Steve Pikiell did the job he was hired to do. Last March, he brought Rutgers basketball into the NCAA tournament, ending a 30-year drought, and notched the program’s first Big Dance victory since 1983.
Now that he’s back for a sixth season, Rutgers is sacking four of his top six players, and interest in the program has reached a generational high. Here’s a pre-season Q&A on the sequel to full-scale training:
Q. Last year’s barrier crossing, how much of that is reflected this season in terms of mindset and schedule expectations?
A. “Being in the tournament (NCAA) gave us tremendous confidence. Along with Geo (Baker) and Ron (Harper) and Caleb (McConnell), I have a bunch of guys who’ve been through a lot. Our goal now is to win a national championship, to be honest. We’re much closer now than when I took over, that’s for sure.
Q. After the pandemic chaos of last year, what was it like to have a regular offseason with these players?
A. “We did a great job browsing COVID, but last year’s offseason was so weird. This summer we had our best offseason ever. When you have something that takes you like that, you like to be normal. The fall was tremendous. They went to football games (Rutgers). They were at a football game the other day. You can hang out with your friends and eat out – all the things they couldn’t do last year. Our guys love to be back in a normal setting. They take advantage of the university for what the university is. It’s not all about basketball.
Q. But last year it was all basketball because there was no college experience. This contributed to the high transfer rate?
A. “How can you judge a place based on last year?” It’s been a tough year for everyone and I think the numbers reflect that, but I think that’s where we’re heading as a company. The guys who graduated and moved on I’m happy for them, but I celebrated the guys who stayed. It was awesome.
Q. How does it feel to have three guys in Geo, Ron and Caleb who have a total of 215 Big Ten games under their belt?
A. It’s awesome. This has never been the case, where we have had this kind of experience. They’ve been through it all too. They took us from the start when we were struggling to get out of the league basement to become a team capable of competing for a league championship. It’s great to have that, and they’re guys you can count on. They are good people and very good players.
Q. Who surprised or impressed you the most during the offseason?
A. “Caleb has had a great offseason. It was his first healthy. Think Caleb is set for a great senior season. Cliff (Omoruyi) was probably the most in the gym; he’s probably the hardest worker we’ve had here in a Rutgers uniform … we spent a lot of time in the gym one-on-one with guys, not in groups of four or five. We changed that from the past.
Q. We hear about Cliff’s work ethic – can you give us an example?
A. “He’s a morning guy, which a lot of guys aren’t. He starts his first workout before anyone is even on their feet. He really improved his shot. He spent time (trying for) the Nigerian national team, he spent a month preparing for it, he really tested himself. He came back with a lot of confidence and he improved a lot. He will be one of the best greats in the Big Ten.
Q. What time is it in the gym in the morning?
A. “He’s out there at 5 am and he’s the first to practice later in the day.”
Q. What role do you foresee for Paul Mulcahy?
A. “Paul will have the ball in his hands a lot. Takes big decisions, defensively he improves every year, his shooting percentage keeps increasing. It is obviously a huge part of it. “
Q. What have you seen of Jaden Jones since he signed up last January?
A. “It is unfair for anyone to come on January 17th and be expected to play. We had a veteran team and you’re in the middle of a championship game. Now he is physically better prepared to play in college and he has learned six months to understand Big Ten basketball, our system, where you need to be on the court. He can really score, he’s long and he’s good. He’s going to be a good player for us.
“I also want to mention other guys. (Transfer big man) Ralph Agee wasn’t there all summer but trained at home… (LSU transfer) Aundre Hyatt is a good player who gives us a new dimension… Mawot Mag had a very good offseason and could be one of our best defenders. Dean Reiber and Oskar (Palmquist) have improved. (Freshman) Jalen Miller, we had good defenders on the ball, but Jalen is at Jacob Young’s level. He has things to learn, but when it comes to defending the ball he can be as good as any we’ve had. And Luke Nathan is a great guy in the locker room.
“We are long, we have experience but we get along really well, it’s huge.”
Q. What kind of discussions do you have with these guys on the NIL?
A. “We’re talking about it, but there’s not much we can do as a staff (by NCAA rules). Lots of our talks were, manage your time and keep your priorities straight. You can’t be a full-time businessman, full-time student, and full-time basketball player. Glad they have all of these different opportunities, but you also need to understand that this is where you put your time that you will be successful. Glad they meet new people who can help them, that’s a good thing, but you’ve just added another full time job to their already busy plate.
Q. I’ve heard that your subscription base has grown by 50% since 2019-2020. What are the chances that you can sell all season?
A. “We will. I fully expect it. We’re close now. I love the fans, I know what an advantage they give us. The players love it even more. They train in an empty gym all the time. summer, which is why they are doing it. We are about to sell everyone and I hope they can close soon. “
Q. How do you feel about your schedule, starting with Illinois, Purdue and Michigan as your first three games?
A. “These are the top three teams in the league. There are 14 teams and we get 1-2-3 from the start? I guess that’s how it is.
Q. How does it feel to have Seton Hall back on the calendar?
A. “I don’t care who the coaches are, Seton Hall and Rutgers are a big game, a game that should be played every year. Let’s go home and go with him every year. (Kevin Willard) does an amazing job with his program, but it doesn’t matter if I’m here or he’s there, we should always be playing. I’m glad we managed to pull through.
Q. How good can this team be?
A. “It’s my best team, if we stay healthy. They love each other, they share the ball, they defend. We have to become a better rebound team. We weren’t last year. And we have to. improving ourselves in the free throws. We’ve spent a lot of time on these things and hopefully it pays off. The thing is, we’re playing in the best league. There isn’t a huge margin ( for the mistake) But this team is really good.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the pace of college basketball since 2003. He is among the Associated Press’s Top 25 Voters. Contact him at [email protected]