In the season opening loss on Monday night, Rutgers was out-everything’d by Princeton with the lone exception being fan turnout. The Scarlet Knight supporters showed up and were vocal every opportunity the team gave them to be. Unfortunately, the fan base left Cure Arena bemoaning poorly planned parking, overpriced concessions and worst of all, a subpar effort that resulted in a 68-61 setback.
It was a disappointing debut for head coach Steve Pikiell’s eighth team. Princeton looked every bit the veteran squad they are and that knows how to play together. Rutgers looked like a new team very much still figuring things out.
It started with Pikiell, who distributed minutes and mixed rotations in surprising fashion. True freshman guard Jamichael Davis led Rutgers with 29 minutes played and ran the offense a good portion of the game. The more heralded freshman, Gavin Griffiths played a team low 13 minutes of the nine players that got onto the court. The rest of the bench got big minutes as Austin Williams played 27 minutes and Oskar Palmquist played 23 minutes. They were both on the court down the stretch with the game on the line. Antwone Woolfolk played 19 meaningful minutes as well. All four bench players added something in this game and gave Rutgers a lift at times. But it wasn’t enough.
What stuck out was Pikiell continuing to stick with the bench in the second half. Derek Simpson, Aundre Hyatt and Griffiths all played six or less minutes after halftime. They all struggled when they were on the court and Pikiell opted to stick with the players who were most productive early on.
“When we start down, we need a spark from the bench,” Pikiell explained. “I really like the depth of this team and we get a lot of good stuff from the guys on this bench. I was looking at our plus-minuses too and there were a lot of difficult matchups. We’re going to play a lot of guys, up tempo and continue to use our bench. Hopefully it grows too as the season goes on.”
It was only the first game of the season, but a clear message was sent to his team.
More depth means more competition for minutes. If a starter plays poorly early on in the game, there is someone on the bench capable of replacing you. This can be a positive, but it can also be a difficult thing to balance. And things will change again once Mawot Mag ultimately returns to the lineup.
How Pikiell manages lineups and rotations is going to be fascinating to watch. The reliable cogs from the rebuild who played 30+ minutes on a regular basis are gone. Even Cliff Omoruyi, the program’s best player, was on the bench for more than expected in logging 27 minutes.
Rutgers went big at times, small at other stages. Cliff and Wolf on the floor together at one point. Three guards in Noah Fernandes, Williams and Davis played the majority of the second half together.
Having versatility with lineups in matching up in different ways against opponents can be valuable, but its a delicate needle to thread.
Pikiell liked what they got from Fernandes, but the veteran is still finding his role as a floor general with a new team.
“We need him to talk some more and be more verbal, but I really like our backcourt,” Pikiell said. “We have different guys who can be different pieces, we just have to blend it together.”
Keeping guys focused and positive after sitting for long stretches will test any coach. Depth is great to have, but managing it is a challenge in and of itself.
“Jamichael Davis has been great on the defensive end and I thought our defense needed some speed and impression. Derek [Simpson] plays a lot and I want to rotate all of our guys. Austin [Williams] was the best matchup for Allocco and it was important for us to play him too. Every game you will see a different guy and I really like this group,” Pikiell explained. “[Antonio] Chol didn’t get in this game and I told him he’s going to have games where he makes a huge impact. It’s early in the season and we still need to figure it out a bit. We just tried to ride the guy that we thought was better on defense.”
It’s early November and it’s unfair to expect this new look team to have things figured out. They fought back and played hard, but the execution was not good. Too many defensive breakdowns, missed layups and it felt like Rutgers lost almost every battle for loose balls. A reality check on day one can serve this team well. However, its up to the players to embrace the shortcomings and the competition internally to get better. If they can push each other to improve and form a cohesiveness among the depth that exists, Rutgers will benefit in the long run. On the flip side, chemistry is always tested once games are played and minutes are up for grabs.
This is a challenge Pikiell hasn’t really had to manage in a few seasons. How he handles it will be a major key to the level of success this team ultimately has. If game one was any indication, every minute will be earned but figuring out the right mix of players within the rotation is going to take time.