Rutgers Built a Final Four Caliber Team From the Depths of Mediocrity. Will Other Schools Follow the Blueprint?

In 2006, Steve Pikiell took over as the head coach at Stony Brook. In his first three seasons, his teams went 20-67 and finished in last place in the America East Conference all three years.

Just two years later in 2010, his Seawolves went 22-10 overall, 13-3 in the conference, won the league’s regular season title, and played in the NIT.

In his final five years at Stony Brook, Pikiell’s teams went 119-48 overall and 67-13 in the America East. Those five Seawolves teams won three conference regular season titles and one conference tournament, earning three trips to the NIT and one to the Big Dance.

At this point, Pikiell was hired to be the new head coach at Rutgers. This was a clear step-up, from one of college basketball’s bottom eight conferences to one of the premier conferences in the sport. Yet the challenge that faced Pikiell was not an unfamiliar one. When Pikiell took the reigns, Rutgers was coming off its tenth consecutive losing season. The Scarlet Knights hadn’t posted a winning record in conference play since the 1990-91 season, when Rutgers was a member of the Atlantic-10. That was 26 seasons and three conference changes ago! In Rutgers first two seasons in the Big Ten, just before Pikeill’s arrival, the program was 3-33 in conference play.

The school’s move to the Big Ten was always driven by money, football, and more money, with the basketball program left to figure things out in the aftermath. It did not help that when Rutgers prepared for and made the leap between conferences, the program was led by a coach fired for berating and abusing his players (Mike Rice) and a 58-year old first-time college coach whose most recent head coaching experience was going 28-65 over parts of two NBA seasons four full years before Rutgers hired him (Eddie Jordan).

Pikiell was being asked to climb Mount Everest while surrounded by a pack of wolves. Inexplicably, he has done so successfully. After two rebuilding years, the 2019 Scarlet Knights finished with a 7-13 conference record and the program’s first top 100 final KenPom ranking in eight years. In 2020, Rutgers was poised to make its first NCAA Tournament since 1991, with a real chance to win the school’s first tourney game since 1983. Those dreams were dashed by the pandemic and the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation.

This year, Pikiell’s rebuild of Rutgers has reached center stage and is ready for primetime. The Scarlet Knights sit at 7-3, with wins over Syracuse, Maryland, Illinois, and Purdue. Rutgers ranks in the top 50 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Rutgers’ six top contributors are two seniors, three juniors, and a sophomore. Five of the six were recruited out of high school to Rutgers, with Jacob Young transferring from Texas after the 2018 season. Two of those players are homegrown New Jersey, with two others coming from the Northeast (Geo Baker from New Hampshire and Montez Mathis from Baltimore). This wasn’t an overnight fix with graduate transfers or freshman being asked to do too much. The players winning games for Rutgers this season have grown around the culture and the scheme that Pikiell has preached in Piscataway.

Those qualities are most notable on the defensive end of the floor, where Rutgers has been particularly tenacious this season. The five perimeter players in Rutgers’ rotation are capable of switching and navigating any offensive attack. Junior big man Myles Johnson anchors the defense in the paint. In Rutgers’ recent loss to Iowa, the Scarlet Knights kept Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza in check while Johnson was on the floor, but struggled when Johnson rested. Against teams without the nation’s best scoring big man, Rutgers is built to get stops and rebounds, setting up a free flowing, dribble-drive offense.

Rutgers is led in scoring by junior forward Ron Harper Jr., son of the former Chicago Bulls point guard of the same name. Harper’s game has subtle similarities to his father’s style of play. He has an eye for the court to find teammates, while protecting the ball. Harper has just 6 turnovers to 18 assists in 10 games this season. He’s also inherited his father’s bounciness, able to finish over big men in traffic:

His game differs in key ways that make the younger Ron Harper a possible first round pick and immediate NBA contributor next season. His father was listed as a 6-foot-6 guard at 185 pounds. Ron Jr. is also 6-foot-6, but tips the scales at 245 pounds. That makes him less laterally quick than many players his height, yet gives Harper the ability to bang on the blocks with bigger players. Harper can functionally act as a shooting guard offensively while covering power forwards on the other end of the court.

