BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Steve Pikiell enjoyed the adulation he received since being the Rutgers head coach for good reason. He created a culture and foundation from day one.
In his first three years, he recruited Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell and several others to build a foundation for recent year’s success. He also got a lot out of a limited roster back then. In his last three years, he had the Scarlet Knights participating in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, technically, it’s two years, but it should have been three until COVID-19 canceled March Madness. Oh, and Pikiell won an NCAA Tournament game.
But now everyone wants more from fans to the players to Pikiell to the university. That’s what success begets. That’s a great thing, and it’s a pressure he is ready to embrace. He didn’t just come to Rutgers to make the tournament. He wants to win a national championship. He is not looking at the university as a steppingstone job.
Building a culture and foundation is actually the easy part believe it or not. Sustaining it and taking it to greater heights is the hard part. Just ask Kevin Willard. He built a culture and foundation that resulted in good Seton Hall teams for 12 seasons, and all he got was one playoff win and an exit to Maryland. He decided to leave knowing this is the best he could do, and he wanted to get out while his stock was still high.
Winning a tournament game is not easy as Gannett’s Jerry Carino tweeted the other day. Willard can attest to that. Even UConn head coach Dan Hurley can tell you that as he is searching for his first tournament win as UConn coach.
Getting to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship game gets harder, even it seems easy. Jay Wright and Scott Drew were once known as underachievers in the tournament.
So yes, this gets harder. Pikiell knows the deal. One playoff win won’t be enough to get the program much buzz. Getting to Sweet 16 and further does that. This is the challenge Pikiell faces now.
There’s no need to worry about getting better talent and developing them. He got that covered as a coach. Now, it’s about winning. He enhances his legacy this much more if Rutgers is a perennial Sweet 16 team. In other words, he should have his program be like Wright’s Villanova program.
Pikiell will have to get more Bakers for that to happen. He needs that go-to guy that can be the guy in crunch time like he had with Baker. He could use three or four of them this time around. He needs to see if he can get a Diaper Dandy (freshman) to be a major contributor to this team. He needs to have players develop as sophomores rather than wait until their senior year. In other words, he needs everyone clicking no matter what year they are in.
He has to combine talent and hustle and make it into a whole. He did that in the last two seasons, and he needs to get recruits that can continue to do that. The defense should always be the foundation for team’s success, but this team needs to be better offensively. Rutgers went through so many offensive droughts in each game, and it cost them late in the game against Notre Dame that put the game in overtime.
Rutgers could use some players that boast quickness. There were too many times these last two seasons when the Scarlet Knights took forever to run their offensive sets. I want to see a guy who can break down defense right away rather than wait until the right guy comes along.
In a sport now that relies on 3-point shooting, Rutgers needs to continue to find a guy like Baker, who isn’t afraid to fail. The teams that go far are teams that shoot the 3 like Villanova. Wright always recruits guys who can shoot 3s and his offense revolves around the 3. Villanova has a chance to win it all because of Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie, who is a difference-maker that can shoot a timely 3.
Pikiell needs to continue to take advantage of the transfer portal by getting guys that contribute right away is a boon for Rutgers. It’s become a necessity in so many ways.
Rutgers must start winning games away from the RAC if it wants to be considered a Big 10 contender and a national championship contender. Winning games at home are great, but that can’t be the be all end all. The great teams find a way to win on the road. For Rutgers to take the next step, winning road games should be paramount. Winning road games not only get the Scarlet Knights the benefit of the doubt by the committee, but it gives them higher seeding that improves their chances of going far.
Rutgers has had a good run in recent years, but fans want to see more than that. In a demanding pro sports market like New York, making the tournament or winning one playoff game is not enough. Getting to Sweet 16s and further should be the standard for Rutgers, and that’s a burden Pikiell must deal with moving forward.
It’s on the head coach to find a way to figure this out. That’s the responsibility he has to deal with as part of his job description.
Despite the first few years being challenging, that turned out to be the easy part.
Now, the hard part really begins.