of the best offenses in the league.”

“That’s what we need to do but I love the fact that we share the game. I think it’s so important to keep your core offensively. We had nine different guys lead us in scoring last year. We’ve got to pass the ball and take advantage of our strengths. We’ve got a lot of ball handlers. When I first took over the program, we had one ball handler. Now we have all these guys who can put it down, so it’s really just teaching them how to play in space and share the game. Those are things we are really focused on. If we can improve our free throw shooting and get that up into the middle of the pack, that will improve a lot of our stats like points per possession and all that stuff.”

In the past you’ve singled out guys that have improved the most during the offseason. Is there anyone that has stuck out so far this offseason?

“Honestly, I really like the jumps all of them have made. Montez Mathis has been tremendous since he has been back. His ball handing and shooting. Mamadou Doucoure has improved a great deal. I think Geo continues to get better. His body looks better. He is 202 pounds right now, so that’s a great weight for him as he’ll lose weight during the season. Jacob Young is ready to go. Caleb has filled out and getting better. And we’ve added four freshmen whose bodies are good and ready to help.”

“We have to stay healthy and continue to play together. We’ve got to get through COVID-19 and get organized with some dates coming up here, but we’ve been full go since June. We’ve had quarantines and to deal with all that stuff, but no one has had issues with COVID-19, knock on wood. I think we got better this summer and that’s what I wanted our program to do in the middle of all this during a crazy time.”

How important is it for Ron Harper Jr. to continue to develop as a player for this team to take another step forward? As opponents try to take away Geo Baker once again at the end of games, does Harper need to become that 1a option behind him this season for forward progress to continue?

“He is another guy that’s improved a ton this summer and his body looks great. He’s really done a good job of staying healthy and has improved his jump shot. I think it’s really important.”

“Ron certainly is a really capable scorer. He can score at three levels too which is a hard thing in our league. He can post you and score, he can take you off the dribble and he can shoot the ball. Ron becomes a hard matchup.”

“Everyone last season tried to take the ball out of Geo’s hands. That will continue and has been that way for a couple years now. Geo has still found a knack in light of all that to find ways to make big plays. Hopefully, games don’t come down to as many big plays this season. Hopefully, we are in a better place defensively with our program.”

“I think Oskar Palmquist is going to give us another guy who can score off the post, score off the dribble and score from three. I think Paul Mulcahy too. We have other guys. Jacob Young made huge plays for us down the stretch last season. He stepped up and gave us some really good minutes. He has an ability score in a lot of levels. I think Geo can do that too.”

“I like the fact that we are one of those teams now that’s hard for opponents to say “what are you going to take away from Rutgers? They’ve got enough guys and different options.” We don’t just need a 1A, we need a 1B, 1C, and a 1D. Foul trouble factors into the end of games. Sickness factors into the end of games. Guys not being on the floor for various reasons. You always have to be prepared for plan B, C and D. I look forward to those challenges and I think that the guys are excited for each other. If I decide to run a play at the end of the game for Ron Harper Jr., Geo would be excited for him and be the first guy to say he has the advantage here. I do also like it when Geo tells me “Hey give me the ball, I have the advantage.”

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