Ron Harper Sr. shot 28 percent from long range in 14 NBA seasons, but his son is one of the nation’s best snipers. Harper Jr. has developed from a mediocre shooter as a freshman to a bona fide weapon in the Rutgers offense. This season he’s 29-62 from long range, good for 47 percent. He heats up in an instant and can stretch the floor well beyond the 3-point line. Harper has a quick release that increases the amount of defensive attention he requires from opponents. His shooting opens lanes for guards Geo Baker and Jacob Young to slash into the paint, or for Myles Johnson to score on the block without a double team.

The seeming synergy of this team is not a coincidence. Rutgers has developed these players together, creating both better individual performers and a well-formed team that exceeds the sum of its parts. Steve Pikiell’s success in slowly rising Rutgers from the doormat of the conference to a real, legitimate contender can’t be understated.

In fact, it should be replicated. Other schools in similar situations can look back on the Rutgers rebuild as a template for what they should have done and where they can turn next.

Let’s start with the most obvious parallel: Boston College. Now, before we dive too deeply into the current state of affairs in Chestnut Hill, let’s layout how BC’s situation mirrors that of Rutgers. In fact, before we even do that, I should remind you that I am a Boston College grad who has some extremely strong feelings on the basketball program that will become clear later in this post.

Like Rutgers, the BC basketball program was challenged by conference re-alignment. Boston College was among the first programs to leave the Big East in the exodus that essentially killed the Big East as we knew it. Like every school changing leagues, BC followed the football money. In this case, it led to the ACC. Unlike Rutgers, Boston College’s basketball standing was not particularly dire when it changed conferences. The Eagles made the NCAA Tournament in their final two years in the Big East and first two in the ACC. The 2006 Boston College team was ranked as high as No. 6 in the AP Poll and reached the Sweet Sixteen.

Just four years after reaching the Sweet Sixteen, Boston College fired coach Al Skinner. In hindsight, Skinner was able to keep BC consistent and competitive in the ACC, going 29-35 in conference play over his final four years, a stretch that included two NCAA Tournament berths. Those were the Eagles most recent tournament trips, having not returned to the Big Dance since 2009 (the year before my freshman year, coincidentally. I’m not bitter).

This was not Boston College’s time to hire their Steve Pikiell, although it is when they tried to do so. BC brought in Steve Donahue, who like Pikiell, brought a low-major team from the cellar of its conference to perennial success. Donahue’s tenure at Cornell started with several finishes at the bottom of the Ivy League but ended with three consecutive championships and a run to the Sweet Sixteen. It seemed to be a no brainer hire.

It looked that way after one year, with Skinner’s recruits still dotted up and down the roster, when BC went 21-13. The following year, after an avalanche of graduations and Reggie Jackson off to the NBA, Donahue started five freshman and had a dismal 9-22 season. In 2013, they improved to 16-17, with things seemingly looking up. In 2014, Boston College played the nation’s 8th hardest schedule per KenPom and got steamrolled by it. The Eagles finished 8-24, with seven losses coming by one score or in overtime. Almost wins don’t earn get you anything, especially not with the 294th ranked defense in the nation, so Boston College fired Donahue after just four seasons. Now, the program was in need of rebuilding. The chance to tangle with the mighty ACC from the bottom of the barrel isn’t something that may have been an attractive option to some candidates, especially from a school that just fired a coach four years into his tenure.

Whatever the case may be, Boston College proceeded to make one of the most head-scratching coaching hires in recent history. They turned to Jim Christian, who at the time was the head coach at Ohio University. It was a perplexing choice. A decade prior, Christian was an intriguing up-and-comer as the head man at Kent State. He lead the Golden Flashes to two NCAA Tournament bids in three seasons, and six straight seasons with more than 20 wins. He left for TCU, then in the Mountain West Conference. Christian led the Horned Frogs to just one winning season in four tries (an 18-15 season in 2012 with just two top 100 wins). After being fired at TCU, Christian settled at Ohio.

