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Buying into Pikiell's philosophy proves key for Rutgers

Despite his team not having nearly the same amount of talent as the rest of the Big Ten, Rutgers head men's basketball coach Steve Pikiell was able to produce four conference wins a year ago, due to the toughness and work ethic of his team.

And while it may sound like a cliche, it doesn't take natural talent to work hard, rebound or play defense. That is the identity that Pikiell has instilled within the program, and it is the reason the team was able to more than double the Knights's win total in his first year on the Banks.

From that team, the second-year head coach returns just about everybody, and the players have improved, at that. The team is on a different level physically than last season and has postseason aspirations.

"The guys that have come back are better," Pikiell said. "Every guy that has returned is a little bit better."

That includes returning captains in guard Mike Williams and forward Deshawn Freeman, as well as junior guard Corey Sanders.

It was clear that the buy-in those players showed last season translated to the rest of the team. A second consecutive year of that performance has yielded improved size and athleticism, as well as better team chemistry — a characteristic that could be crucial to its success this season.

"I want them to take them to next level," Pikiell said. "(I want them to) be elite leaders and be elite level practice guys. They've improved a lot. They've been in the gym more, they've been in the weight room more."

The off-court work that the whole program has put in, from the weight room to simply hanging out together, represents extra time the team puts in that it may not have had before Pikiell arrived. But Pikiell has his players doing everything right, which has clearly translated into success on the court.

And when you look at the newcomers to the program, specifically guard Geo Baker and center Mamadou Doucoure, you are looking at two players who have immediately latched onto Pikiell's coaching philosophy and will both likely be starting the first game of the season on Friday.

"We've added more athleticism and depth to the program," Pikiell said. "We compete more in practice. That's healthy for us to take the next step."

On Rutgers Media Day, Baker said that the depth and the effort on the team go hand-in-hand. Pikiell wants all of the players giving 100 percent on the floor, and the bodies are there on the bench to keep the intensity up with substitutions.

When he arrived at Rutgers, Baker had tons of raw talent, but there were a couple of areas he had to work on to give him a chance to play early. Baker immediately hit the weight room and gained a quick 10 pounds. He also arrived as a pure offensive threat, but that was quickly addressed. 

"My biggest weakness was probably my strength. Just getting in the wight room and getting a lot stronger," Baker said. "Defense was a big weakness for me. (Assistant) coach (Jay) Young has helped me so much with that. I think I've improved on both those things a lot."

Baker is the perfect example of how buying into Pikiell's coaching philosophy early can lead to success. When speaking with him, you get the sense he has been playing for Pikiell for four years, not just a few months.

With all 16 members of the roster sold, the Knights are all on the same page and ready to take the program to new heights.

"I think this team is coming along great," Baker said. "All the guys are working really hard. People are coming in early to get shots up, staying late to do extra work. I think we're really on the right track."

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @GriffinWhitmer and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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