PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) - Second-year coach Steve Pikiell has a system in place and a core of veterans to lead his team as Rutgers tries to stop being the doormat of the Big Ten Conference.
While star guard Corey Sanders and big man DeShawn Freeman get the headlines, senior guard Mike Williams is emblematic of the culture Pikiell is trying to build.
“We’re trying to get kids to overachieve, kids to graduate, kids that want to stay close to home and play basketball here and have a chance to play in these kinds of venues,” Pikiell said at Big Ten media day at Madison Square Garden. “And Mike certainly will be symbolic of that for us moving forward.”
This year, the co-captain from Brooklyn, New York, will be looked on to lead Rutgers to the next phase of the rebuild process. After an 11-1 start, Rutgers won more Big Ten games last season, three, than the first two seasons combined. It lost conference games by an average of 13.6 points last season after losing by an average of 22.7 points in 2015-16.
Despite the improvement, the Scarlet Knights ended the season 15-18. That continued their streak of not playing in a postseason tournament, outside of their conference tournament, for over a decade. Rutgers’ last NCAA Tournament appearance was 1990-91, and it hasn’t made the NIT since 2005-06.
After the progress made last year, the NIT seems attainable. As long as the big three of Williams, Sanders and Freeman lead the way.
“In my short time with them, they’ve really developed both as students and as people and workers in the gym more,” Pikiell said. “And hopefully people will be proud when they talk about that, it will have started with DeShawn and Mike … and Corey, building a core that’s built on guys defending and guys being tough and guys coming to Rutgers.”
PICKED LAST BUT.
Like the first three years in the Big Ten, Rutgers was picked to finish last in the Big Ten preseason media poll. However, for the first time, it wasn’t a unanimous decision.
FRESH BIGS AND GUARD
With the graduation of C.J. Gettys and Nigel Johnson, Rutgers will rely on some freshmen to fill the void. Big men Mamadou Doucoure and Myles Johnson should get in the frontcourt rotation while Geo Baker is expected to fill in for Johnson, who is now a graduate transfer at Virginia.
After testing NBA waters for the second straight season, Sanders decided to return to Rutgers for his junior season. A two-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection, returning its leading scorer and most dynamic playmaker greatly improved the outlook of the season.
Rutgers has a whopping 22 home games, breaking the previous school record of 18. The Scarlet Knights don’t go on the road until they open up Big Ten play at Minnesota on Dec. 3, and then not again until Jan. 3 when they visit Purdue.
KEY GAMES: Florida State, Nov. 28, Michigan State, Dec. 5, Seton Hall, Dec. 16, at Purdue Jan. 3
PREDICTION: After a solid start to rebuilding the program, getting to the NIT would exceed expectations and go a long way in re-energizing the program.
SEASON OPENER: The City College of New York (CCNY), Nov. 10.
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