Rutgers begins season, Pikiell era at home against Molloy
Friday night can’t come soon enough for Corey Sanders.
The high school phenom lived up to the hype in his freshman year of college, leading the Rutgers men’s basketball team and all Big Ten first-year players in nearly every statistical category. He was one of two freshman in the country to average at least 15.9 points, 4.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game, with the other being then-LSU power forward and current Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons, a generational talent many have compared to 4-time NBA MVP LeBron James.
But the Scarlet Knights were unable to keep up with their phenomenal first-year as a collective, ending their third and final season under former-head coach Eddie Jordan with a 7-25 record that consisted of just one conference win in the regular season and a 17-game losing streak.
Now, 252 days after walking off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse following the season-ending loss to Nebraska in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, Sanders will return to the Rutgers Athletic Center to do what he does best.
“I’m so ready, I’m so anxious … just to get back out there,” Sanders said. “Last year was hard for us and I just see so many things we’ve improved on … everything’s just so new so I just feel like I’m ready to get back out there and start it.”
The Lakeland, Florida, native is a familiar face for fans of a program in the midst of sweeping change.
Out went Greg Lewis, Omari Grier and Bishop Daniels to graduation, D.J. Foreman to transfer and Jordan to a firing. In came six new scholarship players to join the five who remained to play under a new coaching staff with a mission to lead the Knights out of the basement of the Big Ten.
Division III program Molloy College will serve as the first test for head coach Steve Pikiell as he works to change everything in Piscataway, from the work ethic of the team — something he said he wasn’t sure it had when he first arrived — to the way Rutgers play on the court.
The former Stony Brook head coach is yet to be satisfied with any area of the Knights’ game, said it still has every kink to work out with the regular season fast approaching. Approaching the first game as a guaranteed win because of the level of the opponent would be a death sentence for Rutgers, a team that entered halftime tied at 42 with Division III Rutgers-Newark in its last season-opener.
“We’re not a program in any place to overlook anybody, so they’ll know that,” Pikiell said. “We’re playing against Rutgers too. We’re never worried about the other team. We’re worried about us and playing the right way and doing those kinds of things.”
Pikiell said the coaching staff is working out bench rotations at the moment, with a starting line-up of Sanders, freshman Issa Thiam, sophomore Jonathan Laurent, junior Deshawn Freeman and graduate transfer C.J. Gettys set for Friday.
Though a majority of the line-up features familiar faces, Sanders is the only 1 of the 3 who regularly played the position he’s in last season.
Due to a plague of injuries that struck the Knights, Laurent, a 6-foot-6 small forward, was forced to spend a large portions of games during much of the season at center.
“It was a tough year. You had stretches where you just looked at it, you just reflect on yourself like ‘how did I even get here and how was I even playing the five at a Big Ten school,” he said. “Had some tough moments, was down on myself, didn’t believe in myself at times, but you know, just had to fight through it and get to the struggle.”
A wing by trade, Laurent said Pikiell worked him at both the 2 and the 3 spots, depending on who was on the floor at the time.
In his natural position, Freeman will return to action after missing all of Big Ten play with a knee injury that forced him to miss the final 25 games of the season.
Fully healthy and 12 pounds lighter, the former Hutchinson Community College standout had earned the starting spot earlier than most. Pikiell has two spots reserved in his line-up for his best defender and rebounder, the latter a category Freeman was “by far” the best at.
As for the newcomers, Thiam snagged the starting shooting guard spot from junior Nigel Johnson, who seemed destined for the spot while he waited on the wings all of last season after transferring from Kansas State. But while all positions were open, they weren’t given but earned, something Thiam managed to do with his touch from the outside.
“He’s the best shooter in the program that doesn’t have a lot of them,” Pikiell said of Thiam. “There were five positions open and ... they all earned it … and now they gotta keep it, because there’s guys behind them that want to play to. So I like that kind of competition too.”
Gettys, a 7-foot-1 transfer from UNC-Wilmington with a wealth of experience to offer, fills the final vacancy in the line-up at center. After spending his collegiate career in a mid-major, the Columbus, Ohio, native is excited to make his debut at a power five school.
“It’s definitely been a great experience,” Gettys said of his time in Piscataway. “I’ve grown to love these guys just as much as I did my old teammates. Great group of guys. I think the new coaching staff has brought in a new culture and I think we can expect to see this program turnaround.”
But before the culture can change and the program reaches the heights its fans hopes Pikiell can take them to, it has to win its first game.
“Every game’s important. I just want us to play well. It’s gonna be a long journey here. We got a lot of new personnel, we’re figuring out a lot of different things, but you know, always important to win home games. I want to build this home court advantage here at the RAC.”