After taking lumps and gaining valuable experience in first Big Ten go-round, Steve Pikiell continues his rebuild at Rutgers, insisting Scarlet Knights have already improved their standing from last November. (Photo by Jerry Carino/Asbury Park Press)
Almost everyone well ingrained in the New York college basketball landscape had the same positive message in March of last year when Rutgers, desperately hoping for a reversal of fortune, had made their latest men's basketball coaching change, firing Eddie Jordan and replacing him with Steve Pikiell, fresh off guiding Stony Brook to a long-awaited America East Conference championship that completed a decade-long construction of the Seawolves' program he had overseen from the ground up.
Give him time, the well-informed fans and scribes said of Pikiell and the situation he would soon inherit in Piscataway, and he will turn your perennially moribund outfit into a winner.
An 11-1 start, despite being offset by criticism of the soft non-conference schedule the Scarlet Knights played before being thoroughly humbled in Big Ten play, served as the first beacon of hope to a fan base that has craved it for decades. The first attempt at raising the bar, Sunday's dramatic exhibition victory over St. John's, was the latest feather in the cap for a Rutgers team that recognizes its need to further improve, yet at the same time is in a stronger standing than it had been at this time one year ago.
"I like this team," an optimistic Pikiell imparted when assessing Rutgers' prospects before a gaggle of local media at last month's Big Ten media day. "I love our chemistry. People don't talk about it a lot, they talk about talent, but I'm a big chemistry guy. We've had much more competitive practices for longer periods of time and there's much more competition at every spot. They're easy to coach, they're coachable, and that's an exciting thing for me."
"I think we've made tremendous progress, I really do," he elaborated. "When you inherit a program and a team, and you've gotta introduce yourself to every player, every drill, I think we really did a good job of moving this program forward in one year, and I'm thankful my staff stayed the course. We've got some continuity now out of that with our players on our roster. The ones that have stayed have got better, and the players that have come into the program want to be at Rutgers and they want to play for me."
Considering the state of affairs when Pikiell arrived on the banks of the old Raritan, the 180-degree transition would be enough to earn, at the very least, a contract extension in the minds of Rutgers fans who have already witnessed the transformation from the apathetic squads of the Jordan era, and those of Fred Hill before that, not to mention the damning allegations that spelled the end for Mike Rice. But just as he had in his tenure at Stony Brook, Pikiell is content with incremental progress now, knowing it can lead to greater heights later.
"All kids want to run, and I say, 'Okay, it's easy to sit in a room and say those kinds of things,'" said Pikiell. "It's a lot harder to do those things, and they're learning now. I know what it takes to do those things. They're learning that now, but we're really trying to change the narrative of how we play and the pace that we play. It's a lot harder than it looks, and it's a lot harder than it sounds."
"When we do practice drills, guys know what we're doing," he stated, the pride in his team's advancement evident and noticeable in his inflections. "They're teaching the young guys as opposed to us teaching them everything."
The player development Pikiell was lauded for at Stony Brook has already taken root in Piscataway, as has his recruiting prowess. Underrated in the latter aspect before signing the likes of Jameel Warney and Carson Puriefoy to play for him in eastern Long Island, the former Jim Calhoun assistant has already made inroads with the next generation of stars, scoring a major signing with freshman guard Geo Baker and landing several verbal commitments from some of the more highly touted Class of 2018 recruits that he is hopeful will sign in the spring. All in all, it is merely part of the all-in philosophy of committing to the cause and leaving no stone unturned, a work ethic that has endeared him to nearly everyone that has spent the time to take notice.
"I've been a part of a lot of these builds, and every year, I think you try to enhance your roster," he advised. "My year last year was figuring out what we didn't have and what we needed in the program moving forward, and now we've gotta continue to put those pieces together. You only have 13 scholarships in basketball, so you can't do this overnight. You have to plug away slowly, and I think what we've done is we've made the players in the program better. I think you're going to see a lot of the players have improved a great deal, and then I think the pieces that we brought in are going to enhance -- they're going to do some things we didn't do last year."
"I feel very confident in this building process. It takes some time, but I want to keep doing exactly what we've been doing: Stay the course, develop players, recruit kids that want to be at Rutgers, recruit kids that bring in pieces we didn't have."
To expound on that point, the addition of Baker and junior college transfer Souf Mensah, plus Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss when he is eligible again next fall, gives the Scarlet Knights the luxury of moving Corey Sanders and Mike Williams around in a versatile backcourt that should showcase their talents further.
"What that has really helped is to be able to move those guys around a little bit," Pikiell reiterated. "Corey was a point guard last year and he had to bring the ball up, he had to defend the best player, and he had to go score 20 points a night for us. I think now, my ability to move him around the court will help him: a) score some more points probably, and b) be harder to defend. Same thing with Mike. Mike's ability to rebound enables me to move him to a couple different positions. They've added a versatility to us we didn't have last year, and they've added a competitiveness in practice that we didn't have last year, which is helping everyone get better."
The progress on the floor has helped beget improvements beyond the hardwood as well, with athletic director Pat Hobbs signing off on a state-of-the-art practice facility that is still in the construction stages while Pikiell continues to spearhead fundraising efforts. In short, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has grown closer.
"Those upgrades will help our program, and they've given us momentum, too," Pikiell proclaimed. "Hopefully that entices some players, and it also shows the commitment Rutgers University has to being in the Big Ten and being successful. I love the RAC. I think it's an unbelievable venue. If you were at the Illinois game last year and some of those, it's as good a venue as I've been in."
"We've got to prove we can win in this league," he stated, bringing the conversation full circle. "We took a step last year, winning games on the road and winning a game in the (Big Ten) tournament, which we hadn't done. I think every year, you kind of check some things off. These little victories don't show up on my record, but they were big for us."
"I want our guys to continue to grow with confidence, that what we're doing now is going to pay dividends down the road. The winning will come, it'll be a product of those things. I think we made tremendous progress in the best league in the country. We'll see how it translates to games, but we're a better team this year and we're a better program right now than we were a year ago."