BRISTOL - Steve Pikiell lists the group of team logos clinging to a wall in his New Brunswick, N.J. office. It doesn’t take long for a tired chuckle to escape through the phone.
It’s understandable considering the quality of the teams he has to rattle off: Michigan State, Purdue. Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan.
“It’s the best sports league in the country,” he says, and any conversation about the Big Ten has to start with this who’s-who list of league powers, recent NCAA Tournament championship contenders and national brands.
And then there’s Rutgers.
Comparing the programs side by side is playing a game of “one of these things is not like the other.” Not just because of Rutgers’ lack of basketball prowess or even modest success. Rutgers is also the outlier as the conference’s eastern-most program and if not for Maryland it would be like a lonely peninsula on the banks of the Atlantic coast.
There are arguments of whether the New Jersey school should even be in the Big Ten. But it is, and it’s gone horribly.
Since entering the league in 2014, the Scarlet Knights have been an abysmal 16-76 in Big Ten games, which includes four straight last-place finishes in the 14-team conference and a 12th-place finish in 2018-19.
But there’s a good chance that will change. Beyond just the hopeful feeling guiding most struggling college basketball programs across the country, there’s actual reason to hold that belief. Not the least of which is the leadership of Pikiell, who enters his fourth season as Rutgers’ head coach.
A Bristol native, Pikiell transformed himself from a 1986 St. Paul grad, who remains the boys basketball program’s No. 3 all-time scorer with 1,487 career points and led the Falcons to a Class L runner-up finish as a senior, into a respected college basketball coach amongst his peers after overseeing multiple Division I program restorations.
“I’ve been part of a lot of exciting builds,” Pikiell said. “Every build was different, but they had a lot of the same obstacles.”
Pikiell was on the ground level of one at UConn as a player. The two-year captain and four-year letterwinner was part of the beginning of the Jim Calhoun era, going from last place in the Big East as a freshman to a second-place finish, No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and an Elite Eight appearance as a junior in 1989-90.
As a coach, he has been part of leading two teams (Central Connecticut State and Stony Brook) from the doldrums to the programs’ first NCAA Tournament appearances. Pikiell was a CCSU assistant for Howie Dickenman, improving a 4-22 campaign in 1997-98 to 25-6 two years later, and as head coach at Stony Brook, he won four Coach of the Year awards in the America East Conference after turning the program from perennial loser to four-time league champion.
Pikiell’s success at Stony Brook cannot be overstated. Before he arrived, the program didn’t have much. It only had three winning records in the 14 years prior to his first season in 2005-06, had limited recruiting resources and its facilities were rated toward the bottom of the America East.
Pikiell turned all of those failures and handcuffs around, leading Stony Brook to six campaigns of at least 20 wins in his last seven seasons there. Last September, the program was ranked as having the No. 1 job in the America East by veteran coaches around the nation who were polled in a list compiled by Stadium basketball insider and former ESPN college basketball insider Jeff Goodman.
The transformation of Stony Brook in its recruiting base and facilities was led by Pikiell. Without him, the program would not have had the same successful facelift that it had.
“I’ve been able to do it at a lot of places,” Pikiell said, “and I think all the things I’ve come up against here at Rutgers, I’ve been very fortunate I had gone up against those obstacles at other programs.”
Pkiell’s reformation project at Stony Brook led to him taking a job at a Power 5 conference in 2016 at Rutgers, his most difficult project. He has gone a combined 44-54 in his first three seasons, but now comes perhaps the most important year in the rebuilding process.
Rutgers’ 2019-20 campaign begins this week with fall workouts as a precursor to the program’s most anticipated season since 2013-14, when Rutgers alum and former NBA head coach Eddie Jordan began his short-lived three-year run as head man.
Rutgers started the process of transforming from laughingstock to optimistic rebuild in 2018-19 by matching its Big Ten win total (seven) from the previous three seasons combined, leading to Sports Illustrated naming it the “Most Improved Team” in the country.
“We were in a bad place and now we’ve kind of got this thing moving in a great direction,” said Pikiell, who will soon have a brand new practice facility at his disposal as a selling point to recruits. “Now we have some momentum.”
Leading scorer and rebounder Eugene Omoruyi transferring this offseason was a big blow, and Rutgers will have to find a way to replace that lost production. But after having lost just one other rotation player - Shaquille Doorson, who averaged just 3.7 points - Rutgers adds Stony Brook transfer Akwasi Yeboah, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder at 16.7 points and 7.7 boards.
Pikiell’s squad will also feature a trio of former four-star recruits in junior Mamadou Doucoure, sophomore Montez Mathis and freshman Paul Mulcahy - the first time the program has had multiple four-star players since 2008 - who should help fill the void on a young team that has just two seniors.
Adding in budding players Geo Baker, a junior and the team’s second-leading scorer, and sophomore Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers has its core in place moving forward for this season and next.
It’s a young group that brings defensive versatility, allowing Pikiell to run out different types of lineups during the Big Ten slate. He can put a big lineup on the floor, or go small and fast with guards to pressure the ball.
“Those are things the last couple years I haven’t been able to do,” Pikiell said. “In the first couple years of a rebuild, you don’t have that kind of versatility. You have to play a certain way. I think we have more answers to the problems that the league throws at us. There are a lot of problems. Michigan State’s one of the fastest teams in the country. Wisconsin plays with the slowest pace in the country. You need more tools in your shed to be able to address the problems the league throws at you.”
Rutgers almost certainly will not transform from cellar dweller to a top-four NCAA Tournament seed this season. It might not even make the tournament. But the fact that a trip to the Big Dance is even a discussion point shows the program has made strides.
League coaches have acknowledged Rutgers as a legitimate challenger on a nightly basis, but a top-eight conference finish and becoming a bubble team would be a monumental step forward for Pikiell’s crew - which has a weak non-conference slate to navigate and will probably need to go 9-2 or 10-1 in those games with at least one win over its two toughest out-of-league opponents (Pitt; Seton Hall) to be worthy of an at-large tourney bid.
Combine that with a solid run in Big Ten play, and it could be the first step toward Rutgers finally gaining respect in one of America’s best college basketball conferences, laying the groundwork for the 2020-21 season and enticing one of the six four-star recruits, including four ESPN Top 100 players, who have Rutgers on their list of schools they’re interested in to come to New Jersey.
Getting at least one of those talents would be potentially the final piece in allowing Rutgers to consistently compete in some of the toughest places to play in the country. That includes in the powerhouse homes of Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State - nightly reminders for Pikiell of what it’s going to take for his program to reach the levels he wants it to.
He believes Rutgers can become a perennial NCAA Tournament team. Even if its long track record of losing, including a 28-year NCAA Tournament drought and 13 seasons without a winning record, makes that idea sound far-fetched.
“I have goals in this league,” Pikiell said. “This league has teams compete for a national championship. That’s where we need to get to someday.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com