Last Season – Year One of the Steve Pikiell era saw expected overall results…15-18 overall, 3-15 in the league and another last place finish in the Big Ten (thus making RU 3-3 in that dubious category since they joined the Big Ten). It wasn’t ever going to be strictly about wins and losses for Pikiell, though. He took over a program which simply didn’t have the kind of firepower necessary to compete in the B10 right away on a consistent basis, so instead he had to be focusing on establishing foundational elements of what his program will be. In this case, that was primarily rebounding and defense. On those fronts, he made real progress. RU was the #1 offenisve rebounding team in the conference, both in raw numbers and in offensive rebounding rate. They were 4th in rebounding margin overall in the league. On defense, they were 5th in FGA against and 9th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pom (still…middle of the pack). Those are numbers which represent some progress. The trouble is that on the offensive end, RU was a disaster. They were awful by any measure on offense, finishing #231 nationally in offensive efficiency (dead last in the league by a considerable margin), last in scoring offense, field goal %, free throw %, 3 point % and assists.
That was to be expected. Offensive improvement will come when the talent base improves and that’s going to be a process measured in years.
Nigel Johnson – Unfortunate loss for RU as he elected to grad transfer to Virginia for his final season. The Kstate transfer was RU’s second leading scorer at 11.3 ppg and was the closest thing to a 3 point threat the Scarlet Knights had at 35%.
CJ Gettys – The UNC Wilmington grad transfer used his one year well at RU, becoming the starting center and helping Pikiell establish that rebounding prowess discussed above. Gettys never passed the look test but was surprisingly effective at times, averaging 7.7ppg and 5.2 rpg. His experience will be missed.
Jonathan Laurent – Laurent was a two year occasional starter for RU on the wing who elected to transfer after the season. He’s a guy they were pretty excited about as a recruit two years ago, but he was never able to nail down more than a rotation spot for a team which needed scoring punch at his position.
Corey Sanders – His electing to return after entering the Draft was a huge decision for RU. Sanders is far from a perfect player, but he is a dynamic force at the guard spot that RU simply can’t replecate or replace with anybody else on the roster. He is an explosive athlete with a good handle and strong ability to finish at the rim. If he could add even a middling jump shot (he shot 27% from 3 last season), he’d be a tremendously difficult cover. He could also stand to tighten up the decision making but OTOH, he’s the only guy RU has who can make things happen for others on a semi-consistent basis. He led the team in scoring, assists and steals and sh ould do so again this time around.
Deshawn Freeman – He was a big positive development after sitting out most of the previous year due to injury after transferring in from a JUCO. Freeman was the closest thing to an all around player RU had, averaging 11.1ppg and 7.8 rpg while averaging almost 1 block per contest. He’s not a great shooter but did hit 37% from deep in very limited attempts, and showed a midrange game which was better (and more frequently used) than that. On a good team, he’d be a nice rotational player who provides energy and some solid contributions in a number of different areas. On this team, he’s the second biggest offenisve threat.
Mike Williams – The 6’2” senior will almost certainly start at guard alongside Sanders. He averaged 9.4 ppg, though he’s not a very good jumpshooter. Williams’ primary attributes show up on the defensive end, where he’s probably this team’s most consistent perimeter defender.
Issa Thiam – Thiam is a 6’9” sophomore who lacks strength but makes up for it with length and athleticism and some potential to develop his ball skills. He was a frequent 3 point shooter, though he only hit 30 of 99 attempts from deep (conversely, his 4-8 from the FT line on the season in 18.4 mpg tells you everything you need to know about where he spends his time on offense. In the long run, Thiam is the kind of guy that Pikiell will need to develop in order to turn this program into a competitive group, but that’s going to take either increased strength and toughness or much more consistent skill related productivity.
Candido Sa – A 6’9” 230lbs post player and JUCO transfer, Sa averaged about 14 mpg off the bench for RU last season and gave the team a real defensive presence in the paint, posting 29 blocks in 33 games. He struggled offensively but should continue to see a rotatonal role due to his size and energy level.
Eugene Omoruyi – A 6’6” 230lbs sophomore, he got 11 starts at the midway point of the season. They like his toughness and surprising ability to create for others (averaged better than 1 assist per game, behind only Gettys among their bigger players).
Shaquille Doorson – A massive junior center at 7′ and about 280lbs, Doorson has potential due simply to his physical gifts but continues to need to improve his conditioning in order to make a bigger impact. He only averaged about 9 mpg. If RU could get even double that from him, they’d have something, as Doorson can finish in the paint and with his size should provide a defensive presence in rim protection.
Ibrahima Diallo – Diallo is a 6’10” 250lbs junior who, much like Doorson, has potential due to his size and reasonable athleticism, but as of yet he hasn’t been able to force his way into consistent minutes for RU. He only played in 18 games and shot just 6-26 from the floor when he did see action. He was better the year prior as a redshirt freshman, so perhaps he can rediscover some of that level of play and make a bigger impact inside for RU.
Myles Johnson – He’s a 6’10” center from California whom RU just signed in early May, beating out Hawaii, Georgia Tech and Yale, among others. He’s not ranked in any top 150s but his size gives him a chance to earn an early role for this team, especially given that none of the returning big men have seized opportuniteis in earlier seasons.
Souf Mensah – Mensah is a 6’2” JUCO transfer point guard from France via Iowa. He didn’t put up overwhelming numbers at Marshalltown CC but on a team which needs some depth at the point, he’ll have every opportunity to earn a rotation spot behind Sanders.
Geo Baker – Baker is a 6’4” combo guard out of New Hampshire, he chose RU over George Washington and George Mason among others. He had a very strong season playing in the New England Prep School Association and should earn an immediate rotation role or perhaps even push to start on the wing, depending upon what Pikiell wants to do. Reportedly he’s a very skilled player who will need to add strength to max out his potential.
This Season –
RU isn’t ready to win. That’s obvious and I’m certain Pikiell knows it. However, I think he’s going about building this program the right way. He’s started by identifying some core elements which will be used as principles going forward, and that’s rebounding and defense. You can do those things reasonably well without getting elite or near elite talent, and RU last season showed it’s possible to do them at least decently well.
For serious improvement, the kind where you talk about NCAA bids, it’s going to take more, but that will be a process, to get the program to the point where they can attract that kind of player with some regularity. For now, I think it’s realistic to measure improvement by how competitive RU is from game to game. Wins probably won’t increase much if at all this season, but they can look to be more consistently competitive in every game they play. That can happen with some continued defensive improvement and at least improving somehow a little bit on the offensive end. Big steps won’t be taken there until the talent level is significantly improved, but in order to make that happen, RU needs to continue to improve enough in the areas they can currently compete in to get to a stage where Pikiell can sell contention for postseason play, etc. as a realistic goal.