Rutgers Coach Steve Pikiell Ushers in First Season at Media Day

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers basketball season begins next Friday, and new coach Steve Pikiell took to the podium today to usher in a new year at media day. From a defense-first team to an overhauled conditioning program, Pikiell breaks it down.

Rutgers University Men’s Basketball Media Day

Coach Pikiell Press Conference

COACH PIKIELL: Thankful and honored that you came here today. It's been a great day with the announcement of the athletic performance center and all the exciting news that came out of Rutgers Athletics today. I'm just honored.

I'm still six months now on the job. I love being the head coach here. This is a great place with good people, and we're going to try to have a great season here with our basketball team. You guys will get a chance to see us play. They have been working hard, and trying to change the culture in a lot of ways.

It's been an exciting time and I've embraced all the challenges that go with building a program with the best league, both academic, and basketball league, in the country.

Q. We've talked in the preseason about leadership, you're ten days out from the first game. Who is stepping up, or is that happening yet in terms of leaders emerging for your team?

COACH PIKIELL: You know what, I think we have a few guys that have stepped up, and Deshawn Freeman being the one that kind of jumps off the page a little bit right now.

I think we are getting good leadership, too, from C.J. Gettys, our fifth-year senior out of UNC Wilmington. Other guys are emerging, too, in that role but I think they are figuring it out a little bit, like how hard we have to work and the demands that I have on them in practice and during the course of the week. And those two guys have probably jumped off the page a little bit in that area. So looking for more in the leadership area for sure.

Q. I was wondering about a month into practice now, the biggest area they have improved on since the beginning of preseason?

COACH PIKIELL: Honestly, I think we had the longest way to go to in this area, so thankfully rebounding, I think we've done a pretty good job in attacking that problem.

You know, we are bigger size-wise, and actually health-wise, we're in a lot better shape. I think last year at this time, we probably had nine bodies that practiced; one more than that obviously today. Everyone has been healthy for the most part.

But just really trying to get them to grind a little bit and be tougher. That's been one of my biggest challenges. But the rebounding area I've been pleased with, especially the offensive end.

Always say, there's good news to offensive rebounding. You get a second chance. The bad news is, you're missing a lot of the first chances. So someday I hope we can solve that problem, too, so we don't have to be the best offensive rebounding team in the country.

Q. If you had to start a game today, what would be your starting five and then just from a rotation standpoint, how deep do you want to go?

COACH PIKIELL: You know what, I'm really trying to -- with this group, try to get them to earn, you know, playing time. That's been kind of hard, too, because I think in the past, if you were healthy, you kind of played. And I don't know if they ever were based on, you know, like earning their playing time.

So practices, I've tried to make them really competitive. Like I want them to earn. I want someone to earn being a captain. I want someone to earn their minutes. I want someone to earn starting lineup. So every day, I put them in positions to kind of do that.

Deshawn, I tell him all the time, I'm going to start the best rebounder and the best defender, and I could tell you, Deshawn is by far our best rebounder. So he's earned the starting position.

And then we have a couple guys in the defensive category, not quite -- if you go veteran lineup, you know Jonathan Laurent's started games, obviously Corey's started games, Nigel's talented. I could go in a lot of different directions. I think C.J. brings us some fiber, too, up front. He's a good passer, he's big and knows how to play.

So you know, I'm not 100 percent sure, and I don't want to announce it yet, because I still have two more weeks for them to earn those positions, and I really want them to do that. They have got to learn, nothing is given to us. Obviously we play in the best league in America and no one has given us anything.

So earning it is a big part of it and the next two weeks in practice, really important for them to earn. I still want to know who our best defender is, and I want that to happen every night. So I know two starts, best defender, best rebounder, and right now, we definitely have a best rebounder.

Q. Based on the scrimmage the other day, seems like offensive rebounding and rebounding in general is a strength; shooting, maybe not so much. Is there anything you can do to work on shooting and improve it, and how can you use the size on the boards to really -- as an advantage?

