Rutgers hopes improved team chemistry leads to on-court success
While last season was not a disappointing one for the Rutgers men's basketball team, it was the first one under head coach Steve Pikiell, and the Scarlet Knights experienced some growing pains.
But in Pikiell's second year at the helm, the players are all noticing a change in team chemistry and an increased feeling of brotherhood surrounding the program.
Freshman guard Geo Baker, who is in his first year with the program, said that despite not being with the group a season ago, he could notice the team chemistry was not totally there.
But in his first year, he has seen the roster of 14 players grow closer and create a better team environment.
"Just watching the games last year, you could tell the chemistry was a little off. This year, the fit is perfect," he said. "It's more of a brotherhood. We just do little stuff together that they may not have done last year so I think that's really helped transition to our chemistry on the court."
Sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi has noticed changes in the relationships between players as well, alluding to the improved communication within the team.
"Everybody's together ... we're all together," he said. "We have our group chats and we're always communicating with each other."
It also helps that the two captains — senior forward Deshawn Freeman and senior guard Mike Williams — return as the distinguished team leaders. Players like junior guard Corey Sanders, entering his third season as the starting point guard, and senior guard Jake Dadika also exemplify the wealth of experience Pikiell has.
When Pikiell took the job, he established a team identity of relentless defense and rebounding, two aspects of the game that do not require as much athleticism or skill as it does effort. Freeman and Williams bought into that philosophy quickly and became the example for the rest of the team on the types of players Pikiell wants in his program.
And when you think of players that fit that mold of tough and gritty, the aforementioned Dadika comes to mind. A senior-to-be and walk-on, he proved that Pikiell will not hesitate to take star players off the floor if he is unhappy with their effort.
In two of Rutgers' Big Ten wins last season, Dadika surprisingly checked in when Sanders and then-starting guard Nigel Johnson were not playing to their full potential. His job was to calm the tempo of the game and control the offense for a few minutes, which proved to be valuable, as it was a move by Pikiell that led to a victory.
Dadika echoed the sentiment that with Pikiell in charge for a second consecutive year, the team chemistry is better than ever.
"I think it's better now," Dadika said. "We've had some players that have been here a while. We really bonded well. In the summer we all bonded together (because) we're almost the only ones (on campus)."
A key to their chemistry is the mentoring and the bonding between the newcomers and veterans of the team. Baker noted that the older guys on the team took him under their wings and helped him transition from high school to college.
With last season having so many close games that didn't go the Knights' way, the improved chemistry between the players could lead to more successful outcomes for the team and be the difference in nail-biters down the stretch.
"I think we just have a better connection. Even the freshmen and younger kids have stepped right in and just connected," Dadika said. "The chemistry's great and I think it's gonna show on the floor."