The 2021-2022 season ended for Rutgers men’s basketball in crushing fashion with a 89-87 double overtime loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament First Four round. It was the most memorable season that I’ve ever witnessed in four decades of following this program. What made it even more emotionally devastating for everyone involved and supporting this program was that it also likely marked the end of an era.
The past three seasons was the most successful period for this program since the best days Rutgers has ever strung together in the mid-seventies which culminated with an undefeated run to the Final Four. Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell were the core players of this most recent successful run. Baker is done for sure after being out of eligibility. While Harper Jr. and McConnell both have one more year of eligibility remaining, the prevailing thought is there time at Rutgers is likely over.
For a fan base that suffered for decades before what should have been three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in program history if not for COVID cancelling the event in 2020, emotions are high.
Let me make it clear that having concerns, doubts or even fears that Rutgers is in trouble moving forward, that a step back is inevitable or that a window has closed on reaching a certain level of success is completely fair. I say that it is based on the fact that human behavior is hard to change. As Rutgers fans, we’ve become conditioned to expect the worst. We belabor the fact that we can’t have nice things and then when our fortunes have changed for the better, the clock begins ticking on impending doom to end that particular upswing. It’s a cycle of pessimism and doubt that’s been groomed from decades of failure.
A lot has changed in the past few years when the winning started and continued for three consecutive seasons. Recruiting improved with six of the top 20 highest recruits ever signed, headlined by former top 50 prospect Cliff Omoruyi as the centerpiece and becoming the second highest rated signee in program history. Facilities improved with the APC becoming a state of the art home that put Rutgers on par with the best in the Big Ten. Fan support turned the RAC into one of the best homecourt advantages in the country. Perception shifted from national laughingstock and perennial Big Ten cellar dweller to a legitimate top half team in the conference and March Madness participant.
All of these things changed and all of the success that’s followed has occurred for one major reason.
It is because Steve Pikiell is the head coach.
And the fact that Rutgers and athletic director Pat Hobbs wisely signed him to an extension last week and increased his buyout substantially, the program can enter an offseason filled with questions and uncertainty with the most important piece of the puzzle secure. In order to make necessary gains this offseason in restocking the roster for next season an beyond, stability was the most crucial ingredient to have in place.
There are plenty of questions that need to be answered.
How will Rutgers likely need to replace the three main cogs of its recent success? How will it replace roughly 50% of minutes played and 50% of its scoring production with Baker, Harper, Jr. and McConnell gone? Who will lead this team on the court moving forward?
What is Pikiell’s approach in finding those answers? Will he hit the transfer portal hard? Will he find an impact player in the class of 2022 late in the recruiting process? Will recruiting benefit from the recent success by landing higher ranked prospects? Will enough of the returning players make a leap development wise this offseason to help fill the gap?
Will Pikiell change his non-conference schedule philosophy? Will he look into a system change on the offensive end?
All of these are fair questions and if fans are concerned that the roster for next season will be inferior to the past few seasons, that’s understandable.
Change and uncertainty lead to anxiety and doubt. If you are a Rutgers fan, the recent success under Pikiell doesn’t erase decades of dark days.
Old timers still remember when Rutgers lost its best and most successful coach ever in Tom Young due to a lack of proper support. With Hobbs, President Jonathan Holloway and the board of governors, this is no longer an issue.
While Pikiell’s tenure at mid-major program Stony Brook isn’t exactly apples for oranges in regard to leading Rutgers in the Big Ten, there is one stat worth noting heading into this critical offseason.
After four seasons at Stony Brook in which the program finished no better than 5th place in the America East conference, the Seawolves then finished in first or second place in six of his last seven years at the school. There was only one NCAA Tournament appearance, which came in his last season, but that was more due to the conference only getting one automatic bid than anything else. There were disappointing conference tournaments that sent Stony Brook to the NIT instead.
However, the biggest takeaway from his tenure at Stony Brook was that once he started winning, he continued to do so year after year. Playing in the Big Ten, sustained success in the regular season ensures frequent trips to the big dance. At the high major level, winning your conference tournament is not essential to making the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, sustained success in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten is no easy task. And while some fans will clamor for highly rated recruiting classes as the most important signal for success to continue and even more of it to follow, it’s not the most important indicator.
