Monday, December 26, 2016

Pikiell's culture change evident in more ways than one as Rutgers enters Big Ten play

Steve Pikiell's patient and steady hand has resulted in not only an 11-2 start for Rutgers, it also has Scarlet Knights ready to compete in Big Ten earlier than most anticipated. (Photo by Jerry Carino/Asbury Park Press)

Nine months ago, Steve Pikiell said seven words that stood out during his introductory press conference as successor to Eddie Jordan at Rutgers.

"In order to achieve," the man responsible for cultivating a perennial winner from the ground up over the past eleven seasons at Stony Brook began, "you must believe."

Pikiell believed in the roster he inherited that day. He continues to instill the same confidence in his players now, just about halfway into an 11-2 season that has yielded more wins than any other first-year head coach was able to rack up this late into his first rodeo on the banks of the old Raritan. And as the scrappy Scarlet Knights gear up for the start of Big Ten play Tuesday in Wisconsin, their grinder of a head coach saw revelatory moments in the wake of a defeat to a bitter in-state rival, further solidifying the tangible progress that has permeated the air in Piscataway.

"We're close," a proud Pikiell conceded Friday evening, shortly after Rutgers suffered just their second loss of the season; a 72-61 setback to Seton Hall whose score was by no means indicative of the effort put forth, as Rutgers held a two-point lead as late as the seven-minute mark of the second half in a gallant showing against the reigning Big East champion Pirates. "We saw some minutes there where we have a chance to be a good basketball team. We're a little young, but we're going to get there."

Those who saw what Pikiell constructed while transforming Stony Brook from fledgling Division I program to America East Conference powerhouse see his latest undertaking at Rutgers and the short amount of time in which his vision has become reality, and it comes as no surprise to them. Others who did not have the privilege of watching the dawn of Long Island's biggest little success story now marvel at Pikiell's knack for player development; a skill virtually unmatched by his peers in the New York metropolitan area, and his strict, rebound-centric defensive philosophy, and are impressed at the 180-degree turnaround that makes the morass of Jordan's three-year reign of error seem as though it was experienced eons ago.

"It's night and day," said Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard; who coached against Pikiell's Stony Brook teams twice in 2012, of the new era at Rutgers. "I think Steve has done as good a job as anybody in the country. Pat Hobbs hired a phenomenal person for that university."

Just as Hobbs did in 2010 when he brought Willard from Iona to South Orange, he has found a diamond in the rough in the 49-year-old Pikiell, every bit a winner off the court as he has been through the first two months of this season. Media covering the Scarlet Knights have lauded his humble and extroverted nature, complimenting his tradition of postgame handshakes and personal "thank you for coming" messages to everyone in attendance at his press conferences, a practice he started at Stony Brook and upholds to this day. 

The genuine appreciation and zeal with which Pikiell approaches his everyday work has trickled into the locker room as well. Point guard Nigel Johnson has blossomed into the team's leading scorer after sitting out a year following his transfer, sophomore Corey Sanders has become a lethal two-way player on the heels of a stellar rookie campaign, Mike Williams is now a burgeoning sixth man, and power forward Deshawn Freeman is the walking double-double Pikiell enjoyed in the form of Jameel Warney during the past four years in Suffolk County. And on the defensive end, Rutgers is allowing a mere 62 points per game through the non-conference season, compared to 72 at this stage a year ago and 80 for the entire season in 2015-16. That player development spoken of? Look no further than the aforementioned numbers.

Rutgers will need that improvement as they step into Big Ten play, beginning Tuesday, when the Scarlet Knights travel to Madison to take on a Wisconsin team projected among the favorites in the league. The Badgers present a stern test with the leadership of point guard Bronson Koenig, all-conference scoring machine Nigel Hayes, and a matchup problem in Ethan Happ on the perimeter. Wisconsin will likely be favored, but make no mistake about it, their opponents will know what is in store for them when the ball is tipped at the Kohl Center, and in each of their 17 league contests to follow for that matter.

"I think we're prepared for the Big Ten," a confident Pikiell matter-of-factly stated. "People have a lot of questions about us, which is fine. I like this team, I like our whole roster. We're going to get better. We've got to make some plays, though."

The true mark of improvement lies within the ability to recognize opportunities to enhance a team's skills, and Pikiell cited that in numerous references Friday.

"We've got to execute," he conceded. "Our defense in the first half was fantastic, we've got to figure out how to play that for 40 minutes."

While the aspect of a complete game remains a work in progress, a characteristic symbolic of all Pikiell teams has already emerged: The simple fact that Rutgers is competing in every game and not getting blown out. Even if some attribute that to a favorable non-conference schedule, do not expect that to change much, even as the meat of the Big Ten slate is an examination of which the Scarlet Knights have not fully seen the rigors of.

"They are different," said Willard. "People better respect them in the Big Ten, or they're going to beat a lot of teams."

"I see us practice every day," Pikiell confidently reassured. "I know our weaknesses, I know our strengths. We're going to be a tough team. We're going to defend, and we're going to continue to get better. I'm very confident that we're going to build a program that people are going to say is pretty good. We've come a long way in a short time."

The belief is firmly entrenched in New Jersey's university. Achievement is now on its way, with the ultimate payout more visible on the horizon than at any point in the past decade.

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