As the Gavitt Games keep on rolling, the DePaul Blue Demons welcome the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to the Rosemont Horizon.
Both teams have finished at or near the bottom of their respective conferences for the past few years. Is either program on the upswing? To get some perspective from the Rutgers side, Aaron Breitman of On The Banks answered our questions.
Big East Coast Bias: There's been no shortage of coverage of the Scarlet Knights' struggles the past few seasons. With a new head coach at the helm, is there finally some "light at the end of the tunnel" mentality starting to present itself?
On The Banks: With all due respect, I think it’s more like we are now riding on a freshly paved tunnel that is no longer a legitimate death march. There is still a ways to go until we see the light at the end of it.
In all seriousness, the past 3+ years could not have been any worse than they were. From the horror show that was the end of the Mike Rice era to the dark comedy that was the Eddie Jordan era, it was downright depressing. The fan base is certainly relieved to finally have a credible coach with a winning pedigree that has a lot of experience in rebuilding programs from the ground up.
Steve Pikiell was a captain on the early teams of Jim Calhoun at UConn and learned a great deal from his mentor. The job he did at Stony Brook was amazing, taking a never was program and making them a dominate team in the America East conference for many years. He has unbridled enthusiasm for the Rutgers job and has the blueprint established on how to turn the program around. I’m very optimistic about the future of Rutgers basketball with him as our head coach.
BECB: What has been the biggest difference in program culture between Steve Pikiell and Eddie Jordan so far?
OTB: Oh boy Robert, how much time do you have? I’m not being snippy when I say literally everything has changed. Eddie Jordan is a Rutgers legend from his playing days and by all accounts is a great guy. However, he had no prior college coaching experience and ran the team like he was still in the NBA. From not having a strong recruiting presence in a talent rich state, to professing to the media that teaching rebounding was not in his repertoire as a coach, to saying he didn’t give a crap what the fans thought near the end, it’s safe to say his tenure was an unmitigated disaster.
After the past three seasons, almost any new head coach would have felt like a breath of fresh air. However, Steve Pikiell has been more like a windstorm of fresh air and he has brought the same intensity that type of weather event brings.
He hired a tremendous staff that includes longtime UConn assistant Karl Hobbs, former Pitt legend Brandin Knight, and his right hand man at Stony Brook, Jay Young. He also wisely retained Greg “Shoes” Vetrone, the former assistant who recruited all the best players on the team and was moved into the role of Director of Player Development.
Speaking of recruiting, Pikiell and his staff have been tireless on the trail and have had more top recruits from future classes on campus than Rutgers has possibly ever had visit with any previous coaching regime.
The program was woefully behind with strength and conditioning, so Pikiell brought David Van Dyke with him from Stony Brook as well. This area of the program has been upgraded tremendously.
In terms of culture, Pikiell has preached defense and rebounding as the foundation of how he wants the identity of his team to be. He wants gym rats who love to play and he ultimately wants to press in the fullcourt and push the break in transition. However, it’s his willingness to adapt his style to the current talent on the roster that has been most refreshing. After having a coach who stubbornly refused to adjust, Pikiell is working to find any way to win he possibly can. The program established the slogan “Knight And Day” before the season and it has proven to be true in every way so far.
BECB: Through two games, All-Big Ten Honorable Mention Corey Sanders has struggled a bit. Is there any cause for concern, especially as Sanders now faces a DePaul team that touts a very good backcourt?
OTB: I would say it’s been a significant adjustment for Sanders so far this season for the simple fact that there are so many more capable players on this team. Last year, after Freeman went down, it was the Corey Sanders show on offense and that was pretty much it. This season, Freeman is back, Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson is in the same backcourt as him, and the complimentary players have proven to be capable as well. Pikiell is challenging him to be the best defender in the Big Ten because he believes he has the ability to be just that. I think it's possible, but he is playing for a coach with a completely different philosophy and set of expectations for him.
In the season opener, Corey dished out 8 assists and only took five shots. It was refreshing to see him play so unselfishly and make a real effort to get the rest of the team involved. He did come out in game two and forced things early on, missing a lot of shots and getting two quick fouls. He recovered some in the second half, but shot just 2 for 11 from the field. Johnson has been stellar in the backcourt so far and I think it’s only a matter of time before the two click on the floor together. Long term, I’m not too concerned and think Sanders will figure things out, ultimately becoming a better player this season.
BECB: Deshawn Freeman has a total of 20 rebounds already this season after missing the final two-thirds of last season with an injury. How important is it for Rutgers to have him healthy and productive this season?
OTB: Pikiell praised Freeman during the preseason, stating he has bought in and worked the hardest of any player on the roster. He led Rutgers in scoring through seven games before his season ending injury last season. Freeman has improved and is the best rebounder and low post scorer on the team. His development throughout this season is critical to the team’s success. He is crafty on the offensive end, plays bigger than his 6’7” frame, and looks locked in early on. I am very excited about his potential this season and he should be a double-double machine throughout.
BECB: Rutgers, like DePaul, has a lot of inexperience in the frontcourt. Obviously, CJ Gettys will factor into this game, but do you expect the Scarlet Knights to send out a bit of a bigger lineup at times to get players like Candido Sa or Shaq Doorson some reps and also test the inexperienced Blue Demons?
OTB: Yes, absolutely. Coach Pikiell will probably rotate ten players in the game and has used multiple lineup combinations already this season. I counted as many as seven in the win over Drexel. CJ Gettys needs to stay out of foul trouble and if he does he will be a major factor in this game. Pikiell will play each Sa and Doorson alongside Gettys at times.
Doorson is still working back into shape after missing all of last season due to injury. He hasn’t shown much yet, but at 7’0” he is a much needed presence in the paint on the defensive end.
Sa has been more polished on offense in the early going than expected, as he has shown the ability to hit the mid-range jumper and even made a three-pointer in the last game. He is a true rim enforcer on defense and is probably the team’s best shot blocker.
Another factor to consider is that 6’9” freshman Issa Thiam has started at the 2-spot the past two games. He is wiry thin and not a factor in the paint, but he is probably the best three-point shooter on the team. Thiam hasn’t been too involved in the action yet, but he has the potential to be a great addition this season.
In terms of playing a big lineup, Rutgers went on a 13-0 run to end the first half against Drexel with Doorson, Sa, and Thiam on the court together. Gettys and Sa played together even more so. I expect Pikiell to keep experimenting with different lineup combinations tonight and use the size on his roster to his advantage. If Rutgers can dominate in the paint, they will have a great chance to win the game.
BECB: What's your prediction for this game?
OTB: I think it will be a close game and will come down to a few factors. In order to win, Rutgers will need to use their size advantage to win the battle of the boards. Also, both teams had 16+ turnovers in their last game, so whichever team takes care of the basketball is key. Both teams have solid backcourts, which should make it fun to watch Eli Cain and Billy Garrett Jr. versus Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson. Ultimately, I think the extra game that Rutgers has played will help down the stretch and they pull off the minor upset on the road. Rutgers 68 DePaul 66