by : Steve Tichenor
When Steve Pikiell took the head coaching position for Rutgers basketball, he knew he had his work cut out for him. Rebuilding a team just entering the BIG 10 and coming off a 7-25 season with a bunch of lopsided losses and one conference win was a daunting task.
He filled one hole in the roster with badly needed size and experience, landing senior transfer CJ Gettys from UNC Wilmington. On the recruiting front, Pikiell, with a late start, brought in a decent class with Issa Thiam, Candido Sa, and Matt Bullock. From there, he went to the only thing that could possibly work with such a young and inexperienced roster, defense and rebounding. Something that the previous coach, Eddie Jordan, admittedly did not focus on. The result was a much improved all around effort. Though it did highlight the team’s glaring weakness, offensive ineptitude. Rutgers had trouble holding their own in the conference because they had no consistent scorers. But the team’s effort night in and night out on the defensive end was commendable and that is a reflection on Pikiell. He has brought a work ethic to Piscataway that will pay dividends if he can get top recruits to buy into Rutgers. That’s where the real work comes in. Pikiell needs a reasonable amount of time to see what kind of recruiter he can be in this area. It’s simple, Rutgers will not get results until they recruit players with equal skill (or at least close) to the rest of the conference. When those players do arrive, they will be in good hands with Pikiell and the staff he has brought in.
This will take time. One promising recruit signed for 2017 is 6’4’ point guard Geo Baker. Pikiell has a big need at point guard, but who knows if Baker can provide an immediate impact. A great point guard can change a team. If Baker is a key contributor as a freshman, which can happen, that could change Rutgers fortune. But it’s more likely that he will need time to develop. As of now, there is another scholarship to fill so stay tuned. Pikiell got a jump on 2018, getting a commitment from 4 star recruit 6’9′ forward Mamadou Doucoure in December, which is a sign of good things to come.
But once again, Rutgers fans have to be patient. The team has clearly improved, but to expect them to have double digit wins in the conference next year is pushing it. While everyone except Gettys is returning, they will still have trouble scoring. They can improve offensively but not enough to expect a huge turn around. Their defensive effort will keep them in games, but a good team needs numerous scoring threats which are just not there for Rutgers.
The X factor – The RAC. The place gets loud! It would be great to see it return to the Big East days when RU was upsetting Syracuse and the RAC was in pandemonium. There was some nice energy in some close games this year, but it never got as loud as the RAC can get. The fans have to come out. When the RAC is filled and Rutgers goes on a run it can be the loudest crowd of 8,000 you will ever hear. It has to become a place that opposing teams fear to enter. A little home cooking can go along way for a program.
The best case scenario is Rutgers doubling its Big 10 win total from last year. With 10 to 12 non-conference wins and 5-7 conference wins, they could possibly get an NIT bid with the Big Dance being a long shot for next year. The good news is, this team is leagues above what it was two seasons ago. A win to close out the regular season against Illinois and an opening round win vs THE Ohio State University in the Big 10 Tournament were noteworthy. They are signature wins you can build upon.
There were tough losses and at times, ugly basketball. But the hard work and effort put out by the team was refreshing to many Rutgers faithful. Pikiell put the challenge to his players and they bought in. Win or lose they showed a lot of heart which has been lacking for Rutgers Basketball the last few years. Credit Pikiell for adding some much needed energy and leadership to this program. There will be bumps in the road moving forward, but there is no doubt that Pikiell has pointed this program in the right direction.