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Following the toughest 48 hours of the Steve Pikiell era, it’s clear the program is on solid footing



Photo credit Jerry Carino / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tuesday night’s 88-86 overtime loss to Hofstra in the first round of the NIT was a classic stomach punch defeat. It ended a season that played like a Disney movie two-thirds of the way before turning into a horror film. After a 16-7 start, Rutgers finished the season 3-8. It resulted in not being selected to the NCAA Tournament, something that felt impossible over a month ago. The ending marked the toughest 48 hours of the Steve Pikiell era.

After the heartbreak of not punching their dance ticket and becoming a historic snub per statistical data, Rutgers had a choice. They could lay down in the NIT or keep fighting. While their defense was well below their own standard on Tuesday night, there was denying the effort was there. It was a bitter loss, but RU went down swinging.

“I was worried (after Selection Sunday) and they came ready to play,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said. “It was a great college basketball game, I know we didn’t win, I understand that, but for these guys, a huge thank you. I love this team. I know we didn’t win enough games, I got all that, but this team has been unbelievable to coach, and that’s the sad thing, that I won’t be able to keep coaching them.”

Pikiell was as emotional as he’s ever been in a postgame press conference. Each of the last three seasons marked gut wrenching losses. That’s a product of being a successful program. Endings are always more painful when more is on the line.

“It’s the journey of the season,” Pikiell said. “Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. Sometimes you’ve got injuries, sometimes you’ve got guys going through different issues. They’re young and they’ve got a lot of things coming at them. I love the journey always, I appreciate the journey. If you saw these guys when they first arrived on campus to now, we got knocked down and we kept getting back up no matter what the outcome was. They just kept staying together.”

There is no better example in Pikiell’s ability to develop players than Caleb McConnell. The former 3-star recruit was ranked 344th in the class of 2018. He held offers from multiple MAC schools and a handful of others. Rutgers discovered him by accident, gave him an opportunity and McConnell made the most of it. On the day the two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was named one of four finalists for National Defensive Player of the Year, McConnell became the program’s all-time steals leader in passing Rutgers great Eddie Jordan.

“It’s all love, man,” McConnell regarding his relationship with Pikiell. “And I know no matter what, on and off the court, Coach Pikiell has our back. Anybody could vouch, no matter whether they played one year, two years or all four here. The things that Pike has done for this school is amazing. I was telling (athletic director) Pat Hobbs he got the right coach for sure. It’s not every time you get a coach that cares and a coach that can turn around a university, keep it there and put it on a pedestal. I have all the love for him, and he knows that. I know y’all give him a lot of hurt, but he takes everything on the chin for us. It don’t matter if Paul has 10 turnovers or I’m 0-for-15, Pikiell’s gonna find a way to make it his fault.”

In regard to being atop the program’s record book in steals, McConnell said, “I’m lucky, to do that at a school like this. I’m blessed to be able to stamp my name forever at Rutgers. This place is definitely home.”

McConnell’s success came from him embracing the identity of the program and his coach. A role player in the early part of his career, McConnell developed into an elite defender. His work ethic, ability to play through injuries, and unselfishness willed him to a standout career at Rutgers.

“Caleb came to me young, wasn’t quite sure of himself, leaves here our all-time steals leader, graduates, is unbelievable in the community. This kid comes every day. Four surgeries, the bad back,” Pikiell said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him. Will leave here as one of the great winners and one of the all-time great defenders.”

Paul Mulcahy was equally emotional in the season ending press conference. Whether he returns for next season for his last year of eligibility remains to be seen. He said before Senior Night that he will decide after the season. However, he didn’t hold back on his feelings regarding the program’s leader.

“Pike’s is the best coach in the country,” Mulcahy echoed. “Incredible person. You play whenever for him, he’s got you for life. He believed in me when a lot of other people didn’t, and has taken a lot of heat because of me. He deserves all the things that he works for, better than this, but he’s gonna get us to higher places. I’m so thankful that I got to play for him. You guys give him heat and he takes it every single time, but I’m just so grateful for him.”

McConnell and Mulcahy, along with several others, most notably Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., changed the culture at Rutgers. They believed in Pikiell’s vision and helped turn the program into a winner.

“When these guys came to our program, we didn’t have a winning season four years ago,” Pikiell said matter of factly. “There were no sellouts, there was no practice facility. These guys, for four years, they’ve done nothing but win. Caleb’s the national defensive player of the year, came to me young, he wasn’t sure of himself. He leaves here the all-time leading steals guy. If you saw what I saw every day for five years, he’s just done unbelievable. I couldn’t be more proud of him. When Paul came here, we didn’t have a winning record. One of the leading assist guys in the country, he came here and just wins.”

