By Kevin Sweeney
Saying “Rutgers is back” is perhaps a misnomer.
With the exception of a Final Four appearance in 1976, there aren’t any real glory days to look back on. The Scarlet Knights have made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years just once in the 106-year history of the program.
The better statement: Rutgers is here. And thanks to the job Steve Pikiell has done since taking over a dormant program at perhaps its lowest point in 2016, RU might be here to stay.
Beating Indiana on Wednesday night didn’t lock the Scarlet Knights into the NCAA Tournament by any stretch: in a Big Ten with 12 teams in KenPom’s top 40, it doesn’t take much to string together losses. That said, the fact that Rutgers beating Indiana is no longer a surprise says a whole heck of a lot about how far this program has come. With a top-30 KenPom ranking, four top-40 wins, and a position just one game behind Michigan State for tops in the Big Ten, the Big Dance is becoming more and more of a reality by the day.
So how did Steve Pikiell do it?
In an era of quick flips, increased roster turnover, and coaches being fired in three years or less, there is more pressure than ever to not just win but to win fast. Pikiell inherited perhaps the worst job in high-major basketball– a program that felt out of place in its new conference, with aging facilities, a bad roster, and no history of success.
Pikiell never skipped a step.
He started with establishing a new identity for the program. Jon Rothstein’s “pounding nails” tweets may be irritating, but they really do encapsulate the hard-hat mentality that Pikiell brought with him from another program he built from the ground up: Stony Brook. The Scarlet Knights jumped 166 spots in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings in year one. RU won eight more games than the season before (aided by a weak non-conference schedule).
Meanwhile, Pikiell hit the road recruiting. A coach in the position Pikiell was in didn’t have lines of top-150 recruits wanting to visit. But Pikiell and his staff trusted their eyes with underrated recruits, and slowly but surely started to add quality pieces. In his first full recruiting class, he landed two future building blocks: Geo Baker and Myles Johnson. Baker ranked #414th nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings, far off the usual high-major radar. Johnson was mostly recruited by high-academic mid-majors and signed with the Scarlet Knights in May. He was #371 in the composite. Hitting on one 300+ recruit in a high-major class might be lucky. Hitting on two? That’s a special eye for talent and a strong endorsement for the job Pikiell has done in player development.
With on-court progress came recruiting headway. Enough was shown to sway 4-star wing Montez Mathis to choose Rutgers over UConn, 3-star local product Ron Harper Jr away from Nebraska, and late-signing prep product Caleb McConnell to RU over West Virginia. One piece after another, things were coming together.
Meanwhile, Pikiell won just enough to continue to sell a vision: to his players, to recruits, and to fans. A run in the Big Ten Tournament in front of home fans at MSG helped, as did some upset wins at the RAC. Instead of being tempted into the world of grad transfers to steal an extra couple of games, the Scarlet Knights prioritized development: getting Baker, Harper, Johnson, and the rest of a young core battle-tested in the night-in, night-out meat grinder that is the Big Ten.
Still, a few more pieces were needed to match up depth-wise. Pikiell found those in highly-recruited local point guard Paul Mulcahy, Texas transfer Jacob Young, and finally, Stony Brook grad transfer Akwasi Yeboah. Perhaps it’s poetic that one of Pikiell’s final recruits at Stony Brook became the final piece of the puzzle at Rutgers.
Rutgers still has that defensive identity it formed in its opening season under Pikiell. The Scarlet Knights rank 8th nationally in adjusted defense and have given up over 65 points in just four games this season. Now, they have the talent to win the games they competed in during Pikiell’s first three years. RU has eight players who’d play significant minutes at every Big Ten school– accumulated one piece at a time.
I’d be remiss not to note that what Pikiell has done wouldn’t be possible everywhere– mostly because he may not have been given enough time. Back-to-back 3-15 conference marks could be a death spell at many programs– with coaches forced to abandon the long build for a quick Band-Aid in hopes of keeping a job.
That said, Pikiell has shown us all the blueprint for exactly how to turn a program around the hard way. And with only two seniors on this year’s roster (Yeboah and Shaq Carter), the payoff for that hard work is only just beginning.