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Rutgers men’s basketball approaches new season with renewed stability

Head coach Steve Pikiell continues to prove he knows what he is doing.

Indiana v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

On Thursday, Rutgers men’s basketball officially announced staff changes, most of which were reported on earlier this summer when two longtime staffers became assistant coaches with other programs. Former Director of Player Development, Greg “Shoes” Vetrone, was hired to be an assistant coach by St. John’s while former Director of Basketball Operations, Ben Asher, was hired by Youngstown State , also as an assistant. Vetrone had been at Rutgers even before Pikiell’s arrival as an assistant under former head coach Eddie Jordan, while Asher started as a special assistant in 2016. Both were key behind the scenes in the progress the program has made under Pikiell

In addition to needing to replace them, Pikiell also made a change to his coaching staff. This past summer, T.J. Thompson moved into the third assistant role replacing Steve Hayn, who was announced on Thursday as Pikiell’s chief of staff, a newly created position. Thompson served as Director of Basketball Administration for two years at Rutgers before moving up. Thompson has strong connections in New England, coached Geo Baker in AAU ball, and gives the staff a younger presence on the recruiting trail.

With Mike Larkin being elevated to Director of Basketball Operations, replacing Asher, the special assistant to the head coach was dropped and instead the role of chief of staff was created. This is a good fit for Hayn, who will fill the position after previously serving as a senior advisor before being the third assistant the past two years. The last move was the hiring of Tom Barrett in the new role of Director of External Operations. He has six years of Division I experience including the past four at Sacred Heart where he was in a key operational role.

The reshuffling of the staff is actually a sign of stability within the program. During Pikiell’s tenure, he has now had a former longtime assistant coach become a head coach with Jay Young at Fairfield and two longtime staffers make the jump to assistant coach in Vetrone and Asher. This is a sign of a successful program. Having your people earn better opportunities in their careers is a positive reflection on their former boss who helped get them there.

Pikiell then filled three positions all internally who Pikiell has long term relationships with. Thompson played at George Washington when Pikiell as an assistant coach under Karl Hobbs, who has served as his own assistant since coming to Rutgers. Hayn has been with the program since Pikiell came to the banks and Larkin was groomed by Asher the past two years. Replacing a special assistant role with a chief of staff role adds experience and also indicates that Pikiell has a larger budget to work with.

The biggest takeaway of this entire offseason is that Rutgers men’s basketball is as stable under Steve Pikiell as it has been in four decades when Tom Young led the program. After a 20 win season that would have ended the program’s NCAA Tournament drought that was stopped short due to COVID-19, Rutgers fought through plenty of adversity to finally earn a trip to March Madness for the first time in 30 years. They proceeded to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 38 years.

When key players Myles Johnson, Jacob Young and Montez Mathis transferred after the season, the fan base gasped while Pikiell breathed easy. Instead of casting a wide net across the transfer portal and acting quickly, he was deliberate and strategic. He waited for weeks before making a move until former recruiting target Aundre Hyatt became available. He used an open scholarship on former walk-on Luke Nathan, rewarding loyalty and strengthening the culture of the program in one move. Lastly, he grabbed an experienced transfer in Ralph Agee, who could be the most skilled offensive center the program has had under Pikiell. With the expected returns of program cornerstones Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., the roster was solidified.

Having held onto Hobbs and Brandin Knight as assistant coaches throughout his tenure has been a major key to player development and the progress made as a program as well.

Whether it’s new players or new staff, Pikiell always prioritizes the culture of the program over everything else. He only brings people in who he thinks can preserve and elevate the culture he has worked so hard to build. His ability to lead the program to better days has been proven and the way Rutgers navigated successfully last season without any COVID-19 issues was impressive.

There is a reason that Pikiell said on his appearance on the 100th episode of the On The Banks podcast in August that this current team will be the best of his tenure so far. He is at a point where the program is on more solid ground than it has ever been since his arrival. The APC practice facility is in place, the postseason monkey is off the back of the program and he has infused the roster with top recruits in Cliff Omoruyi and Jaden Jones. He is in a good position to continue to improve the roster as I covered earlier this week, as four different 4-star recruits have or are scheduled to take official visits with more than one of them making a second official visit.

Pikiell has said this offseason that coming so close to beating an eventual Final Four team in the NCAA’s last season with the loss to Houston only gives confidence that the program is close to taking that next step. With an experienced core of players returning, some intriguing additions along with positional versatility that leaves the roster with just two players under 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Rutgers is a program that looks poised for a repeat trip to March Madness this season. While some misread changes on the roster and staff as a sign of something potentially wrong, a deeper dive makes it clear that it was actually an opportunity for Pikiell to bring his vision for the program even closer to fruition. As he has proven to this point of his tenure at Rutgers, that is only a good thing.