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Pikiell's impact on program evident in 4th year at Rutgers

 – Photo by Dustin Niles

When head basketball coach Steve Pikiell of the Rutgers men’s basketball team first came to coach the Scarlet Knights (17-8, 8-6) in 2016, the program was coming off a year that saw it post a 7-25 overall record with a 1-17 mark in the conference.

Rutgers had also just completed its 10th-straight losing season, with the Knights finishing the 2015-16 campaign averaging 67.7 points per game (PPG), shooting 42 percent from the field, 32 percent from three and averaging approximately 35 rebounds per game.

Pikiell would have his work cut out for him if Rutgers was going to progress from a basement-dwelling team into one worthy of being included in NCAA Tournament discussions. He seemed to always know, though, that success with the program would one day come.

"Rutgers has all the ingredients - great location, great University, great people and a great conference," Pikiell said before starting his first season on the Banks. "When evaluating the position, it checked all the boxes for me. I look forward to building a program that the Rutgers community will be proud of." 

Beginning his work in the 2016-17 season, Pikiell coached only one player that is still currently with the Knights: junior guard Joey Downes.

Downes, who redshirted that season and has totaled 19 minutes of action since then, was surrounded by a group of players that included Corey Sanders, Nigel Johnson, Deshawn Freeman and Mike Williams. The four were part of an offense that averaged 65.5 PPG and shot 41 percent from the field with a 30 percent mark from beyond.

With those numbers being modest regressions from each category in the previous season, the first year of Pikiell’s tenure on the Banks ended in a disappointing 15-18 overall finish, with just three of those wins coming in the Big Ten.

Though the following year didn’t go much better, as Rutgers ended the 2017-18 season with a 15-19 overall record, Pikiell began to lay the foundation for the future success of his program.

Junior guard Geo Baker, sophomore forward Mamadou Doucoure and sophomore center Myles Johnson all joined the team, with Baker and Doucoure each starting in a total of 29 games that year. Johnson participated in team activities, but ended up redshirting the year. 

The next season, the Knights’ core under Pikiell began to take form.

Sophomore guards Caleb McConnell, Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. all joined the team as true freshman in 2018, with junior guard Jacob Young also joining Rutgers as a transfer after spending two years at Texas. Senior forward Shaq Carter was another player that came to the Knights last season, appearing in 28 games with five starts for his team.

Rutgers ended the year with a 7-13 record in the Big Ten and in possession of its most wins in conference play since the 2005-06 season. 

Prior to the start of this season, Pikiell was able to recruit a number of different players, including graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah from Stony Brook and true freshman guard Paul Mulcahy out of Gill St. Bernard’s.

Since then, the Knights have played to a 17-8 overall record with an 8-6 mark in the conference. Their eight wins in the Big Ten are the most since joining it in 2014, and the team has been able to play to a 16-0 record at home. 

Pikiell has been able to give the fans on the Banks something to root for when it comes to men’s basketball and has also proven to be successful in his attempts to construct a core capable of having success on a national stage. 

Rutgers was ranked this season for the first time in 41 years, and although it has recently fallen out of the AP Top 25 Poll, the team’s ability to appear in it for two weeks this year is a testament to just how far the Knights have come since Pikiell’s arrival.

Rutgers currently has six more regular season games on its schedule after its loss to Ohio State last night, and Pikiell will still have the chance to show the potential of his program to the league before the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments roll around next month.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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