Off to the best start for a head coach in Rutgers men's basketball history, coach Steve Pikiell sounds no different than the day he took the job. For Pikiell, an 8-1 record is nice, and so was a recent vote in the AP top 25, but all that really matters is what's next.
“We're a work in progress team but we're getting better,” Pikiell said on this week's Big Ten teleconference. “A lot of learning my roster and a lot of them figuring me out too, it's a whole different system put in a short period of time. [We have] a lot of new players, one senior, so leadership has been an issue from day one but we're making good progress. I think we've learned how to defend a little bit and we've improved our rebounding. I'm real pleased, we almost have five guys in double figures scoring.”
Two of those five come from Pikiell's evolving bench.
Guard Mike Williams, back in his natural role, has more Rutgers experience than anyone else on the roster. Without a start after 28 last season, Williams is third in scoring (10.7 ppg) and fourth in minutes (24.5 mpg).
“A lot of energy,” Williams said when asked about the difference in this year's team. “We have that never-say-die attitude. We're not going to quit. We didn't have that my first two years here. I'm just glad the program changed for the better.”
The other bench leader for Rutgers is Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson. Johnson leads Rutgers into Fairleigh Dickinson tomorrow night fresh off a career-high 21 points against Stony Brook.
“He's really progressing,” Pikiell said. “His defense was something I really worried about. He's starting to really pick up that end of the floor. His shot selection has been better, especially the last few games. He's a high-major athlete, and he's starting to feel a little bit more comfortable playing the point guard position, which is a position that isn't natural to him.”
While Fairleigh Dickinson sits at 2-7, Rutgers is in no position to take teams lightly. Needing electric comebacks for wins over Hartford and Stony Brook, FDU has the roster's full attention after its recent battle with Ohio State.
FDU trailed OSU by just one point at the half in a 70-62 loss in Columbus. Darian Anderson of Washington (D.C.) St. John's leads the way with 19.2 points per game.
“That's obviously the tape we're going to be showing our guys,” Pikiell said. “I thought FDU was ready to play. I love Ohio State, the talent they have. For us, it's a great tape for us to watch because our guys will really have their attention with how well they played in that game.”