Steve Pikiell previews Rutgers’ 2020-21 season with Big Ten, NCAA championship aspirations
The Rutgers men’s basketball team recorded its first 20-win season since it went 20-13 in 2003-04, but no one is satisfied.
After the coronavirus pandemic caused an abrupt end to the 2019-20 season, including a robbery of the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1990-91, the Scarlet Knights still have a chip on their shoulder as they enter the 2020-21 campaign.
“The Big Ten wins national championships — that’s the league we’re in, guys,” fifth-year head coach Steve Pikiell said Friday. “They go to Final Fours, the league we’re in and hall-of-fame basketball coaches. And so, we have those kind of goals, too. And I’m sure coach (Greg) Schiano has them, too, in football.
“I never said these things aren’t easy. Everyone’s trying to do it. There’s a lot of great teams out there and there’s a lot of great programs out there, but I think that’s the exciting part of basketball, when you start off a season and those are your goals — go to the NCAA tournament and compete for national championships. I think that’s the goal. That’s why I came to play in this league and coach in this league, and that’s why I came to this university.
“So those are the goals. You guys will write about it and all that stuff, but you’ve got to do it on the court and I’m lucky that I think every coach in our league starts out with those goals — I really do believe that.”
With a No. 24 ranking in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, Rutgers (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten in 2019-20) returns a veteran group, including the team’s top two points-per-game scorers between junior wing Ron Harper Jr. (12.1) and senior guard Geo Baker (10.9).
The program also added a top-50 national recruit from the 2020 class with a signature from Roselle (N.J.) Catholic four-star center Cliff Omoruyi, the 247Sports Composite’s No. 48 overall prospect.
Pikiell is pleased with the experience, but improvement is a point of emphasis everywhere.
“We need to improve every area,” Pikiell said. “There’s no team right now that feels really good about anything. I am excited that we’re a veteran team. It’s the first time in my tenure here that we’ve actually had some guys that have been through a lot. So we’ve got seniors. We have some juniors that have logged a ton of minutes. We have some sophomores that have logged a ton of minutes. So I’m excited about that. I’m really excited about our depth because we’ve tried to build a program that does have depth. I play my depth. We’re only going to be as good as our bench, too, so I feel like this year — more than ever — your depth is really going to get tested and I like the fact that we can go 10-11 deep with this group.
“But continue to get better in every area. I don’t love our defense at all. … Numbers don’t tell the whole story sometimes. The numbers weren’t where I wanted them last year. Certainly, the different things we can do defensively weren’t where I wanted them last year or they’re not to this point. I think we can score the ball a little better, but that doesn’t solve all your problems. We have to make free throws. That’s been a big issue for us and that’s going to be important for us all year, shooting the ball better from three-point land.
“But we play in the best league in the country and you’ve got to be able to play both styles. I think people just don’t realize the depth of our conference and the depth of styles that everyone plays. Wisconsin slows the ball down and holds it. Michigan State wants to get a shot up every five seconds. You turn around and you play Michigan and they space the floor out and have 6-foot-11, 7-foot three-point shooters. You play Purdue, they run a hundred sets. So the quality teams in our league and the preparation have to be on top of really stresses your bench and everybody else. So we have to improve in every area and we have to improve playing all those different styles, too, which is hard to simulate when you’re practicing.
“So I think we’ve improved. I think, again, our depth is better. This year’s just going to be unique in every way and, again, we’re playing in the best league in the country. So the challenges come every time. We’re going to play 20 out of 25 games in league play. So 80 percent of our schedule is league play. Last year we played 11 non-conference games. You’re only going to have five. So you’re playing iron every night. Seven teams are ranked in the top 25 and possibly could be nine or 10 that are receiving votes. So challenges, challenges. Coronavirus and this league are challenging.”