The day is March 7th, 2020, and Rutgers is visiting Mackey Arena to face off against an always-tough Purdue team in their last game of the season. Rutgers, sitting at 19-11 needed a win on the road to solidify their spot in the big dance for the first time since 1991 (if not for covid). This game was neck and neck the whole way, an instant Big 10 classic. No team led by more than 6, and a missed free throw late by Purdue sent this game to overtime.
Jacob Young threw down a dunk over 7’3 center Matt Haarms, Ron Harper Jr. hit a three, and Geo Baker iced the game with a classic pull-up jumper. Now, what do all of these players have in common? Well, they were arguably Rutgers’s top 3 players, but additionally, not a single one was ranked in the top 100 players in their recruiting class. In fact, not a single player on that Rutgers team was.
At first glance, people might think that this is because Steve Pikiell couldn’t recruit top talent, or those top players didn’t wanna play for Rutgers. But that’s not what it is, Steve Pikiell wanted his players. He didn’t recruit big 5 stars, he recruited guys that fit his system, played lockdown defense, and did the little things. Steve Pikiell transformed the level of talent at Rutgers through recruits, not through recruiting rankings.
Let’s start this at the beginning of Steve Pikiell’s tenure at Rutgers. Many know of Geo Baker as the underrecruited guard from New Hampshire who Steve Pikiell molded into a guard that was up there among the best in the Big Ten and in the country, but before Baker, there was Eugene Omoruyi.
If u ask a Rutgers fan about Eugene Omoruyi they may tell you about his puzzling midnight entry into the transfer portal, but before that, Eugene Omoruyi was the unranked prospect from Ontario, Canada with just a singular D1 offer. From the outside, it seemed like Pikiell took a shot in the dark with Omoruyi, but that’s not really true. Omoruyi played Steve Pikiell basketball. Pikiell took a completely unrecruited 6’7 forward and turned him into a force in the Big Ten. As a Junior in 2018-19 Omoruyi averaged just about 14 pts and 7 rebs,—and in true Steve Pikiell fashion—he also led the team in charges drawn. Eugene Omoruyi was as tough as they come, and although he left in the middle of the night for Oregon, he was the first of many Pikiell recruits that have completely defied their recruiting rankings.
Geo Baker, the infamously 414th best recruit in 2017 according to 247 sports. They could not have been more wrong, as Baker went on to be a twice All-Big Ten talent and averaged 11.4 points and 3.4 assists over a five-year career. Geo Baker finished as Rutgers’s all-time leader in games and minutes played, 8th in points scored, fifth in steals, and second to only Eddie Jordan in assists in his career. Not to mention how many game-winning shots he hit in his time on the banks. That’s not too bad for someone who was ranked behind 413 other kids in his class.
Not only did Geo Baker have the career statistics to show he was a great player, but his impact was greater in other ways. He was said to be like another coach on the court, he was a multiyear captain, and most importantly Geo Baker led Rutgers out of its dark days and into the NCAA tournament. There are more talented players and guys that will have long NBA careers, but I’d argue that no one in that class means more to their program than Geo Baker means to Rutgers. Steve Pikiell looked beyond the ranking with Geo and found a true diamond in the rough. Baker became a fan favorite, a program great, and someone who won’t be soon forgotten by Rutgers fans near and far.
Before Caleb McConnell was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, he was the 335th-ranked recruit in 2018 with just two high major offers. Another example of Pikiell paying no mind to recruit rankings. Caleb McConnell was seen as someone who can play sparingly as a reserve for Geo Baker, who knew he would be among the best players in the Big Ten and arguably the best defender in the country. Steve Pikiell knew. You didn’t, I didn’t, 247 certainly didn’t, but Steve Pikiell saw his type of player. McConnell plays suffocating defense, he dives for loose balls, he plays hard, and he plays physical. He exemplifies everything that Pikiell looks for in a player on the defensive end. No one thinks of Caleb McConnell as a lowly 3-star anymore, they think of him as the scrappy defender you don’t want guarding you. Ever.
Ron Harper Jr. is on an NBA roster, Ron Harper Jr. was an All-Big Ten player, and Ron Harper Jr. was an honorable mention AP All-American, but Ron Harper Jr. was also an underrecruited high schooler with few high-major offers. Steve Pikiell saw Ron Harper Jr. the All-American, not the 175th-best recruit in the country. Everyone else sees him that way now too. If you asked any coach in the country now, they will tell you that they wish they recruited Harper, but they didn’t and Steve Pikiell did. RHJ is just another example of Pikiell’s recruiting expertise. He went after the players he wanted, not the players other top programs wanted, and it paid off. Ron Harper Jr. turned out to be one of the best players to put on a Rutgers uniform since the 70s because Steve Pikiell threw recruiting rankings out the window.
While some of the recruits Rutgers is attracting now have 4 or 5 recruiting stars such as Cliff Omoruyi (51st Nationally, 2020), Gavin Griffiths (35th Nationally, 2023), and Dylan Harper (8th Nationally, 2024), Pikiell isn’t concerned with those rankings. Don’t be fooled by the stars 247 gives someone, if they’re coming to Rutgers it’s because they’re the player that Steve Pikiell wants.
Overlooked, underrecruited, and underrated. This is the story of Steve Pikiell and his recruits. Pikiell looks for his players, not the fastest, strongest, or “best” players, but his players. He wants guys that play hard night in and night out, guys who will sacrifice their bodies diving for loose balls or going hard on the boards, and guys who he can develop into better players. He doesn’t care for the 5-star Duke commit, he wants the undersized guard with a chip on his shoulder, the passed-over forward who wants to prove everyone wrong, or the 0-star wing who spends hours in the gym working and waiting for his chance. These players aren’t flashy, and they aren’t superstars, but they’re something far more important than either of those things: Steve Pikiell’s players are winners.