His first season, Christian succeeded with a team full of upperclassmen left by John Groce, who had departed for Illinois. The Bobcats went 24-10 and earned a spot in the NIT. The following year, Christian led Ohio to a 25-12 record, including an 11-7 third place finish in the Mid-American Conference’s East division. Somehow, that signaled to the powers-that-be at BC that he was ready for life in the ACC. One might think he had some sort of connection to Boston College to attract their attention. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Christian began his college basketball career by playing at Boston University, BC’s hated rival.

None of this is to say Christian would never be ready for a power conference gig or was incapable of ever deserving that chance. But given the state of his career, it was an absolute leap in logic to give him that chance at that time.

In the years that have followed, that has proven to be the case. In more than six seasons on The Heights, Christian’s teams are 77-126 overall. In ACC play, Boston College is 25-88 during Christian’s tenure, starting 6-48 in his first three seasons. Games against the mostly sorry competition surrounding BC in New England have become an embarrassment.

You’re welcome to accuse me of cherry picking results for that chart, as I did not include undefeated records against New England based cupcakes like Central Connecticut, Sacred Heart, and Dartmouth. But that chart also excludes miserable losses to teams like Santa Clara (KenPom No. 244 at the time), Nicholls State (No. 315), and IUPUI (No. 191).

Boston College sits at 2-8 this year, having lost all three ACC games it has played to date. It’s roster is full of players who may have been intriguing as freshmen or sophomores, but who are all currently uninspiring juniors and seniors. Their season will almost certainly end with a finish in the bottom quartile of the conference and should lead to a coaching vacancy.

If Boston College follows the Pikiell-Rutgers model, they should ignore retread power conference coaches or big name assistants. Stay away from the lure of “great recruiters” and forgo the need to hire someone with a school connection. Find a coach, no matter his age, who has proven himself capable of building a program from the ground up.

That could mean staying in New England to hire Vermont’s John Becker. He’s led the Catamounts to three NCAA Tournaments in nine years running the program, and likely would have made last year’s tourney as well. Becker’s Vermont teams have finished ahead of Christian’s BC teams in the final KenPom rankings every year of Christian’s tenure. Also still in the region, Yale’s James Jones deserves a look from a bigger program at this point in his career. He’s in year 22 in New Haven, having taken over a middle of the road program in the Ivy League. In recent years, his Bulldogs have been among the class of the conference. Yale has made, or would have made, the Ivy League Tournament as a top four team in the conference each of the four years it has been in play since its creation. Yale has been a top 80 KenPom eteam four of the last six years, including two NCAA Tournament berths and a tourney upset over Baylor.

Another candidate in the correct mold is Colgate head coach Matt Langel. The former Temple assistant took over at Colgate in 2012, a year after the program won just seven games. Nearly a decade later, his program is the perennial power in the Patriot League, having won 39 of their last 54 conference games over the last three seasons. Similarly, BC could turn to Hofstra’s Joe Mihalich, who has led the Pride to a 41-14 conference record over the last three years. Ask Villanova if hiring a good coach from Hofstra works out. (Editor’s note: Joe Mihalich has taken a medical leave of absence from Hofstra this season)

Boston College is not the only team facing a situation similar to the one faced at Rutgers last decade. Over in Chicago, DePaul is looking to climb out of the Big East basement and into respectability. Like both Rutgers ans BC, DePaul’s bottoming out as a a program has been partially due to elevating conferences. The Blue Demons stepped up from Conference USA to the Big East in 2005.

DePaul is currently playing in its 16th season in the Big East. In the prior 15 seasons, DePaul has achieved a winning record in conference play just once, back in 2007. Over those fifteen years, DePaul finished outside the bottom three teams in the conference just twice, but hasn’t done so since 2007. For twelve straight years, DePaul has been one of the three worst teams in the Big East. DePaul has finished last or tied for last place in *ten* of its fifteen seasons in the Big East, including a six season stretch from 2009 to 2014 when the Blue Demons finished in last place, by themselves, all six years.

