LAST SEASON – A disaster. Not too strong a word for it, either, as the Eddie Jordan era ending with a serious thud. The Scarlet Knights went 7-25 overall and just 1-17 in the league. Only 2 of those conference losses were by single digits, so they weren’t just beaten regularly, they were blown out. It was all too much for Jordan to keep his job, as Rutgers was uncompetitive and boring, a lethal combination.
THIS SEASON – Enter yet another new era at RU, this one headed up by ex Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell. Pikiell played for Jim Calhoun at UConn. He had a long run as an assistant at various schools before getting the job at Stony Brook in 2005. He had a gradual build there, winning 4 of the last 7 America East regular season titles and finally getting them through to the NCAA Tournament by winning the postseason bid this past season. Pikiell made sense in terms of his background…he’s a native of Connecticut and played and coached in the Northeast for his entire career, so he understands the area well. He’s talked about wanting to play a pressing, uptempo style as he often did at Stony Brook…I’ve heard that routine from so many guys coming into the Big Ten that it’s hard to take seriously. Regardless, he doesn’t have the personnel to do that in his first year, because his roster has size, not a ton of depth and nowhere near the kind of athletes you need to play that way. However, he’s an accomplished coach, so I would expect he’ll use what he actually has at his disposal in a smart way.
The biggest positive for RU was the decision by sophomore PG Corey Sanders to pull out of the NBA draft and return to school. Sanders is a loose cannon but he’s clearly the biggest talent on the roster and the kind of player who could be an NBA player in time if he learns how to play under control…he is an outstanding athlete. He needs to improve his deep shot (31% from three) and get the A/TO ratio much closer to 2:1.
Mike Williams is a 6’2″ junior who also struggles to shoot well from distance but he’s almost certain to be a starter. He’s what passes for a veteran presence on this team.
6’1 Nigel Johnson is a transfer from Kansas State who should be able to help this year. He scored 5.2ppg in his last season for KSU and he has a reputation as a deep shooter, something this team desperately needs.
Beyond those three, RU has a pair of walk-ons filling out a dangerously shallow group. Now, it’s always possible they add a late recruit or a grad transfer, because they’ll have 3 available slots as things currently stand, but for the moment, RU simply cannot afford any of those top 3 guards to get hurt.
One thing Pikiell will have at his disposal is a lot of size. His two best frontcourt players are actually more of the small forward type. Jonathan Laurent had a good first season, averaging 8.1 ppg, shooting well inside the arc and averaging 5 boards per game. He’s got some toughness and athleticisim at 6’6.
Deshawn Freeman is a 6’7″ junior who only played in 7 games before getting hurt. When he was healthy, he was productive, averaging 13 ppg and 5.3 rpg. He’s also a guy who is strictly an inside the arc guy and at 220lbs, can play as an undersized 4 when required.
Pikiell has a pair of VERY big young guys who didn’t play much (or at all) last year, but who seem to have potential. Ibrahima Diallo is a 6’11” 240lbs soph who played in 14 games last year. He’s raw with a capital “R” but has decent mobility to go with his size. Shaquille Dorson is even bigger, at 6’11” 270lbs. He missed last season with a foot injury but did play in 22 games as a freshman. Neither of these guys are close to being ready for prime time but I would imagine Pikiell sees reason to sink some investment in them to see if he can get real development over the next 2-3 years and eventually end up with a productive big man or two.
Pikiell also landed 3 recruits since he’s arrived, all of whom are interior players. None are considered to be major impact players but at this time of year, you can’t expect that. Matt Bullock is a 6’4″ forward from Roselle Catholic in New Jersey. He’s more of a program recruit and perhaps can help re-establish the Scarlet Knights as a presence in the state’s talent rich Catholic schools. 6’9″ Issa Thiam and 6’9″ Candido Sa are both long, athletic forwards who have some potential to help. Thiam has some ability to shoot while Sa is a JUCO guy who could see minutes at the 5 as a shotblocker if RU wants to with a faster lineup.
BOTTOM LINE – This is a major, major rebuilding job for Pikiell. I think if he’s given some time, he may be the right guy to elevate the program. He’s put together an interesting staff, hiring ex GW head coach Karl Hobbs and former Pitt star and assistant coach Brandin Knight, who opted to take the RU job rather than join Jamie Dixon at TCU. These guys are all from the area and have long standing recruiting relationships established with the relevant high school and AAU coaches. Then there’s the fact that Pikiell built Stony Brook into a consistent winner…4 regular season conference titles in the last 7 years and two other years in that run where they were runner up suggests the man has an idea of what it takes to win.
Still he’s taking an incredible challenge. Rutgers has often been talked about as either an underachiever or a sleeping giant, depending on your perspective. They are in the middle of a deep talent base, but have historically struggled to make much of an impression. Their facilities don’t measure up to the rest of the conference. They’re in a conference where the sport matters and most member schools make it a priority to compete, so just getting better isn’t good enough…you need to get better AND pass others on your way up.
A reasonable goal would be improving the win totals a little bit from last season. Even in a down Big Ten, I can’t see RU winning more than 2 or 3 league games. Baby steps.