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Rutgers precedes season with charity exhibition game against St. John's

Rebuilding at Rutgers is not restricted to the football team.

By no stretch a top-of-the-line team in the Big Ten, the Rutgers men's basketball team continues to trend upward as it rolls into a defining season in the reconstructing period under head coach Steve Pikiell.

Finishing at 15-18 last year after only seven wins in 2015-2016, the Scarlet Knights saw the highest jump in win total in the Big Ten besides Minnesota, coming off of its own historic season, reaching the NCAA Tournament.

With Pikiell entering his second year at the helm, there are reasonable expectations for him to improve upon that first year, as there was this year for football head coach Chris Ash. Comparisons float around between the two coaches because of the statuses of their programs, and before Pikiell can get his squad going for regular season competition, it will participate in a charity exhibition game with proceeds going to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief.

Rutgers will square off against St. John's on Sunday at the Rutgers Athletic Center in a game lauded by both sides as an opportunity to not only get warm before the season starts but also support relief efforts in areas hurt by natural disasters these past few months.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to support a very important cause through the game of basketball," said head coach Steve Pikiell, to ScarletKnights.com. "We are proud to come together as a basketball community and assist the American Red Cross with its disaster relief efforts."

The game tips off at 1 p.m., and it could very well serve as a preview of not only the season approaching but the years going forward. With four freshmen inserted into the team — including preseason standout guard Geo Baker — Pikiell is likely to figure them into play on Sunday to see how they gel with the upperclassmen.

"I'm very excited about this season," said senior guard Mike Williams. "I'm really looking forward to seeing the mix between all of the players that are returning and this good group of newcomers. I just want to get to work. I can't wait for the first game."

Rounding out the new faces are forward/centers Myles Johnson, Mamadou Doucoure and Luke Nathan, buoying a frontcourt that is suffering from the loss of starting center C.J. Gettys.

Doucoure could very well fill that starting center spot, with fifth-year senior and captain Deshawn Freeman reprising his role at power forward.

Baker is another candidate to start among the freshmen, as Pikiell cited him as one of the leading scorers through preseason practices and scrimmages. The freshman out of New Hampshire has taken to his new surroundings well, owing his quick adjustment to the coaching staff as a whole.

"Coach Pikiell came in last year and brought stability," Baker said. "The whole coaching staff is always checking in on you. Having guys around you that really care about you is one of the best feelings. Coach (Jay) Young working with us on the defensive end, our defense got way better. And we're still working on those improvements so hopefully, we can make another jump forward."

Young is part of a staff that is shifting the focus for the Knights defensively, as they look to reinvent themselves and forge a character while they are still relatively unknown to the rest of the conference.

Pikiell aims to make the 2017-2018 Rutgers team a force on the defensive end, and with a second-year head coach as opposed to a first, the team is in a much better place to adopt that identity.

"We want to be an elite level defensive team," Pikiell said. "We can do that, and I want our guys to embrace it."

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

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