It’s pretty clear after hearing first year head coach Steve Pikiell speak at media day, his assessment of the program from when he took over back in April was not a positive one. He stated the team when he arrived was the worst conditioned group he has ever been around in his career. That is an alarming statement, but one that should also reaffrim that expectations for this season should be centered around progress in all areas and nothing more. The hard truth is this team is starting from the basement floor out of the gate this season. With that being said, there is real reason to believe that better days are ahead.
After watching the two and a half hour practice, it’s obvious how well organized this coaching staff is. It also seems, after talking to players beforehand and watching them in practice, that this is all very new to them. The intensity and thoroughness of the coaching they are experiencing is very different than last season. They are being pushed like never before. The hands-on coaching and detail in which the players are being instructed was excellent. It was a true clinic and the biggest reason to be hopeful for the future of the program. This staff can flat out coach.
In terms of newcomers, every player I asked regarding who they were most excited about said CJ Gettys above all others. He brings a lot of energy to the court and you can tell he has a lot of experience in his approach at practice. He is upbeat and lightens the mood during intense drills. He is a big body, but as advertised, flashed a soft shooting touch. He provides a much needed veteran presence for this team and knows how to play. He was a great late addition by this staff.
I watched Issa Thiam shoot on the side at the start of practice and his stroke is smooth and consistent. He is wiry thin, but can run for days, often leading the pack during running drills. His work ethic and potential was praised by several of his teammates in speaking with them during the open session with players before practice. He should play a lot this season and has a real chance to eventually start at the wing. He should be the best three-point shooter on this team this season, but will need time to adjust to the pace of the college game. His future is sky high.
Eugene Omoruyi looks the most solid physically of any of the freshman and isn’t afraid to mix it up in the paint. He should be a solid player off the bench and bring a toughness to this team. That is an area for this team that needs improvement and Pikiell seems to be making that a priority.
I was very interested in seeing how Deshawn Freeman looked. I was impressed and think he is primed for a big season. Pikiell called him the best rebounder on the team in his presser and he looks polished on the court. During a layup drill, he flashed a natural scoring touch and was using one hand to rebound and finish for an extended period of time, in which he executed flawlessly. He is moving well and looks fully recovered from his season ending injury last year. Freeman is the best frontcourt scorer on the roster. He led the team in scoring through seven games last season and Freeman looks ready to resume that role this season.
Overall, I was really impressed with the quality of the practice. It’s important to uinderstand this team is firmly starting at the bottom of the Big Ten hill this season. However, if they can continue to learn and improve under the tutelage of this coaching staff, I believe real progress will occur this season. Remember, this team went 7-25 last season, so any talk other than hoping for solid improvement is irresponsible. That is not a reflection of the current coaching staff, but one of the state of the program they took over just six months ago.
I’m most confident that the biggest thing this coaching staff needs in order to turn the program around is time. As they continue to build on the foundation they have set and are able to recruit at a higher level than the program has done in the past few years, I truly believe great things will happen in the future. Bottom line, expect to see a team that works hard and plays together on the court this season. They will compete harder and smarter than in recent years. What the results will ultimately be is anyone’s guess. They have some legitimate pieces to work with, but the puzzle is certainly not complete.
Here is the complete press conference with Pikiell from media day and includes two questions I asked coach. I spoke with several players and have plenty more of coverage coming leading up to the season opener on November 11th. I left the RAC excited to see this team in action under Pikiell and his staff.