Steve Pikiell faces challenge righting downtrodden Rutgers

Former UConn star Steve Pikiell has a lot of work on his hands at downtrodden Rutgers. (AP Photo)
Former UConn star Steve Pikiell has a lot of work on his hands at downtrodden Rutgers. (AP Photo)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Steve Pikiell may have taken the biggest challenge in college basketball in taking over at Rutgers.

The long-term goal is to get the Scarlet Knights back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.

The short-term goal is simply a winning season. That’s something Rutgers has not had 2005-06, which was Gary Waters’ final season.

Fred Hill Jr. didn’t have a winning season over the next four years and Mike Rice and Eddie Jordan each failed in three years at the helm.

Pikiell replaced Jordan this spring, taking over a team that posted a 7-25 record, including a 1-17 mark in the Big Ten Conference.

“I’ve talked about this from the first day I got the job, about embracing the challenge,” said Pikiell, who came from a successful stint at Stony Brook. “That’s part of it. We have a theme, night and day, we’re trying to change things and make that a night and day kind of situation. But we’ve embraced it. Up in the locker room I want to challenge them. We’re trying to change culture.”

The biggest change for the program this season might be healthy bodies. There were days last season where Jordan didn’t have enough players to go 5-on-5.

Pikiell had 14 players at practice the other day.

Rutgers has two starters back from last season, guards Corey Sanders and Mike Williams . The rest of the starting five has not been set but guard Nigel Johnson, center C.J. Gettys and forward Deshawn Freeman have a shot to fill out the starting lineup.

There is a lot more depth up front with Jonathan Laurent, Candido Sa, and freshmen Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam.

“We’ve added some good pieces and some shooters, which we needed, a couple ball handlers, and trying to get their mindset changed,” Pikiell said. “I really think we can be good defensively.”

Here are some other things to watch this season from the Scarlet Knights

COREY SANDERS

The sophomore guard considered going to the NBA but decided to return. He played roughly 33 minutes a game last season. Led Big Ten freshmen in scoring (15.9), steals (1.8) and assists (4.3) … Played in 27 games, with 24 starts … He was suspended late in the season for violating team rules and that can’t happen again.

“I think Corey can be one of the better defenders in the league,” Pikiell said.

BIG TEN WOES:

The Scarlet Knights have posted a 3-33 regular-season record in two seasons in the conference. They were on the verge of a winless season when they knocked off Minnesota in the regular-season finale.

SHAQ

Redshirt sophomore center Shaq Doorson came to Rutgers from the Netherlands as somewhat of a project. He played in 29 games as a freshman and was expected to contribute a little more last season before hurting his foot and missing the season. The 7-footer is back this year and he is 45 pounds lighter. It should be interesting to see what he does.

REBOUNDING:

Rutgers was outrebounded by 221 rebounds in 32 games last season, that’s almost seven a game.

“We practice long. A ton of defensive stuff and a ton of rebounds,” Pikiell said. “We were one of the worst rebounding teams in the country, and we’re trying to change that. And it takes time. It takes time for guys to buy into that. And they’ve bought in as best they can. But I’ve been through it before. So we have to be patient with them. They’re not where I want them to be today, but they’re getting a little closer.”

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