The 2018 recruiting class of Harper Jr., Carter, 6-4 wing Montez Mathis and 6-5 shooting guard Caleb McConnell was ranked No. 50 nationally by 247Sports.com. Baker, for one, is highly optimistic. “I’d say our chemistry [is different],” he told me. “We do everything together. Last year we had kind of split apart at times. Our whole team is on the same page. We talk about it every day.” He added: “It’s just a different vibe this year. Maybe it could be the fact that we’re all coach Pikiell’s guys. I feel like we all have the same mindset and the same goal and we’ve been a lot more serious about that goal this year.” Now that he has an entire roster of his guys, Pikiell thinks he has the talent to compete in the brutal Big Ten. The Knights also have a solid non-conference schedule with games against St. John’s, at Seton Hall and at Miami. “I hope you see that our talent has improved,” Pikiell said. “I know where they have us picked and all that stuff, our talent’s better. And we’ve got to keep making sure our talent’s better because the fifth-place team in our league [Michigan] played for the national championship last year. So that’s what this league is.” Rutgers has had high hopes before. Under former coach Freddie Hill, Rutgers landed Mike Rosario out of Bob Hurley’s famed St. Anthony’s program and Greg Echenique out of a St. Benedict’s Prep team coached by Dan Hurley, now the coach at Pikiell’s alma mater UConn. But within a couple of years, both players had transferred and Hill was fired. Under Mike Rice, Hill’s successor, the Knights recruited well locally, landing guys like Myles Mack and Derrick Randall out of Paterson (N.J.) Catholic and Kadeem Jack from New York Catholic power Rice. But Rice was eventually fired amid a scandal before he resuscitated his career as a high school and AAU coach with the Patrick School and Team Rio. Now here comes the ever-optimistic and patient Pikiell, who seems to be building things the right way, with a mix of local guys like Harper Jr. and out-of-state guys like Mathis and Johnson. Pikiell isn’t going to keep New Jersey’s top kids like Scottie Lewis (Florida) and Bryan Antoine (Villanova) home, but he did land Harper Jr. and he has a nice piece coming in 2019 in 6-6 Gill St. Bernard’s point guard Paul Mulcahy.
I don’t know how many Big Ten games this @RutgersMBB team will win but they definitely have Big Ten size.They have a 7-footer, two 6-10 guys and two 6-9s. Remember the name Myles Johnson, 6-10 R-S freshman. pic.twitter.com/EU7wwFgC8l — Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) October 30, 2018
“These are the kinds of kids I wanted and they wanted to be at Rutgers,” Pikiell said. “I love that part of it. These kids love Rutgers.” He added: “Some programs are already self-made, some programs are already ready to roll. I was a part of the beginning UConn and then 10 years later I come back and [Jim] Calhoun had it rolling. Do you want to be part of the beginning? I want to blaze a trail with some of our guys. Do you want to follow the pack or blaze a trail?” Harper Jr., who won the MVP at the prestigious IS8 tournament in New York last spring, is ready to help blaze a trail at his home-state university. “I want to go somewhere where I can make a change and I can make an impact right away,” he said. “And Rutgers was that place for me.”
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell might be the nicest coach in D-1 basketball. Comes into media day and shakes every reporter’s hand. pic.twitter.com/nLP73i4xXw— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) October 30, 2018