Riding Red-Hot Start, Rutgers' Pikiell to Return to Stony Brook for One Night | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Sunday / June 16.
  • Riding Red-Hot Start, Rutgers’ Pikiell to Return to Stony Brook for One Night

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    For the first time since he took the Rutgers job in June, Steve Pikiell will return to his old stomping grounds at Stony Brook on Saturday night (7 p.m., ESPN3).

    And he will do so as the coach of a Scarlet Knights team that is off to a red-hot 8-1 start, having already won more games this season than former coach Eddie Jordan did all of last year when Rutgers went 7-25.

    “It was part of the contract [which stipulates a home-and-home with Stony Brook coming to the Rutgers Athletic Center in 2017], but Stony Brook for 11 years just was a special place for me and my family,” Pikiell, who won his 200th career game on Tuesday against Central Connecticut, said by phone. “The community, they embraced us and embraced the program so it’s one of those things where you go back with a lot of thoughts and memories and when you get the Rutgers job, you don’t really get a chance to say goodbye and thank you to all those great people and all the great people at Stony Brook University.

    “So you go back with some mixed emotions, you know what I mean?”

    Still, Pikiell and the Knights are going in there to get another win.

    “Yeah, it’s a program I respect a great deal and [first-year coach] Jeff [Boals] is doing a great job but we’re trying to be on a little mission here and it’s about being 1-0 and they’re the next game on the schedule,” he said.

    “We’re trying to have a special season, too.”

    Pikiell may not have been the sexiest name associated with the Rutgers openingĀ  — Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley and since-fired former George Washington coach Mike Lonergan were also linked to the opening — but at this stage it looks like a brilliant hire by athletic director Pat Hobbs.

    Rutgers is off to a red-hot start and by all accounts, Pikiell has stoked excitement in his players and the fan base.

    At Stony Brook, Pikiell went 64-8 at home over his last five years, something he’s trying to impress on his Rutgers players.

    “That’s what I’m trying to get my guys to understand, the homecourt advantage we built there,” he said. “It was because of the people at the University, the students, the community.”

    Rutgers’ lone loss came at Miami in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but they also won at DePaul in the Gavitt Tip-Off Games. He’d like to see his team step up and win more road games, starting with Stony Brook.

    Rutgers has three players averaging in double-figures — Deshawn Freeman (13.6 ppg), Nigel Johnson (12.1) and Mike Williams (10.9), with two other players, Corey Sanders and C.J. Gettys, above 9 points per game.

    “We’re very young in a lot of ways but they’re getting rewarded,” Pikiell said. “They’ve worked hard, they’re in the gym more. They’re getting rewarded for that and hopefully we can continue.”

    As far as support from the fan base, Pikiell says he hears from a different season ticket-holder or alum after every game.

    “[On Tuesday] a guy came into the office who’s been a season ticket-holder for 28 years,” Pikiell said. “He wants baseball cards, they used to 28 years ago produce baseball cards with the players’ pictures on them. And they did it for football, too. So he wants me to help him implement those cards again. I told him I’m trying to go 1-0. I love the marketing attempt, but I’m not the marketing guy.”

    Winning will produce its own positive marketing — and help with recruiting.

    Pikiell led the Seawolves to their first NCAA Tournament bid last March when they were led by big man Jameel Warney, now with the Texas Legends of the NBA D-League.

    Rutgers hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 1991 and while that may not be a realistic goal this year, it is certainly part of Pikiell’s long-term plan

    “The people at Stony Brook always got me excited about Stony Brook and now I come to Rutgers and the people here at Rutgers get me excited about the potential and where we can be as a basketball program,” he said.

    In order to compete with the Michigan States, Wisconsins and Indianas of the Big Ten, Rutgers must step up its recruiting.

    It has long been a conundrum for Rutgers that it’s located in the middle of one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the nation, yet the area’s top players have for years left for greener pastures. See: Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky), Kyrie Irving (Duke), Isaiah Briscoe (Kentucky), Nick Richards (Kentucky) and on and on and on.

    On his day off on Wednesday, Pikiell spent time at both Roselle Catholic, which houses 6-foot-11 junior forward Naz Reid and produced current Rutgers freshman Matt Bullock, and St. Benedict’s, which is loaded with young talent, including 2019 wing Precious Achiuwa, who has been compared to a young Rudy Gay.

    “I was out [Wednesday] in the community and you go into the gym and people are taking notice and they appreciate we’re working hard and the guys are getting better,” Pikiell said, speaking generally. “There’s a buzz, so I think that’s a positive. I know we got a long way to go but we’re heading in the right direction in all the right areas.”

    The next stop is his old stomping grounds at Stony Brook, where Pikiell just wants to win another game and move forward with the process.

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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