Just prior to realigning to the Big East, the Blue Demons were led by head coach Dave Leitao to back-to-back 20+ win seasons and an NCAA Tournament bid. He left to take the coaching job at Virginia, where he would only last four years. DePaul would hired Jerry Wainwright, who in the prior three seasons led Richmond to a 50-42 record. Entering the soon-to-be brutal Big East, at its peak with 16 teams, with a coach who was just a hair over .500 in the Atlantic-10 was a bad idea. Wainwright lasted five seasons at DePaul and would never be a head coach again.

After a three month search, DePaul made a hire that many considered a coup – hiring Clemson coach Oliver Purnell. He’d just led the Tigers to three straight NCAA Tournaments, though lost to a double-digit seed in the first round all three years. It feels like an alternate universe where football giant Clemson could allow lowly DePaul to pay to steal it coach, but hey, 2010 was a wild time. For whatever reason, Purnell’s success at Clemson didn’t translate to DePaul and he never approached anything resembling a winning record in five seasons at the helm.

At this point, DePaul had tried elevating a mid-major coach and stealing another power conference coach. It’s understandable that the school was a little confused about what to do next. They chose to make what is perhaps the most unforgivable cardinal sin in the art of the coaching carousel. DePaul hired a coach who had recently been in the NBA’s G-League, before stints as an assistant at Missouri and Tulsa, by the name of Dave Leitao.

(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Eagle-eyed readers will note that is a familiar name. He was DePaul’s coach already, just two coaching hires ago. In fairness, he was the last coach to have any level of success at all at DePaul, so I can see why he might have come to mind. Yet in the time he was gone, he failed at Virginia and went six years without being a collegiate head coach. Folks, never re-hire your own old coach.

So assuming DePaul looks to move away from Leitao after this season (DePaul is just 1-2 having suffered a rash of COVID postponements, but smart money has them at the bottom of the Big East again), who are the logical Pikiell-esque candidates in their purview? Any of the four I listed for Boston College could work, yet if you want to be a little bit more region specific, there’s other names in the Midwest that might make sense.

Darian DeVries led Drake University to more than twenty wins in his first two seasons as a head coach. This year, his Bulldogs are 13-0 to date with a top 60 KenPom rating. He’s a good bet to be a hot name in coaching circles this spring.

Elsewhere in the Missouri Valley Conference, Porter Moser has led Loyola-Chicago to three straight 20+ win seasons and a (bleeped curse word) Final Four appearance. If DePaul had the money to woo a coach away from Clemson last decade, it’s hard to imagine the Blue Demons can’t find a way to convince Moser to switch jobs. He wouldn’t even have to move! The only reason Porter Moser wouldn’t want to coach DePaul is that he knows he can be objectively more successful at Loyola, but to quote “Mad Men”, that’s what the money is for!

*******

So 3,000 words later, what’s my point? Schools should hire good coaches? Sure, but there’s so much more to be learned from Rutgers. Steve Pikiell was not fresh off a Sweet Sixteen run. He wasn’t a career job-jumper, always looking for a bigger gig. Both he and Rutgers found each other at a time that made sense for both sides. There’s a lot of trust being conveyed when you bring in a coach to turn around a program that is struggling. Building and maintaining the trust between school and coach, as well as coach and players, is the only way to find success.

Pikiell didn’t find any shortcuts. His Rutgers team only has one transfer, Jacob Young, who sat a year and was surrounded by the Rutgers culture in practice every day. There were no magic freshman or secret answers. Pikiell developed his players over the last two years. They learned on the court, assimilating themselves into his offensive and defensive schemes. All of this is so much easier said than done, but for the other schools like Boston College and DePaul facing a climb, it’s the only prudent way. If those schools want to reach the NCAA Tournament again, let alone achieve the kind of success Rutgers will find this year, the template is being shown in Piscataway, New Jersey.

*******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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