Rutgers has more wins in the last 25 days than it did all of last season. So for a young team in uncharted territory, “act like you've been there before” is not the easiest mode of operation.
Instead of big talk and hyperbolic expectations, however, first-year coach Steve Pikiell has his players locked in on the little things through an 8-1 start to the season.
“It's a great feeling,” said sophomore Corey Sanders. “These are things that we all talked about last year. We're back on the winning side right now and I just want to keep it that way. I'm not really too worried about it. I'm not trying to get a big head. We're not trying to get a big head. We just keep trying to fight and win games.”
The Sanders and “big head” conversation could have gone in a significantly different direction during his freshman season at Rutgers. As a sophomore, Sanders' media mindset flipped upside down.
Even on a night with highlight dunks and effortless steals, Sanders did not want to reflect on his best game at home this season.
“We focus on defense,” Sanders said. “We focus on rebounding and everything like that. Everything is just paying off. All of our hard work is just paying off and we love to see that.”
While the strength of schedule arguments hold water – Rutgers' best win came on the road at 5-2 DePaul – any consistent winning is a night-and-day improvement in Piscataway.
Junior Mike Williams experienced more losing than anyone else on the roster. Going 17-47 during his freshman and sophomore season, an 8-1 start feels special.
“It's surreal because I've been through a lot the last three years,” said Williams, who gives Rutgers 10.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 24 minutes per game off the bench. “We've felt the short end of the stick the last couple years, so it feels very good to be on the right track. Everybody is locked in. Everybody isn't playing for just themselves. Everybody is selfless with the assists and the energy. We really want this season to be great.”
No player has more winning experience than graduate transfer C.J. Gettys. The enigmatic 7-footer has two rings and an NCAA tournament start on his resume and his attitude became infectious fast with other Rutgers players.
“It feels great for this group of guys,” Gettys said. “Like I have said all year, these guys came from a culture that didn't know how to win or what winning really was. I think these guys are slowly buying into the process. It's great to see everybody succeeding together. … Everybody comes in with a positive mindset. We're ready to work. We're focused on the next team. Guys aren't coming in droopy and not ready to practice. There's excitement behind our practices.”