Steve Pikiell and the unenviable task of building Rutgers basketball
Back in October, when the Big Ten was a mystery and Rutgers’ place in it a foregone conclusion, Steve Pikiell sat at a round table near the edge of a hotel ballroom in Rosemont, Ill., trying and failing to dissuade reputation.
The Scarlet Knights, who had won a combined nine conference games in their first four Big Ten seasons — two of them under Pikiell’s tutelage — had no traveling reporters at Big Ten Media Day. Their coach had no choice but to project optimism to every stranger he came across.
“I don’t know what the perception is,” Pikiell said, earnestly. “I know for two years, we’ve been a program that has competed against everybody in this league. We went from seven wins before I got here to 15 and 15. We’ve beaten teams that we had never beaten before in the conference, and I think we’re getting better.”
The perception, to put it bluntly, would be that Rutgers is a laughingstock — a joke of a program heaped onto the Big Ten for the sole purpose of TV subscriptions in the New York market. The Scarlet Knights haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991, 28 years and three conferences ago. In March 2016, they turned to Pikiell to spearhead a near-impossible rebuilding project.
At his introductory presser, Pikiell said he would’ve walked across the New Jersey Turnpike to get the job.
A 51-year old Connecticut native who went to college near home and has coached in the tri-state area his entire career, Pikiell projects honesty into absurdity. That’s why, when he ends his roundtable by saying, “I’m excited about where we’re headed and hopefully that’ll help us get out of last place, which is where we’ve been for the last two years,” you are, too.
When he runs down a roster that finished 270th in adjusted offensive efficiency the season prior, you start to think his tenets — rebounding, defense, hard work and a slow, methodical build — might just work if given enough time. And when you hear the stories about Pikiell, you start to think he embodies those tenets.
For example, the 32 times he has dislocated his shoulder, if Jim Calhoun’s estimate is to be believed.
The first of those came on a loose ball at a Connecticut practice. Pikiell dove, then came up with his shoulder out of his socket. The scene repeated again and again over Pikiell’s four years as a player with the Huskies.
“You could tell he was in incredible pain,” Calhoun said. “And then every time he did it, we took him to the orthopods at UConn Medical Center, and they (said), we can operate, he'll be out in seven months, and Steve wanted no part of it. He wanted to play the year.”
Over four years, as that shoulder kept subluxing, Calhoun started to build a powerhouse in Storrs. In Pikiell’s freshman year, which doubled as the coach’s first, the Huskies went 9-19, finishing at the bottom of the Big East. By 1990, their fourth, UConn was 31-6, making it to the Elite Eight.
“My first year was the first year of the Big East conference,” said Glen Miller, a longtime Calhoun assistant who coached Pikiell at UConn. “And a lot of people didn’t think UConn belonged in the Big East conference.”
Pikiell’s task is larger, more daunting than his mentor’s. The rebuild he undertook over 11 years at Stony Brook before getting the Seawolves to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 pales in comparison. The identity that Rutgers has unwittingly built in the last 30 years makes it so as much as any of its more recent history.
To make the Scarlet Knights relevant, Pikiell has to convince recruits that the Scarlet Knights can be relevant — a particularly hard task when they have not been so since the coach was still in school. He has to do that in a talent-rich state where the talent wants to be anywhere but Piscataway. And he has to do it while competing against a league that, as Pikiell dutifully noted on Big Ten Media Day, might be the best in America.
That doesn’t just mean Rutgers getting better, it means a couple other programs falling by the wayside. Sum it all up, and the task in front of Pikiell is, well, intimidating.
There is room for optimism, if notching a three-game conference win streak for the first time since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten counts as such. When Michigan comes to town on Tuesday, Rutgers will have a chance to win its fifth conference game for the first time since joining for 2014-15 season. That’s progress, even if progress is measured like the success of a row boat paddling upstream.
“They're gonna have bad days, trust me,” Calhoun said. “Because I went through three or four years before we got to a significant place in the Big East. But I just think people — the biggest thing I think watching his teams play and watching him work, I think people realize they got a guy on the job 24/7. And a guy who's motivated his kids to be really good. No one says — if it's going to be easy, no one would ever get fired.”
Pikiell, after signing a three-year extension last January, is likely in no danger of losing his job. When the UConn job came open last year, his close ties to the Huskies were seen as more likely to end his tenure in Piscataway than anything performance-based.
It would be wrong to say success has eluded Pikiell. Whether the timetable to achieve success will mean the clock ticks out before he does so remains to be seen.
“How I measure success is the goal I had two years ago. Go to the NCAA Tournament, that’s how I measure success,” Pikiell said in October. “I look at what we’ve done in two years and we’ve improved in every area. I believe that. And we’re building new practice facilities, almost done, nine months away. We put down a new court. Like I said, season tickets are up. Enthusiasm in our program's up. Recruiting up. Our players getting better is up.
“We play in the toughest league in the country. So, to get to the NCAA Tournament is not easy. We gotta do a lotta things to do that. I know where everyone picks us. Until we get out of that position, that’s where they’re gonna pick us. But I think we’re pretty good.”
Right now, and for the slow build still to come, he’ll be given every chance to prove those words true.