COACH PIKIELL: You know, in practice, I see them every day, so never mind scrimmages. I think we have some good guys that can shoot the ball. I always say this: Are you a bad shooter or are you a good shooter taking bad shots?

So I think part of our problem is we have some good shooters taking shots that they can't make, so that leads to bad shooting nights.

We are learning more on film. I really think Issa, one of our freshmen, can really shoot the ball. If you saw him in the first scrimmage, you would say he's the best shooter in the gym. Candido Sa can shoot the ball; I think very important.

But I want to make one of our staples here we rebound on both ends of the floor. We're learning that. We certainly miss enough shots to be a really good rebounding team, too. So we have to continue to get them to take better shots and learn their roles.

And I'm figuring the guys out, too. It's not you just get here, and what are guys' strengths, what guys' weaknesses, and then when the lights come on, are they the same player and stuff. So I'm figuring it out, and part of my job this year is figure out a way to win, and the different lineups that we can use. We can go big this year, we can go small, we can go quick, we can go experience for the most part or inexperience. So we've got a lot of different ways and we have to figure out what fits best.

But that area certainly one of concern. We weren't a good shooting team last year. So like that just doesn't change. We brought in some recruits, I think some of the younger kids can shoot the ball and now we have to shoot in this league we're playing in so we've got a lot of obstacles there.

Q. You mentioned best league in the country a few times. What would you consider a successful year for this team, year one?

COACH PIKIELL: I've thought a lot about that. People will give you the term, like I don't really think in terms of -- like I'm thinking about the first game of the season on the 11th, so I'm one game at a time with this group right now. I want us to overachieve. I want people to be proud of the way we play. Like I want us to play together.

We have three things up in our locker room: I want great work ethic, which we are learning how to do. Not great work ethic when I first got here. I don't know if they really knew how to work. So work ethic, a big part of it.

And then I want to be great teammates. Like I want guys rooting for each other, on the court, off the court and in practice. And so we're starting with some real basic, basic stuff, and what is my win total, I don't know yet what this team is capable of. We've got some pieces. We've got some unique pieces. If I can get them to really play hard and really embrace that defensive end of the floor, we could be a really interesting basketball team.

But we're missing some pieces, too. And leadership, growing in that, growing in their work ethic, growing in being great teammates and then my No. 1 thing is you've got to have a great attitude. Like you've got to approach things the right way and come to practice with the right attitude and we're really working on those.

As we continue to grow as a program, I won't mention those because if you don't have a great attitude, you're not going to be in this program. If you don't have a great work ethic -- you know. So we're really starting with some of those course, and I believe they are buying into it, they really are. They are really buying into it.

Q. Just piggybacking off what you said just there, I think the perception is based on the record last year that the talent isn't there but it does seem like as an outsider looking at the roster that there are actually several good pieces in place. How would you assess overall?

COACH PIKIELL: I would tell you the first thing, is that they are healthy. Because in fairness to last year, I didn't see a practice plan with a healthy roster, ever.

So we now have 14 guys that are healthy and ready to practice today. And like Shaq Doorson has been doing a really good job. He's back from his foot injury. He's athletic, he's lost 52 pounds. You'll see a bouncier Shaq today and I think he could be -- got to manage his injury still throughout the season but he's gotten better. I think you'll see Deshawn's gotten better. He's in great shape but I think you'll see Corey's body has changed.

So I think the improvement of those guys, and then the upgrade with the players in our roster, you'll like C.J., the big fella, from Wilmington. You'll like Candido Sa. He's a little perimeter 4-man, and he can go five; he blocks shots.

Matt Bullock is getting hard to get in great shape. Issa can really shoot the ball. Eugene has got a good motor and toughness. So some of our five newcomers bring some pieces that we didn't quite have in the past.

