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Rutgers Basketball: Scarlet Knights have been bad, but Steve Pikiell’s seat is not warm

The season might be lost but the head coach should be firmly in place.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In sports, two things can be true at one time.

Think back to Rutgers Football season. The beautiful fall afternoons watching Scarlet and White perform on the field. The first eight weeks brought hope before the tides turned in mid-October and the year ultimately ended in a bowl win.

The two major conversation topics — a late-season four-game losing streak was a catastrophe and that this year was a success just getting back to a bowl game.

Guess what? Both were true. History is repeating itself for Rutgers Basketball, down to the putrid offensive performances, but in a different way.

Rutgers turned in its worst performance of the season during a 15-point loss to lowly Penn State on Wednesday night. This sparked many questions about Steve Pikiell and the job he has done this season.

Once again, multiple opinions can be correct. In this case, Pikiell has done a poor job coaching this season and there is no denying that. On the other hand, his seat is not warm and fans should not be ready to jump ship on the coach who built this program back to where it wants to be.

Pikiell took over a bad program in 2016 and brought them back to the NCAA Tournament, making back-to-back appearances in 2021-22. It would have been three in a row if the 2020 tournament did not get cancelled due to the pandemic. And to add even more conversation, many believe the Scarlet Knights were snubbed last season.

Step one is complete — make Rutgers a tournament contender on a yearly basis. That is, of course, until this season.

Rutgers is currently 10-10 overall with a 2-7 record in the Big Ten. Many who follow this program fooled themselves preseason into believing that this team would be able to play a fast-paced style and shoot the ball with more efficiency. That has been far from the truth.

The Scarlet Knights currently rank last in the Big Ten in scoring (66.8), field-goal percentage (38.7%), three-point percentage (28.4%), and free throw percentage (64.7%). Any area where the ball needs to go in the basket, Rutgers has been the worst team in the conference. This is part coaching and part talent.

Let’s face it, when Cam Spencer and Paul Mulcahy decided to transfer, this left bigger holes than expected, or hoped. At the same time, Pikiell has yet to figure out what rotations work best over the course of the season.

During the loss to the Nittany Lions, Pikiell decided to ride freshman Gavin Griffiths and Jamichael Davis while benching veteran guards Mawot Mag and Aundre Hyatt for the final 17 minutes of the game. He was asked about this decision in the postgame press conference and said this is not about development. Yet.

“No, no, no, no,” Pikiell said. “A lot of season left. We’re going to try to win each game.”

Again, two things can be true. Rutgers can focus on developing young talent while attempting to win games this season. For that to happen, Pikiell needs to do a better job figuring out which rotations work best together and in what situations.

If step one was to get Rutgers back into Tournament consideration, step two is to add talent. Pikiell has clearly done that with the incoming Class of 2024 and that has been a big get out of jail free card for the team and talking point for fans after each loss.

Dylan Harper and Ace Bailey are on the way. Rutgers has a top-three recruiting class entering next season but the fact remains, there is still over a month left here in 2023-24. If this class was not on the horizon, would Pikiell’s seat be heating up then? The answer should still be no but we’ll never know the true answer.

Wednesday night brought on some panic and it should have. Even with a one-point win against Stonehill, who is 2-20 this season, on their resume, the loss to Penn State remains the low mark for the Scarlet Knights.

There are 11 games left during the regular season before the Big Ten Tournament begins. Changes need to be made and rotations need to be adjusted. There might not be many wins left on the schedule but even in losses, the overall performance of the team and the head coach must improve in some capacity.

We’ve said this before and it remains true: Help is on the way but it is not coming this season. Together, we can make it to the finish line.