Recruits want to win and want to develop in hopes of playing professionally after college. But with the business of college basketball and the transfer portal blurring and shortening relationships, Pikiell’s authenticity stands out. McConnell and Mulcahy made that part clear as has the fact that almost all of the core players in recent years have stayed.

“When you don’t get to coach them anymore, and I’m going to miss these guys next year, it’s a sad day for a coach,” explained Pikiell. “When you start recruiting these guys as young high school players, and then they come here and what they’ve done for us, it’s just been tremendous. I am emotional, I don’t like when the season ends. I just wanted to keep coaching this group.”

The genuine nature of Pikiell is why his best players have continued to stick with the program their entire careers. He spoke about what comes next with the season over. As always, he made it clear he’s putting his players first.

“Every one of these guys had places that they could go and had people probably reaching out to them,” he said. “They all stayed and they continued the journey here. We’ll sit down with guys, but players have a ton of choices, I understand that. But they’ll make great choices for themselves.”

“For me, it’s not defense or accolades,” exclaimed McConnell. “We talk about these kids going to all these other schools, and like Coach Pikiell said, I had plenty of choices to go anywhere. I chose the best place, I chose the best coach. I met great people, great family. I’m just thankful, very thankful.”

Pikiell wasn’t hiding behind the disappointment of the season, but rather shining the light on how much his players have given.

“We’ve raised expectations here, and they have,” he said of his players. “With that comes attention and comes scrutiny, and I’m proud of the way they handled it.”

He added, “I know it wasn’t the win total that everyone wanted, but you know I’m proud of this group and it is tough. It’s a tough day when you end the season with a great group of guys. They left it all on the court. Give Hofstra credit. They got us by one possession, but it was a great college basketball game in a great environment.”

“It’s hard, because this is it for me,” McConnell said. “This program is left in great hands,” he said. “I know (Pikiell) is going to get more great kids in here. I can’t wait to see what this program is going to be like.”

In the end, this team fell short of their own expectations, in addition to the fans. It was a disappointing finish to a season that had so much promise. Pikiell took accountability while praising his players in multiple ways.

“I take the Ls, I take all of them. They win games. Players win games, and these guys have done nothing but win…off the court, on the court,” explained Pikiell.

He continued to praise McConnell and Mulcahy for all of their contributions.

“We had no success in the Big Ten before they arrived, and they’ve had tremendous success. I’m just so proud of them for how they’ve handled themselves, with class. These guys have started a standard here, and if you’ve ever gone through what we’ve gone through in the last five years, you would really understand. When we got knocked down, they got up every time.”

While the disappointment of how the season ended is upsetting, it shouldn’t cloud the fact that the program is in a strong position moving forward. A full evaluation is needed, including restructuring the roster and offensive philosophy as two examples. However, the final press conference of the season reaffirmed that the culture remains strong. The core group that turned Rutgers into a winning program with Pikiell all have been effusive in their praise of him. In the process, they’ve given him more to offer on the recruiting trail.

“I wasn’t selling what we’re selling right now when I went to visit with these guys. It was not like that,” Pikiell pointed out. “We had not had a winning season in a long time, we were 3-33 in the Big Ten, and these guys believed in us. They fought through COVID, too. They did all that, and they just kept doing all the right things. One thing about coaching that you can’t get from articles, it’s how you see them grow and how they treat my son, people around them. I wish you guys could really understand. We wanted to build a family seven years ago, and these become such a part of the family, and they come back. Ron Harper comes back and Geo comes back, and Myles Johnson comes back. I just couldn’t be more proud. It wasn’t like that, and that’s what makes a good basketball program. I’m just very thankful.”

There is plenty of work to be done to elevate the program to a level Pikiell, the players and the fan base both want and believe it should be at. But you can’t get to that level without a strong foundation in place. After the hardest 48 hours of the Steve Pikiell era from the disappointment of Selection Sunday to stomach punch loss, it’s clear the program is on solid footing. You can’t fake what unfolded in the postgame press conference. Having your best players heap praise in such an emotional way should resonate with anyone that cares about the program. Now it’s time for Rutgers to take another step forward and Pikiell will do that with a strong recruiting pitch from his own players.

You can watch the postgame press conference here:

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  1. pj43

    March 15, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    Well, I suppose it was only fitting – a frustrating end to a frustrating season.  For once, the officiating favored Rutgers but neither the officiating nor the home crowd support could save the day.  Now that the season is over, I’d like to get this opinion out of my system knowing that it may be controversial with many Rutgers followers & supporters. 