But the healthy part, so important to that moving forward here and we are doing a really good job. We have a trainer, Rich, who takes great pride in guys being on the floor and getting their treatments and doing those things. And Dave Van Dyke, our strength and conditioning coach has brought like a little edge to us body-wise. So real pleased with those two upgrades in the program.

Q. How do you see your guards embrace the changes you're trying to make defensively more of an emphasis?

COACH PIKIELL: You know, I mean, I talk to those guys all the time. I think where you'll see the biggest improvements, like Corey could be a really, really good defender, and so can Nigel. We really need to go a great job in that area.

Our backcourt has to be able to guard people. They are athletic. We have got a little bit of a blends. Our guards are pretty athletic and our bigs are a little less athletic, more bangers, so it's kind of a contrasting blend between your front court and your backcourt.

So got to figure out a way to win with all that and within that, is our guards have to be able to defend and they have as good a lateral quickness as two guards can have, and Mike Williams has that kind of lateral quickness, too, where he be a real great defender. You really need to: Yeah, I want to play defense. Like we don't have that mentality yet. We're going to get there, though. We're going to get there.

It doesn't change overnight, because if you don't think about defense, then you know, for the last few years, I don't know how much they have thought of it. I watched tapes of them in high school. I don't think they played it at all, and you don't have to in high school sometimes.

But now we think about it on every pass, so it's very different in how we kind of are attacking it for our guards. It's a whole new world for them. Whole new world.

Q. I'm just curious if you can describe if mood is the right word, from when you took the job and kind of how, if you felt the mood change of the program, and if it's important before the grind of the season, when sometimes things get difficult, to try to capitalize on maybe if there's optimism.

COACH PIKIELL: No doubt. You know, especially with my roster, the mood, when you first take over a job, there's a lot of uncertainty, and just think about our players, people you need to go, you need to leave. The world I live in is Transfer City, USA; everyone wants to go to the next place. So, you know, you have a lot of that at first.

I will tell you, though, the mood at Rutgers, first of all, it's an unbelievable university from everybody that I've met in six months. I've worked at Yale University; I've worked at George Washington; I've worked at UCONN, some really good places. I mean, people here at Rutgers, this place is awesome. And I'm really excited about the people here and the vision that they have.

I mean, we have a Hall of Fame coach that you are going to watch on the women's side and we have a Hall of Fame, like our athletic director is great. I've worked for a lot of athletic directors; he's got a great vision. I always say, in order to have a good program, you have to have a game plan, and he's got a great game plan, as evidenced by today.

So I think the mood that I've been a part of has been enthusiastic, people willing to help. There's good people here. We have good pieces in our basketball program if we can keep them healthy and get them to improve and buy into what I want to do. And I think the mood has been great.

I was able -- a good game plan, recruit the players I have; I think they have bought in. I think you'll see that today. Hire a great staff. It was a great game plan. I've got great guys that are on staff. They are not just great coaches. They are good people, so our guys are surrounded by that.

We have a strength and conditioning coach that's taking care of their needs. I think this was the most poorly-conditioned group I've ever been around when I took the job and so that was the first thing I said, these guys are in all of shape for college athletes.

So we've attacked that and we've gotten better in that area. There were a lot of different things. So I think that's made the mood better, too, for our players. But I think the mood's been great this morning. I'm not always in a great mood, especially after I watch our practice tapes, but I bounce back quickly and I know the obstacles that are ahead for this team.

Q. How important was it when you took over to lock up Issa, and going on what you've seen from him so far, what are you hoping from him this season?

COACH PIKIELL: You know what, I think it was really important, just to lock up a few guys. Candido Sa was really the first guy, and thrilled about him. He's a great kid. He speaks four languages. He's a shot-blocker which we don't have. He can shoot the ball from the front court, which is another issue that we had in the past. He can really shoot the ball as you'll see today. He's the kind of kid I want. He's in the gym all the time and he's a worker.

