When Rutgers entered the Big Ten back in 2014 there was plenty left to be desired for most of the program, and chief amongst that group was the underperforming men’s basketball program.
Rutgers came in to the Big Ten on the back of a huge player abuse scandal that whipped out its head coach and athletic director. Now in year three, this team and the program are under new leadership.
Athletic director Patrick Hobbs hired Steve Pikiell as his first move to rebound this wholly bad basketball program.
Pikiell will have his hands full, as the Scarlet Knights have won just three games in two years of Big Ten play.
Burning Question: Can Rutgers Ever Become a Big Ten-level Basketball Program?
This is a serious question, because it takes a serious commitment to become one and the RAC plus the old athletic department certainly weren’t getting the job done.
Add in a saturated market for high-level talent and Rutgers not exactly registering on the radar for most of that talent and Pikeill has his work cut out for him. Then again, he knew all of that coming in to this job and clearly believes he can make inroads.
Making inroads and becoming a team other Big Ten teams fear on a nightly basis are two very different things.
Even when the program went 20-13 overall in 2003-04 and made it to the championship game of the NIT that season. Success wasn’t even close to permanent though, as Rutgers has had just one winning season since then.
That was under Gary Waters, who decided taking the Cleveland State job was a better career move than staying on at Rutgers. So, success is far from guaranteed for Pikiell despite an alleged big commitment to improving the ancillary things around this program.
Biggest Strength: Corey Sanders
Rebuilding efforts aren’t always easy, as we’ve noted. However, they are made a heck of a lot easier when you have the likes of Corey Sanders on the team. Sanders was criminally left off the All-Freshman team by the Big Ten last season, despite leading all freshman in scoring (16.2 points per game) and also dishing out 4.8 assists per game and gaining 1.8 steals per game.
Pikiell likes to play an uptempo game with players getting to the rim as often as they like. That fits right in to the slashing game of Sanders, and while the sophomore isn’t likely to stick around this program for very long, he can be the best advocate for Pikiell’s style of play possible.
However, don’t expect this season to be the full offense on display, as Pikiell isn’t going to have a full scholarship roster available to him and depth is a major concern. Look for him to pick his spots to put up tempo and to focus on winning games with defense first.
Biggest Weakness: Perimeter Play
Rutgers was awful from beyond the arc last season, shooting just 32 percent as a team from three-point range and ranking 12th in the Big Ten in that category.
The key will be for Sanders to evolve his game and show an improved perimeter game too. He shot just 31.5 percent from beyond the arc and attempted nearly five three pointers a game as well. In fact, his 4.8 three point attempts per game were second on the team to junior Mike Williams (4.9).
Projected Starting Lineup:
G: Mike Williams, Jr. — 12.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.1 apg, 38% FG
G: Corey Sanders, So. — 16.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, 42.3% FG
F: DeShawn Freeman, Jr. — 12.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 54.2% FG
F: Jonathan Laurent, So. — 8.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 50.3% FG
C: CJ Gettys Sr. — 5.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 50% FG *at UNC-Willmington
Steve Pikiell has some good pieces to work with despite the horrific results under Eddie Jordan last season. If Corey Sanders wants an NBA future, he’ll show up big time for this team in 2016-17.
However, this team needs so much work and has so little depth that its margin for error is almost zero. It even has taken in a so-so 7-footer like C.J. Gettys from UNC-Willimington in the hopes of getting a roster that can be worked with this season.
Don’t expect much out of the Scarlet Knights this season, except to be much more competitive than it has been in the past.
Pikiell has the chops on the recruiting trail, but it won’t matter much this season as he looks to just build a team capable of winning a lot more than they ever have in this decade.