    After 7 seasons, it’s time for Pikiell to deal with the half court offensive deficiencies that have kept this team from reaching the next level.  The inability to sustain & build on a lead after a fast start, the all too frequent inability keep a lead and close out a game, the inability to control tempo on offense to maximize elite defense have been evident, as I see it. Some will argue that the personnel is/has been lacking in offensive talent.  I disagree.  For me, it’s been a lack of a consistent half court offensive structure.  There have been times when the ball moves and players move with urgency without the ball and it resulted in good looks that were converted.  Other times, there’s been a  lack of reaction and movement followed by a breakdown leading to a poor shot selection as the clock ran down.  So, I believe Pikiell has to either a) bring in a demonstrated, experienced offensive minded asst coach who can implement an offensive system compatible to the personnel, or b) bring in a “consultant” to analyze and recommend the most suitable offensive system for the personnel that Pikiell is recruiting & show this present coaching staff how to go abour implementing it.  Either way, to my way of thinking, while this present staff has been outstanding implementing a first class defensive system and mind set, it’s time to recognize the need to complement that defense with a respectable offense.  

    • pj43

      March 15, 2023 at 3:49 pm

      Consider Northwestern.  Coming into this season, Chris Collins felt his offense was good enough but his defense was holding the program back.  He hired Chris Lowery to install a defense. The result was 2nd place in the Big Ten regular season standings and an NCAA tournament bid. This was after being picked last in the preseason.
      I’ve been moaning about the half court offense for years and I’ve heard all the  explanations, including this being the best team with the best offensive potential, so just you wait.  I’m still waiting.  It’s past time for Pikiell to acknowledge the need for help on the offensive side of the court.  Coaches never stop learning as they evolve and the great ones recognize and address a need for necessary change(s).  Pikiell is a very good head coach who has done a fantastic job building this program the right way.  I want him to stay at Rutgers!  But, the  time is now to take the program to the next level.  

  2. pj43

    March 15, 2023 at 6:16 pm

    Aaron, thanks for the great coverage on this website andr you insights throughout the season. On to spring sports!

    • Biochemist01

      March 16, 2023 at 1:37 am

      Agree – Outstanding work Aaron as usual.

      • Aaron Breitman

        March 16, 2023 at 2:22 pm

        Thank you both.

  3. Biochemist01

    March 16, 2023 at 1:38 am

    I would personally like to thank the players, coaches, and staff for a great season of tremendous accomplishments. The team played hard and with determination all season. Unfortunately the season did not end as we all had hoped for, but it was still a successful season. I wish everyone a hard earned relaxing and refreshing off season. These players, coaches, and staff have rewritten Rutgers basketball history. The future is very bright built on the foundation of their accomplishments over the past 4 years.

  4. BataliBoli98

    March 17, 2023 at 12:38 am

    In so many ways, it felt like three seasons rolled into one. The roster makeup for next season is going to be fascinating. Here are some of the things that I am looking at:
    1) I think what Cliff decides to do is very interesting. I think that we all agree that he not yet, and may never become, and NBA caliber player but does he decide to play full time in the G-League? If he leaves does, a guy like Cam could consider a program that would give him a legit shot at a run at the Final Four.
    2) Does Mulcahy stay with a likely lesser role? Assuming Cam does stay, I like a Simpson, Spencer, Griffiths combination which leaves Mulcahy coming off of the bench.
    3) What does Pikiell prioritize in the portal? Obviously, a lot of this will be driven by what Cliff decides but I think that we all agree that RU needs an infusion of speed and another shooter.
    4) Interesting decisions for Palmquist, Hyatt, Miller, and Reiber.

    The one known is that Caleb’s drive, moxie, and talent will not be at RU next year. I cannot thank him enough for representing RU on and off the court in a way that we can all appreciate.

  5. thevinman

    March 17, 2023 at 6:10 am

    Cliff is a physical freak but his offensive game is so bad I doubt he even goes to he G league. He should study film of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and learn how to make a hook shot.

  6. thevinman

    March 17, 2023 at 6:13 am

    We are now a middle of the pack Big Ten team. Considering where we were when coach Pikiell was hired, that is an amazing improvement. Many thanks to the kids whose efforts made this season such a wild ride.

    We have some talent but not enough talent or depth to be a top team. We can beat top teams and lose to bottom teams. While that can be exhilarating it can also be frustrating and agonizing.

    Do I want us to be a top team? Damn right I do but it will take more time. I am willing to wait and ride the roller coaster in the meantime. I will keep plenty of alcohol and antacids on hand so I can make it through the next few seasons.

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