October is a time for optimism in the world of college basketball.
In Piscataway, after a historic run featuring consecutive runs at the NCAA Tournament, it is overflowing.
Entering the seventh season of head coach Steve Pikiell’s tenure, the bar at Rutgers is a return to March Madness. The Scarlet Knights aim to make it back for a third straight season for the first time in program history.
“We’ve come a long way,” head coach Steve Pikiell said at his team’s local media day on Friday. “My players expect it. Our goal is to go back-to-back-to-back for the first time in school history … I think there’s that expectation around my staff and our fans.”
Based on ticket sales, that optimism is certainly permeating through the fanbase.
The Scarlet Knights announced Friday that it has sold-out three games so far this winter: its annual rivalry game against Seton Hall, its Big Ten opener against Indiana and its home game against Michigan. The program already set a record for season tickets sold (5,093 as of Sept. 8) and are on track to surpass that number for 2022-23 season, giving them a good chance to surpass the program-record 15 sell-outs they recorded last winter.
“We expect every game to be sold-out,” Pikiell said.
Here are four other things discussed at Friday’s media day:
Two players did not participate in Friday’s 90-minute practice due to injuries that Pikiell referred to as “tweaks:” senior guard Caleb McConnell (knee) and true freshman forward Antonio Chol (ankle).
McConnell was not present at Jersey Mike’s Arena, while Chol worked on the side on an exercise bike. Chol was confident he’d be back within a day or so.
“They’re seeing doctors and they’re doing rehab and all that stuff,” Pikiell said. “Hopefully, we’ll have them back soon.”
Pikiell added that sophomore guard Jalen Miller (knee) and junior forward Dean Reiber (foot) recently returned to practice after missing time in the offseason with injury; Friday was Reiber’s first practice since getting hurt. Both said they’d be back to full health, or close to it, by the season opener next month.
“I feel very good physically,” Reiber said. “When I was injured, I was still doing workouts. I’d bike like 16 miles during practice. Honestly, it’s harder running up and down (the court), because you still get a lot of miles, but it kept me in shape. Coming back (Friday) felt good.”
A week before its season officially gets underway, Rutgers will host Fairfield in a charity exhibition at Jersey Mike’s Arena in partnership with Eric LeGrand. Along with supporting a good cause, Pikiell believed the game could benefit his team entering the campaign.
“We’ve been playing closed scrimmages the last few years, so I just thought it was time to put the lights on before the season starts,” Pikiell said. “All these guys have an opportunity to play in front of a home crowd, some of the young guys get a chance. Two closed scrimmages, no one is in the gym, so it’s a different environment. I’m hopeful that environment will help them for the first game when we kick off, especially our young guys and all those guys who haven’t played here.”
Pikiell proudly touted multiple times this week, both on Friday and at Big Ten Media Days, that Rutgers is one of 10 programs who did not have a player enter the transfer portal this offseason, an increasingly rare feat in the modern era of college basketball. He hopes that become a recurring theme.
“I was just happy guys all feel valued and have stayed,” he said Friday. “I think retention, moving forward, is going to be really, really important. You’d like to take over programs and your freshman become sophomores, your sophomores becomes juniors, your juniors become seniors. Now, that’s not the case at a lot of places. I’m thankful that, at our place, those guys became a year older. … That’s going to be a hard thing moving forward. It’s just not the way it is anymore, but I’d like to keep it that way here at Rutgers if we can.”
Pikiell brings back his entire coaching staff from last season, but no retention was as important as assistant coach Brandin Knight. Amid interest from other schools, Knight received an extension and a massive pay raise to stay in Piscataway for the seventh consecutive season.
Assistant coach Karl Hobbs, who is also entering his seventh season alongside Pikiell at Rutgers, also received an extension after receiving interest from La Salle for his head coach opening in the offseason.
“They all deserve great raises,” Pikiell said. “The great part of my staff is they’ve all been offered jobs, all had opportunities to leave and go other places. I love those guys, I want them to stay here forever. The great part is they’re in a position now where people look at our program like they can hire those guys, which is a compliment to the hard work our players have done to put them in those positions. I’m thankful (Knight) came back. He’s going to have opportunities, Karl is going to, TJ Thompson has been lights out, as good as anybody.”
Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust.
Brian Fonseca may be reached at email@example.com.