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Steve Pikiell sends message to his team in loss to Princeton

Rutgers utilized its bench more than its starters in the season opener.



Photo credit Tanya Breen / USA TODAY NETWORK

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.

The Scarlet Faithful is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering Rutgers Athletics owned and operated by co-founder Aaron Breitman. He has been a fan of Rutgers sports since the 1980’s, is a 2000 graduate of Rutgers College and has covered Rutgers athletics since 2015. Aaron is a credentialed media member for the athletic department and a voting member for Big Ten basketball. The Scarlet Faithful provides original content with articles, podcasts and video analysis on a daily basis.



  1. thevinman

    November 7, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    Simpson looked a bit lost and frustrated. Om the plus side, I thought Palmquist and Woolfolk did good jobs. Davis played tough and aggressive but seemed a bit out of control at times. Cliff looked like Cliff but I was hoping he would show a bit more improvement on his shot making near the basket.

    • BataliBoli98

      November 7, 2023 at 8:13 pm

      I thought the same exact thing regarding Cliff. All too often he establishes post position too far from the basket and relies on 7 to 8 foot hook shots that are not easy. Against Princeton I was disappointed that he wasn’t better able to set up shop much deeper in the post. This also then gives him the option of using something other than a hook. His best move of the night was the Kevin McHale esque up and under the basket. That was enabled by great post position. Simpson looked like he was trying to do too much, Palm is a strong shooter and you can never have enough of them. It’s a huge reason why Princeton won the game. As for Woolfolk, how he only played 18 minutes is beyond me.

  2. BataliBoli98

    November 7, 2023 at 8:06 pm

    I’m an enormous Coach Pikiell fan and have been saying for years that he could ultimately be our Coach Calhoun. That said, his game management last night was really odd. Build chemistry and work on rotations against the Q4 teams upcoming at home but against Princeton it was purely about winning the game. Cliff’s 27 minutes made zero sense. I know that Simpson looked completely out of sorts in the first half but I’d still rather have him on the floor in the last ten minutes than Davis who, when the game slowed down, gave them very little. Mag is out, Hyatt was off, and still Chol doesn’t get any minutes. That is a bad sign for what they expect to get from him. I know that Palmquist played well, on offense, but why he got five more minutes than Wolf is very strange. Based on what I saw last night, I think that this team will need to play more like a modern Big East team. I think this should be embraced. I’m not even talking about Nova or UCONN. Watch Marquette, Butler, St. John’s, etc. play. They typically play an open, sometimes frenetic, style of attacking the basket and kicking out for open 3s. They look to run at every opportunity and are guard heavy. BTW, the type of team that almost always takes out the B1G in the opening rounds of the tourney every year. Play to your strength and run! Go Ru!

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