Rutgers' defensive improvement under Steve Pikiell comes from matching his energy, intensity
The Rutgers men’s basketball team concluded its regular season in spectacular fashion Saturday, bursting Illinois’ bubble with a dramatic 62-59 win concluded by a late-game winner from captain Deshawn Freeman.
In their first season under head coach Steve Pikiell, the Knights doubled their win total and tripled their Big Ten win total despite owning the second hardest in-conference schedule among its 14 members, according to KenPom.
The correlation comes directly from the injection of life Pikiell brought into the program with his fiery personality.
Looking at the numbers, the Knights actually shot worse than last year — from the floor (.5 percent worse from last year), to the free throw line (six percent worse) and from the perimeter (three percent worse) — where they continued to finish dead-last among Big Ten teams. They also dropped in all but one offensive category (effective field goal percentage, free throw rate, turnover percentage, assist percentage) calculated by KenPom.
But what they lacked in shooting, they made up for with a level of effort that wasn’t present throughout their program-record 17 game losing skid that started Big Ten play last season under Pikiell’s predecessor Eddie Jordan.
Rutgers finished the season first in the Big Ten and third nationally in offensive rebounds per game (14.6) and 10th in the country in total rebounds and offensive rebounding rate — the only KenPom offensive stat they did improve on.
More importantly, though, the Knights quickly and vastly progressed on the defensive end of the floor thanks to an aggressive defensive philosophy. Pikiell’s main defensive set-up is a heavy man-to-man look which will, at times, depending on the flow of the game and situation, convert into a zone, be it a 2-3 or 1-3-1.
But regardless of the style, the way the defense is played is modeled after the two words that 7 of the 16 Knights on the roster used to describe their coach in the team’s media guide — intense and energetic.
“He’s a very energetic coach,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders, who led the team in scoring for the second consecutive season with an average of 13 points per game. “That’s what he brings to the table. Every day in practice, he’s the loudest one, he’s the most intense and he just wants everything to be high-motor, high-speed. … He’s just one of those guys that makes you want to play hard, makes you want to fight for him, go to war with him because he’s got your back.”
The intensity which rarely wavered paid off in the form of a unit that ranked fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (66.9 points against per game) and field goal percentage defense (40.8 percent) and second among conference foes in three point field goal percentage (32.4 percent).
Compare that to a year prior when Rutgers ranked last in scoring defense (80.4 points allowed per game) and rebounding margin (-6.9) by a wide margin and penultimate in field goal percentage against (45.3 percent), and the difference is, well, night and day.
That energy first appeared in preseason practice sessions in October and has extended well into the season on gamedays. Pikiell can be seen patrolling the sidelines when his team is defending on the same side as his bench, walking from one end of it to the other while barking instructions and spreading claps of encouragement.
He was even seen putting his hands up as if he was a sixth defender when the shot clock wound down in a possession early in the first half of Rutgers’ penultimate game of the season against Maryland.
A former point guard himself under Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun at UConn, Pikiell channels his playing days to squeeze out every last ounce of energy he can from his players.
“My mindset in every game is just to get them to compete,” Pikiell told the Daily Targum. “I know our margin for winning and losing is so narrow that every possession matters, every shot matters. Sometimes, I just feed off it. They need some energy, they need me up and on them and other times, they’re kind of ready to go so it just depends on the game and depends on the scouting report and depends on the things we’ve taught them to do and are they doing it or not.
“So I’m one of those guys, I’m ready to play and I want them to be ready to play so I think it’s important for me to be involved in the gameplan.”
Perhaps the player that’s benefited from the transition the most has been junior Mike Williams.
The guard, who has struggled to live up to the reputation of being sharp-shooter he arrived on the Banks with, has had his moments in that aspect, including two huge three-pointers that sparked a 13-3 run to reverse a 10-point deficit against the Illini on Senior Day. But where he’s thrived in during his third season in Piscataway has been in doing the dirty work.
Forced to play extended minutes as a forward last season due to a roster depleted by injury, the 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 5.1 rebounds per game, tied with 7-foot-1 center C.J. Gettys for second on the team behind only Freeman.
Known as “crack-head” among his teammates for his boundless energy and relentless pursuit of rebounds, Williams takes after his coach in the way he plays.
“He matches who I am as a player,” Williams said. “I’m a workhorse, he’s a workhorse and he wants to win so badly and I want to win so badly too so he compliments how I want to play and how I want to be sometimes. If I decide I want to coach, he’s somebody I look up to in that aspect. He’s been great.”
Williams has another year of college eligibility before he thinks about entering the coaching ranks alongside Pikiell, but the same can’t be said about the center he often beats to rebounds.
Gettys, a senior, celebrated the final regular season game of his collegiate career Saturday.
The former UNC-Wilmington Seahawk said he thoroughly enjoyed his single year on the Banks, wishing it would last another year or two. Described as “a little bit of a cult-hero” among the fan base by his head coach, Gettys said if he had to make the decision of where to spend his post-graduate season 100 more times, he’d pick Rutgers “100 out of 100” times.
That decision, he said, came because of Pikiell and the vision he sold him on, one he said is currently in progress. And while Gettys, who set the tone in his first ever practice in Piscataway by diving for loose balls and matching the energy level his final collegiate head coach has come to expect from his players, won’t be around to reap the rewards, he believes Rutgers is headed in the right direction under Pikiell.
Who knows — maybe his final game as a Scarlet Knights, one that will be remembered for a game-winning three but was sealed by one last stop on the defensive end, will be looked back on as the moment his prediction began to prove true.
“He’s great,” Gettys said of Pikiell. “Like I said a long time ago, he brings his own kind of energy. He’s very into it. He’ll go to fight for us every single day of the week and he really gets guys to buy into his program and I think that’s very important in college basketball. You’re going to see this program go places in the future.”