Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing former walk-on Joey Downes. Joey’s now living out in California and pursuing his dream of becoming a screenwriter. Although he’s put his basketball days behind him, Downes won’t soon forget his time with Rutgers basketball.
Joey painted me a picture of a program built on hard work, consistency, and discipline. Downes arrived the same year as Steve Pikiell, the man credited with the recent success of Rutgers basketball. But there’s a lot more to success than the talent and development of his players. As soon as Pikiell came to Rutgers, the team set a goal to make the tournament, but winning doesn’t happen overnight.
“The consistency every day, every single day showing up early, working hard,” Downes said. “It was just a lot of those little things trickling into what [has become] Rutgers now”.
In order for Rutgers to be successful, Steve Pikiell needed to build a culture first. That meant bringing in the right players and coaches. It wasn’t just about their talent on the court though. According to Downes, Rutgers “recruited good people” and that started with the coaching staff. Joey described the coaching staff the same way he would the rest of the program: consistent, disciplined, and guys “who work harder than everyone else.” He also said that as good as they are coaches, “they’re even better people”.
As the culture was built, relationships formed within the program. As time went on, the team began spending more time together off the court, which allowed them to be more connected and have better chemistry on it. During the 2016-17 season, Downes’ first season on the banks, the team didn’t really hang out all that much outside of basketball. But as time went on and guys like Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. joined the program that began to change. As the players became better friends, they could push each other harder during games. They would understand that the other guy wasn’t just criticizing them, he was motivating them to be the best they can.
Being connected off the court meant being better on it. After the big win against Penn State Tuesday Night, Aundre Hyatt said the same thing. He spoke about this being the most connected team he’s ever been a part of. It is, in my opinion, the single most overlooked thing in basketball. Relationships forged off the court, support those same relationships on it. You may have a team with multiple five stars, but if you haven’t built a culture with team chemistry, you’re not going to win championships.
Those relationships were formed through the work the team put in together. Everybody was held to the highest standard at Rutgers, not just the five starters or the eight guys in the rotation. Everyone is held accountable, and everyone works hard. Pikiell and his staff expect the best out of every player in the program.
“It’s one through 15 with them,” Downes said. “It’s not the first five guys or the first 10, everyone is involved on the same page.”
This works to connect the team as one cohesive unit. The Scarlet Knights are not individual players that work hard, they are a team that works hard together.
Everyone has a role. Whether that be scoring, defending, or being a great locker room guy, everyone matters. Take the scout team, for example. They’re not only practicing and lifting every day with the team, but they’re getting to the gym early and learning the opposing teams plays. While it may go unnoticed by the fans and the media, the hard work of these players is certainly recognized by people within the program. Downes says that these are the guys that are “not putting up a statline every night, but still putting in the work showing up every day knowing [they’re] not playing on game day.”
“It’s those kinds of things, those little things that people like Aiden [Terry] do that, you know, help the team succeed in the long run,” Downes said.
These scout team players, the walk ons, the end of the bench guys are the unsung heroes of a successful basketball program. Players like Joey Downes and Aidan Terry are backbones of a winning culture. You see this firsthand when these players get on the court at the end of a blowout victory.
“You see the support and the bench when a guy like that scores, you know, how happy they are for him,” Downes said. “And that’s just the culture in general. You know, if if one person succeeds, we all succeed.”
Once Steve Pikiell had built the foundation of that culture, and the players had bought in, Rutgers started to see some real success on the court. Before Pikiell got to Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights hadn’t had a winning season since 2005-06, Gary Waters’s final year as head coach. While it didn’t happen in a day, slowly the success started to add up. First, Rutgers won three games in the conference, then seven, 11, and 12, and now they’ve won six of their first nine games. Furthermore, the Scarlet Knights are well on their way to a fourth straight winning season. Pikiell took the worst high-major program in the country and turned it into a perennial winner.
According to Downes, the rise of the culture all goes back to Pikiell, the guys he’s hired, and the players he brought in.
“It’s about the people within the the culture that’s created this sort of vibrant electricity within the RAC or Jersey Mike’s Arena, every night,” Downes said.
Pikiell has brought in coaches and players that have fit and built that culture, and it’s here to stay. While the talent level has surely improved since Pikiell’s first year, the culture shift is even more important. Pikiell’s culture has given the team harder workers, better leaders and more disciplined people. The success of this team has happened on the court, but it was built off of it.