Rutgers prepares for year 4 under Pikiell

When the Rutgers men's basketball team heads to Rosemont, Illinois, today for the annual Big Ten Conference media day, it will be head coach Steve Pikiell's fourth season at the helm.

Pikiell inherited a Scarlet Knights program in 2016 that only had seven wins overall the year prior, their worst record since the 1987-88 season. 

But, since Pikiell has been on the Banks, he has gradually built up a program once thought of as a cellar-dweller in the Big Ten, to a competitive Cinderella team that head coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo would praise for their relentless pursuit in conference games.

There's a reason to believe that this season, all of Pikiell's recruiting and hard work could pay off. Rutgers enters this 2019-20 season with a plethora of milestones. The most notable? A program-best seven Big Ten victories including upset wins over Ohio State and Iowa, which was on the road. 

Despite losing to Nebraska in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament this past season, Pikiell has still taken the Knights to new heights. Last season, they finished their non-conference record 7-3, losing only to St. John's, Fordham and in-state rival Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.

But for this season, Rutgers could make a deep run in the conference tournament. The Knights gained valuable assets this offseason in the commitment of true freshman guard Paul Mulcahy, who was considered a four-star prospect by ESPN and brings in a wealth of experience to the guard lineup — one of the team's strengths — and junior guard Jacob Young, who redshirted last season as a transfer from Texas.

With Rutgers' opening game set for Nov. 8 against Bryant, here are several points to keep an eye on for the season:

New Faces

Mulcahy and Young, the Knights' two new guards, are expected to fit right into Pikiell's rotation along with junior guards Geo Baker and sophomore Montez Mathis, who were two consistent starters throughout last season at the one and two spots. Young brings in NCAA Tournament experience, as the Longhorns made the 64-team field in 2018. 

Young already has developed chemistry with the team, as he was eligible to participate in practices last season. His active hands-on defense has made him a tough defender. When Rutgers faced exhibition teams in Spain over the summer, Young led the team with 10 steals during the 13-day business trip.

But, another new face hopes to complement sophomore center Myles Johnson to fill the big man role: graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah. The 6-foot-6-inch transfer from Pikiell's previous employer, Stony Brook, was the team's best player, averaging 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season. 

Yeboah fills former forward and the Knights' points leader in 2018-19, Eugene Omoruyi's spot on the lineup, who transferred to Oregon this offseason. Yeboah has consistently made an impact with the Seawolves. In his redshirt freshman season in 2016-17, he was named to the America East All-Rookie Team after posting an average of 5.1 rebounds and 9.5 points per game.

With Omoruyi gone — the team's leader in rebounds per game — the 6-foot-10-inch Johnson will see many minutes in at center. Johnson, who averaged 5.7 rebounds, good for second on the team, will be tasked with picking up Omoruyi's slack. He surpassed double-digit rebounds four times last season, with his career-high at 11.

Pikiell's Tinkering Rotation

Pikiell's lineups last season would feature Baker as a constant in the backcourt while he alternated between Mathis and sophomore forward Ron Harper Jr., who can be a combo guard and forward. Next to Harper Jr., Pikiell would put senior forward Shaq Carter or Johnson alongside alumnus center Shaquille Doorson. 

Since this offseason, Pikiell's guard lineup has hiked from five (including Harper Jr.) to seven with the additions of Mulcahy and Young.

If Pikiell wants to tinker with a tall lineup, he can line up sophomore forward Mamadou Doucoure, who was injured the previous year, along with Johnson in the post. This could enable the 6-foot-6-inch Mulcahy to slide to the shooting guard position. Young can also be used in these kinds of packages. 

"The newcomers have to figure it out, and then the returning guys hopefully all got better," Pikiell said. "Every guy on this team will be hugely important to this season. I think we have a lot more guys that can shoot pass and dribble."

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

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