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With Steve Pikiell, Rutgers earns respect on and off the court



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

Rutgers saw its five game winning streak end in a 76-65 loss to Iowa on Sunday. Even so, it was still a positive week overall for the program. The Scarlet Knights earned the biggest road win in program history and in all of college basketball this season in defeating No. 1 Purdue 65-64 last Monday. They followed that up with a 64-50 win over Maryland last Thursday. Despite the loss to the Hawkeyes, RU is off to a 3-2 start in Big Ten play.

As of Tuesday morning, Rutgers is No. 21 in the NET rankings and No. 16 in KenPom efficiency ratings. Their strong analytics, including No. 3 nationally in defensive efficiency, as well as how hard they play, has earned them plenty of national praise this past week. The win over No. 1 Purdue on the road opened eyes that this program is continuing to develop.

Off the court, the program has always led by example under head coach Steve Pikiell. They’ve excelled academically throughout his tenure. Players have been involved with social change issues through the years as Pikiell supported their freedom of expression. There are many examples.

Geo Baker helped lead the fight for student-athlete rights regarding name, image, and likeness. Myles Johnson started BLKdev, a non-profit organization to provide scholarships and networking opportunities to black students interested in STEM. Cliff Omoruyi held a shoe drive for his native country Nigeria. Paul Mulcahy started the Grateful4 Foundation to spread gratitude and inspire selfless acts. As a team, they participate annually in the Tunnel To Towers 5K and also regularly visit RWJBarnabas hospital. In addition, the program held an exhibition to benefit the Eric LeGrand Foundation before this season. There are so many examples, I’m worried I missed some.

Rutgers has not only won games at a high level under Pikiell, they’ve won off the court at a high level as well. It makes them easy to root for.

That leads to this past Sunday and Iowa. Recently, third leading scorer Patrick McCaffery took an indefinite leave of absence due to anxiety. The son of head coach Fran McCaffery is a pediatric cancer survivor. He recovered from Thyroid cancer as a teenager but has to properly monitor himself years later. Patrick cited issues that “has affected (his) sleep, appetite, and stamina and has resulted in not having the energy level necessary to compete at (his) full capabilities.”

The Iowa program and the McCaffery family have received an outpouring of support since Patrick announced the move last week. After Iowa’s win on Sunday, Patrick’s father made a point to thank Rutgers for the support they’ve shown.

“I just want to say what a class operation Rutgers is,” McCaffery said. “Over the years, I’ve become friends with Pat Hobbs and (Rutgers coach) Steve Pikiell — I coached against him when he was playing. Pat came by practice yesterday to offer his well wishes for my Patrick. And the Rutgers basketball team filled out a card to wish him luck with what he is going through. I don’t know how many programs would do that. That speaks to Pat Hobbs and Steve Pikiell. So I just wanted to say that.”

He added, “We’re supposed to hate each other, I guess, but that’s not the way it is. We’re competitors when we’re playing, but we’re all in this thing together. We’re all in this journey together.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of watching Rutgers men’s basketball become a successful program under Steve Pikiell is the way he leads. He has repeatedly worked to build a community at Rutgers that supports his team, all other teams within the athletic department and the university as a whole.  His character and empathy has influenced all those who play and work for him.

“Well, first of all, Coach McCaffery and his family, those kids play so hard, I need four more kids like that in my family,” Pikiell said when asked about his team’s support of Patrick McCaffery. “College basketball is tough, it is. What these kids go through, and if you heard some of the messages that kids get, I mean. He’s a great kid, he’s a great student, he’s a great basketball player. The things that they have to deal with mentally are just real tough and I have a ton of sympathy.”

Pikiell has always focused on finding players that fit the culture he wants and has cultivated at Rutgers. It’s been about supporting student-athletes who work hard on the court and academically while trying to make the community a better place. But with those demands comes Pikiell’s full support and understanding.

“Mental health is so important,” Pikiell emphasized. “These kids come out every day. These guys were in the gym this morning at 7:30 getting shots up. We watched film the other night until whatever time. (I) just root for these kids, that’s what I do. For what the McCaffery’s are going through – I just want him to be better and to have fun playing basketball. And I want that for all the players, it’s a special time in your life and if you’re not bogged down with the mental stress of all that stuff.”

Pikiell went on to highlight the pressure and negative things that players have to deal with today, especially on social media.

“If you ever saw some of the things that I read that these guys share with me, it’s tough,” he explained. “I feel for them mentally as they’re enjoying college and learning how to be an adult and making great decisions. Trying to figure out what you’re going to major in and for all those different things. And then you’ve got the weight of the world sometimes on you, too. I just hope he (McCaffery) gets better and that it was just something little. I really root for kids, root for kids in this league, root for kids that are playing college athletics. (And) I want that for my son to enjoy college and not worry. You can’t play every game great and you’re going to have some tough days. And you just move on from it.”

Lastly, he brought the focus back to Patrick McCaffery and his recovery.

“I’m just rooting for him, I’m really just rooting for him,” Pikiell echoed. “I want him to get back and healthy and feel good about what he’s done because he’s a special, special young man playing basketball in this league.”

Rutgers didn’t beat Iowa on Sunday, ending a five game winning streak. But the way the program showed class and grace towards an opponent in a moment of need is much more important in the long run. We can all learn from examples like this. The world is a tumultuous and unforgiving place at times. Finding peace in it is easier said than done for most people, especially in recent years.

The culture that Pikiell has built within Rutgers men’s basketball is about winning on the court as well as off it, but in doing it the right way. His teams could not play as hard and be as connected as they have been if they didn’t believe in their coach and his values. It’s more than just about basketball at Rutgers and that’s because of the quality of a person and coach that Steve Pikiell is. After years of losing and scandals within this program before his arrival, there is no better leader for Rutgers basketball than him.

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  1. Tony Maggio

    January 10, 2023 at 3:56 pm

    I know it must be hard for players to read that crap but they must remember they are written by some ass sitting in his basement playing with himself. You guys are a class act as are your coaches. By the way when is coach getting his well deserved extension along with helfty raises for his assistants?

    • Aaron Breitman

      January 10, 2023 at 4:27 pm

      I’m with you Tony. As for the raises and extensions, Pikiell and Knight did get them at the end of last season. Not sure about Hobbs and Thompson I have to check.

  2. pj43

    January 11, 2023 at 3:35 am

    Rutgers struck gold with Steve Pikiell’s hire and Hobbs deserves full credit. Pikiell is demonstrating how a program can not only develop into a winner but how it can also be a positive credit to the university it represents. He’s doing it the right way and it’s being noticed outside the Rutgers family. You have to believe that the best is yet to come.

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