We may never know if Steve Pikiell is a good coach. That's how bad Rutgers is, and has been for quite some time. The Scarlet Knights went 3-15 in Big Ten play last year, and believe it or not, that's kind of a good season for them. Since joining the league in 2015, Rutgers has never won more than 3 conference games in a campaign. By accepting the job at Rutgers, Pikiell is either an eternal optimist or the most cynical of pessimists. Maybe he does think he can buck the odds, and bring RU up to respectability and—dare to dream—an NCAA Tournament invite. Or, maybe he just figured $1.6M sure sounds like a lot of money, and he'll try and take home that salary for as long as they'll let him.
When people talk about how good or bad a coaching job is, too often they focus on the wrong thing. It's not about whether the school is in a recruiting hotbed, how many trophies are in the case, or how many years in a row the school has reached the NCAA Tournament. It's all about that next job. And that's because most coaches are at a given school for a short amount of time. When he took the job at Indiana, Tom Crean talked about how it was the "pinnacle" of college basketball and that he was there for the "long haul." He was let go after 9 seasons. That's the reality for most coaches. They get a couple years of a "free pass" to start, but by Year 3 expectations usually start to settle in (Crean probably got a bit longer of a leash, given the situation he stepped into). Sometimes, if things are really going off the rails, it's shorter (Lickliter. Jordan.). But after coaches hit the 7-year mark, fans need their fixes more often. Thad Matta, probably the greatest coach ever at Ohio State (at least since the 1960s), was fired after his first-ever losing campaign in Big Ten play.
I suspect most coaches do not suffer from the delusion that they will remain entrenched for 20+ seasons. Sure, it happens (Izzo), but it's rare. Rather, I think coaches look at how good a job is based on 1) money and 2) what's next?. The first one is rather straightforward, and the buyout piece is not to be ignored. The second point might be more important. For instance, when a coach is successful, what does the next job look like?
Xavier is a prototypical springboard school. Every coach that has taken that job since Skip Prosser in the mid-90s has left for something great. Prosser to Wake Forest, Matta to Ohio State, Sean Miller to Arizona, and most recently Chris Mack to Louisville. For an up-and-coming coach, Xavier is a destination job.
But the more likely side of the coin needs to be considered as well. Crean took a job at Georgia, a power conference program. Matta has reportedly turned down major conference jobs. Tubby Smith went to Texas Tech after Minnesota fired him. Meanwhile, former Nebraska coach Doc Sadler returned to the sidelines as an assistant at Iowa State. Eddie Jordan is an assistant for the Charlotte Hornets.
Things can change, too. At Illinois, being successful used to mean heading off to the NBA (Lon Kruger) or Kansas (Bill Self). I'm not sure what being successful nets now—it's been a while!—but failure certainly has changed. Bruce Weber landed at Kansas State, while a few seasons later John Groce finds himself at Akron.
So, what's the Rutgers job? Well, Jordan as mentioned is now an assistant. Mike Rice gets an N/A due to the scandal. Fred Hill became an assistant coach at Northwestern. Gary Waters went to Cleveland State where he had a few good seasons before the wheels fell off. Kevin Bannon has not coached college basketball since, though he also had some issues with how he ran practice. Bob Wenzel went to the broadcast booth. Craig Littlepage went to Virginia as an assistant. Tom Young became the head coach at Old Dominion, where he went to the Dance his first year and never again.
The takeaway is that if you coach at Rutgers, you'll probably be fired. Young wasn't, and technically neither was Waters, though his resignation did include a buyout (so quasi-fired). And after you're fired, you'll probably never be a collegiate head coach again, and if you are, it will be somewhere like the Horizon League. Rutgers is not a rocket ship to the top of the profession. Realistically, it's a dead-end job.
Maybe Pikiell sees it this way, and figures he'll put some money in his bank account before heading back to the assistant ranks. He's 50, and there might not be enough time for Rutgers to become successful enough to springboard to the next job. Power conference programs do not typically hire guys in their late 50s or early 60s. The optimistic take is that Pikiell believes that the only way he will be the coach of a successful power conference program is to build Rutgers into one.
Can he do it? Well, not without severe offensive changes. The Scarlet Knights were the worst shooting power conference team (by eFG) over the last two seasons, and that's with Corey Sanders. Sanders left early for the draft (G League now), and the team also loses DeShawn Freeman, the other offensive anchor. But the reality is that when a team shoots this poorly, it isn't about talent, it's approach. McNeese State is not filling its roster with McDonald's All-Americans, and yet it manages to post a non-embarrassing eFG. With Rutgers, the team has managed to mix up the concoction of
- Abysmal shot selection (12th highest percentage of midrange shots)
- Terrible shooting (308th in accuracy on those midrange shots)
- Terrible finishing (300th in field goal percentage on shots at the rim)
- Terrible outside accuracy (347th in 3P percentage)
- The lowest percentage of shots dedicated to 3s in all of Division I
That last one is the kicker. Many years ago, I wrote an unkind preview about Lamar for ESPN.com. The team was then coached by Pat Knight, who I felt was living in the 80s with an offense that recoiled from shooting 3s. Someone waved this in Knight's face, and after reading it over he told the reporter that I was a moron. His team did not shoot more 3s, and he was fired later that year.
Rutgers actually returns its best three-point shooters this season in Geo Baker and Issa Thiam. There's also incoming transfer Peter Kiss from Quinnipiac, though while the 6-5 wing had plenty of confidence from deep (130 3PA attempts as a freshman), his accuracy was nothing special (28 percent). RU gets some interior help with incoming JUCO Shaq Carter, who was also being chased by several power conference schools.
That figures to be the offense, or at least it should be. Eugene Omoruyi had a sizable role last year, but he's a wing without an outside shot who really offers more value defensively. For once, Rutgers has something to trade—the team ranked 28th in adjusted defensive efficiency—and it should. Mamaduo Doucoure also returns, and let's hope for a leap because a 6-9 center is shooting 35 percent on 2s, that's very bad. The incoming freshman class is not bad for Rutgers, but there's no Sanders-level recruit, at least on paper.
If Pikiell is going to lead a successful power conference program, it's going to be at Rutgers. And there's at least a season or two between now and then, and plenty of fixes to be made. I say, start with the obvious one. More 3s, please.