Rutgers Basketball: New head coach Steve Pikiell has Rutgers relevant again

Thanks to the guidance of Steve Pikiell, Rutgers basketball is out to their best start since 1975-76.

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and haven’t finished over .500 since the 2005-06 season. The Scarlet Knights were once a nationally relevant program in the 1970s, when they made two straight NCAA Tournaments in 1975-76 and reached the Final Four in 1976, but won a combined 17 games in the last two seasons.

After firing Eddie Jordan after last year’s embarrassing seven win debacle, the Scarlet Knights opted to hire Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell. The 49-year old built a Stony Brook program from the ground up, as he helped the team reach it’s first ever NCAA Tournament last season and had six years of 20 plus wins.

Now with Rutgers, Pikiell is out to a resounding start. The Knights have already won four more games than they won all of last year (11-1) and are out to their best start since 1975-76. Sure, they have played a horrible schedule (311th in the country, according to CBS Sports) and don’t have a single quality win, but they also have beaten the teams they are supposed to defeat, something that certainly was the case in 2015-16.

The Knights did defeat DePaul on the road and only lost their lone test, Miami, by 12 points in Coral Gables. And it’s not like they have struggled to put away the low-major teams that they have faced. Beyond match-ups against DePaul, Hartford and Stony Brook, the Knights have won every game by double digits.

What has been most impressive about Rutgers team though, is their newfound energy, aggressiveness and toughness.

Last season, the Knights would roll over at times; opposing teams were tougher than them, beat them to 50-50 balls and punched them in the mouth for 40 minutes.

This year, it’s been a completely different story, as Pikiell has emphasized rebounding, defense and discipline.

Against the Fordham Rams at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the changes were evident. The Knights obliterated the Rams on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 51 to 22 (51 to 22!!). They turned the ball over 17 times, but they also had 17 assists on 28 field goals and ran crisp offensive sets.

“I’m proud of how these guys have jumped on board,” Pikiell said post game. “We’re defending. We were really locked in, especially in the first half, on a team that can really shoot the three. I’m just happy for these guys to get a taste of it. When you defend and you rebound, good things happen.”

“Steve Pikiell has done a great job with the Rutgers program so far,” Fordham head coach Jeff Neubauer said. “For them to be 11-1 right now is really a tribute to him and how they’ve been able to recruit and really instill a defensive mentality, very similar to what we tried to do last season.”

The Knights also have a solid group of players. They have bigs who are physical on the interior, including Deshawn Freeman (16 points and 11 rebounds against Fordham) and C.J. Gettys, and emerging forwards like Eugene Omoruyi and Candido Sa.

They also have a host of ball handlers, Corey Sanders, Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson, who can play plays on the perimeter.

Rutgers isn’t going to make the NCAA Tournament this season and they are unlikely to finish in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten, but they do have a foundation for the future and a sense of direction that wasn’t shown under Jordan. Rutgers fans finally have something to look forward too.

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