And then soon after, Issa, is another worker who can shoot the ball. And if you've seen our stats the last couple years, you know that's been an area of concern here for us. He's 6-9. He's high energy. He's in the gym all the time and he's helped build a little bit of in-the-gym culture.

And then we got a kid from Canada at the end there, Eugene. Eugene is another guy, in-the-gym kind of guy. He's 6-6, he's about 225 and he's tough. And we need to add to our tough answer category, too, with our roster.

And then we had a local kid, Matt Bullock who is another kid who is tough and knows how to play and can shoot the ball. As we continue to add the pieces -- and then C.J. at the end, our fifth-year senior, is another nice piece of the puzzle. He's 7-1, he's huge, he's got good hands and he's a little bit of a leader and a voice. So for a guy who's only been here a month, he's taken over a little bit of a leadership role.

I think all of those newcomers have added to that, Issa being one of them. Any time you get a 6-9 guy that can really shoot the ball, it just brings a different dimension. But what I love most about him, he's in the gym. He's an in-the-gym guy. If you come to the Rack at any course of time during the course of the weekend or during the course of late a night after classes are done, you'll probably see him in the gym. So that's an important part of what I want to build and how I want to build it, around guys that are in the gym.

Q. Following up on Deshawn who you mentioned, just on how far he's come. We last saw him last year, he was hurt and suspended. How far has he evolved since you first took over the program?

COACH PIKIELL: I couldn't be more proud in five, six months, how far he's come in every category. First he got healthy. Second, he's in shape. Those were the first two, you know, huge hurdles. And now all of a sudden he's healthy, in shape and he's got leadership qualities, and he does what I love the most: He rebounds. He's got great hands around the basket. He's long, about 6-6 but he's got long arms so he's crafty around the rim.

What I like most about him, he's embraced it the most. He's embraced the challenge. He's embraced the defense. He's embraced the grind of what we're trying to do in practice and the tough practices as much as any of them.

He's going to have a really good year. So I'm really excited about him.

Q. Question about the emphasis on defense and rebounding. With the size you have down low and the athletes you have on the wing, how much are you emphasizing pushing on the break, out of transition, as opposed to -- especially with shooting possibly being an issue in the halfcourt.

COACH PIKIELL: You know what, I'm really, as everyone would be, I'm really emphasizing that. The first ten seconds of the shot clock are for the players. So I tell them that every day, those are their ten. If they want to walk the ball up the floor, then the next 20 are mine. So it's up to them.

Now it's easy to say you want to run, and then you know, it's harder to do that, okay. So understand, every day I teach on film, I just like stop the film and say, like: You're jogging, you're jogging, you're jogging.

Now you guys all sit in a room -- and this is the great thing with recruits and players: I want to run; what's your style; I want to run; I want to run. Everyone wants to run. Oh, oh okay, all right. You guys all want to run. Do you really want to run? And here is the film showing you that you have no interest in running on that possession. So now the clock is mine.

So the first ten seconds are theirs. And we have athletic guards. So really, if they want to run, you'll never see me on the court saying, slow down, slow down, unless it's an end-of-game shot situation like that.

So trying to get through to that them, how hard it is to run, for a big guy, chin-to-the-rim and to do those kind of things. I really want to run, the first ten seconds are theirs, but after that, it's mine.

So they have that choice, and when they watch film every day, they realize, okay, you decided not to run. Issa, you didn't get up on the wing. Mike, you're jogging. Corey you're dribbling with your head down, that kind of thing. I love that part of it because I'm always going to be the coach. I played at UCONN; we ran and we pressed. That's all I know.

That's what I want to do with this group. But it is a lot easier to say that than to do it. You know, hopefully you'll see a little bit today. We can get up-and-down the floor but you've got to do it consistently. You've got to do it all the time. Part of that is conditioning and part of that is getting our big guys to get up-and-down the floor, too. Still a work-in-progress with that but that's where I want to evolve to.

Thank you for coming. I really appreciate it.

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