Steve Pikiell didn’t build Rutgers from the ground up. He started a few feet below it. He took over the worst high major program in college basketball and did it mostly with underrecruited players with a chip on their shoulder. The idea that the only way Rutgers can maintain their stature as a top half Big Ten team and NCAA Tournament regular is by improving their recruiting rankings is false.
The recruiting approach by Pikiell seems markedly similar to that of Wisconsin and Iowa. In the past three recruiting cycles from 2019-2021, each of these three programs signed just one four-star recruit. ONE TOTAL. And yet, all three programs made up half of the six teams to finish with at least ten regular season wins in Big Ten play over the past three seasons.
What stands out about all three programs is culture, style of play and coaching philosophy. Fran McCaffrey and Greg Gard win year after year despite not signing the top talent in the conference. They find players who fit their culture and then develop them into winning players.
That’s exactly what Steve Pikiell is doing at Rutgers.
So while it’s fair to be worried now that Baker, Harper Jr. and McConnell are likely all gone and replacing them will be difficult to do, put your trust in the coach that developed them into All-Big Ten players in the first place.
Cliff Omoruyi will be one of the best big men in the conference next season and Paul Mulcahy developed into an impact player that was second in the league in assists. Those are two solid pieces to build from.
Bench production was an issue this season and zero points in two postseason games was a problem. However, Dean Reiber showed major improvement, Aundre Hyatt showed potential as a key glue guy and Mawot Mag flashed starter potential a few times this season. Jalen Miller got valuable experience as a defensive stopper this season. Jaden Jones was never a factor but still has a high ceiling, if he decides to return after declaring for the NBA Draft on Friday.
Is that group a bit raw, a bit unproven and leaves more questions than answers about next season and beyond? No doubt. But something important to remember is that they’re on the roster to begin with because Pikiell believes in them as players.
Will Pikiell target an impact scorer in the transfer portal who can start and become a reliable contributor? Will he add a capable big man like Lafayette transfer Neal Quinn? Will 4-star recruit Desmond Claude reconsider Rutgers now that he decommitted from Xavier this week after having them in his top three initially? How else will he utilize the transfer portal to fill out the roster? Can Pikiell close on highly rated 2023 recruit before next season like 4-star big man Gus Yalden?
Steve Pikiell wants to win more than any fan out there. He’s publicly stated his ultimate goal is to win an national championship. There should be zero doubt he has a plan to do that. He’s a tireless and principled worker. He knew what this offseason was likely going to require to restock the roster in order to maintain a certain level of success and more importantly, continue to elevate that level into more success than before. He came to Rutgers with a plan and executed it. Wins and NCAA Tournament appearances followed.
He’s not a perfect coach and there have been some missed opportunities, even this past season that was just as stressful and disappointing at times as it was thrilling and satisfying. That being said, he’s proven himself plenty over the years that there should be confidence in him long term.
The odds that Pikiell will go about things the way some fans want him to is unlikely. He built Rutgers into a winner in an unconventional way, without landing highly rated recruits, but it was how he believed it should be done. It worked.
Pikiell has built Rutgers into a consistent winner. He’s at a position of strength now that he didn’t have in the beginning with all the internal support, program culture and stability in place. He has more to sell than ever before, even last season, as more minutes and more opportunity to make an impact on the court exist. He needs to add more talent to the roster, that we can all agree. It’s a movable target that never stops. The difference is how Pikiell evaluates talent and how that compares to rankings isn’t always the same. He values certain qualities like program fit, long term potential and personality more than how a prospect ranks in the moment. How he proceeds to fill out the roster remains to be seen, but the months ahead should be equal parts fascinating and exciting.
As we enter an uncertain and critical offseason, Steve Pikiell deserves the benefit of the doubt. The next step of his tenure is here and he’s proven to have a winning plan up to this point. To expect anything less moving forward, would be relying on past anxieties, not reality.